Last time we talked about air refueling.
Now it's time to get down and dirty. My favorite part of the bomber mission was low-level flying.
Better buckle up - it's liable to get bumpy.
First off, what idiot flies a huge airplane close to the ground? Oh, and we do it at night? Are you kidding me?
Keep in mind that this was the late 80's early 90's. We were still training to penetrate Soviet air defenses if, God forbid, it ever came to that.
USAF doctrine at that time, both for bombers and fighters was that low was the way to go. B-1s, F-111s, F-4s, F-16s, A-10s all had a low-level mission. Even some transports like C-130s and C-141s had special ops missions that called for low-level flying.
This is ancient history of course. I've been out of the bomber community for 20 years and I'm sure tactics today are quite different.
So, we're flying this thing that's as big as an apartment building and our main tactic is to hide. I'm imagining an elephant tiptoeing around and trying to be sneaky.....
What does being low get you? Back then at least it made it hard for air defense radars to find you. Especially if there was any kind of terrain. The Soviet fighters of the day would have a tough time picking you out of the ground clutter. I know, Mig-29s were around then but they were new and there weren't many of them. You were a lot more likely to run into a Mig-23 or Mig-21 even. A lot of the big surface-to-air missiles, the telephone-pole sized ones that could reach out and touch you a long ways off, couldn't engage you down low. The missiles that could were short ranged.
Ever seen the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels at an air show? They'll have one guy split off and while you're busy watching the others he'll come sneaking around low, right over your head from where you're not looking. Surprise! Kind of like that.
How low could we go? At night our equipment would let us go down to 200 feet. Normally we bumped that up a few hundred feet to have a bigger safety margin. 200 feet is roughly equal to your wingspan. In the day? Well we weren't really supposed to go lower. Some other guys might have gone down to 50 feet once, so I heard. I'll deny everything. That's my story and I'm sticking with it.
I had a good ejection seat, but the Navigator's seats fired downwards. If something happened down low my first instinct would be to trade our airspeed for altitude and give the Navs the 500 feet (or more hopefully) they needed to get out. Those guys had to brave. No windows, no controls and a seat that shoots you at the ground.
We had some special equipment on the plane to help us. The primary tool was the Terrain Avoidance Radar. Unlike an F-111 or B-1, the plane couldn't fly itself down low. I had a TV screen in front of me that would depict a "Trace". This was a cross-section of the terrain out ahead of us. We adjust how far ahead the system was looking. There was a little airplane symbol that I "flew" along the Trace. This would keep us at our preset terrain clearance. We also had a radar altimeter, which told us how high we were above what was directly beneath us.
We had a couple other tricks up our sleeve. The two "chins" you see under the nose of B-52 are cameras. One is a FLIR (pretty new stuff at the time) and the other is a Night Vision camera (also high tech in 1989). I could bring either of these up on my TV screen, along with some other navigational information.
Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) were brand new then and we were just starting to use them as well. These were the heavy, first-generation, models. They clipped to the front of our helmet and a battery pack velcroed to the back of the helmet. If you needed to eject you would have to remember to take them off or the weight would snap your neck. Today you can buy better ones at a sporting goods store for a few hundred dollars. Back then this was cutting edge stuff.
A quick note about the pictures. These were taken on IR-144, a low-level training route that goes through the Big Bend region of Southwest Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.We normally flew low levels between 320 and 360 knots. Our top speed down low was 390, so we normally kept a little in reserve in case we got behind and had to make up time.
The first time I flew this route was at night. When I flew it in the day I was amazed at how sheer some of the terrain was.
This route claimed the lives of a B-1 crew on a night training mission.
It also could get pretty hot. The air conditioning wasn't worth much down low.
Remember that everyone else on the plane is sitting in the dark. My Radar Navigator would get airsick and throw up on every low level. He was hard core. I couldn't have done it.
Most of the low level routes took around 3 to 4 hours to navigate. A lot of the training routes were up over the Dakotas where it's sparsely populated. The most fun ones were out over Utah and Nevada. My favorite route crossed Lake Powell - you could drop down into the canyon like Luke Skywalker attacking the Death Star.
Normally there would be a practice bomb run at the end of the low level route.
We didn't usually get to drop real bombs in practice, maybe once a year during a big exercise. We would normally transmit a tone on the radio and a radar site would score where our imaginary bomb would have went. If we were simulating a nuke, close counts.
The site could also bring up pretend threats. For example, they could simulate various missile radars locking on to us. This would give the Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO or E-Dub) some practice with his jammers.
Once we did our thing we'd climb up to altitude and take a well deserved rest on the way back home. A night low level was hard work both mentally and physically. It took the most crew coordination of anything we did. We had to keep ourselves out of the rocks, make our time-over-target, evade the simulated threats and hit our simulated target(s).
Of course, they'd have 3 hours of touch-and-go landings scheduled for us when we got back. Seriously. "You gotta be tough to fly the heavies".
So would this stuff have worked? I think so. Around that time a Russian Mig-29 pilot defected and flew his plane to Turkey. The SAC tactics people asked him "Do you think you could intercept a B-52 flying 300 feet at night in the mountains?"
This guy was described to me as a very cocky, arrogant fighter pilot. He was flying the best plane his country had at the time. His answer?
"NO EFFING WAY!"I also know it worked, because I did it for real the first night of the Gulf War. But that's going to be a long story.