I'm biased of course, but I've never felt that the B-52 community got much credit for what we did in the 1991 Gulf War.
I learned from the History Channel, back when it still had history, that the F-117 pretty much won the war all by itself.
Watching cable news back then you might have come away with the idea that we weren't even there. It seemed like the Pentagon mostly wanted to show off all the cool high-tech stuff like smart-bombs going down the air vent of the bunker.
"Look how clean and surgical our air war is!"
They didn't really want to highlight a bunch of Eisenhower-era aircraft dropping iron bombs left over from the Vietnam War.
This gives me a chance to relate one of the lesser known stories of that war. Most people don't know that B-52s flew low-level strike missions on the first nights of the Gulf War. These were the first, and may well be the last, B-52 low-level combat missions. What we came to call "Night One".
I make no claim to heroics. What I went through was a walk in the park compared to Berlin or Hanoi. Still, if you get shot over Iraq you're just as dead as one of those other places. All it takes is for one bad-guy to get lucky.
I make no claim to any great humanitarian motivations either. I was there because the powers that be thought I needed to be there. I just wanted to bring my butt home in one piece along with the other 5 guys on my plane.
First a little background. In August of 1990, two days after the invasion of Kuwait, I was dumb enough to answer my phone on a Sunday morning. My squadron commander said "Be here in 4 hours with your bags packed. You're going away indefinitely." Gulp.
Pretty soon my crew and I found ourselves halfway around the world on Diego Garcia. A tiny strip of coral in the Indian Ocean. Our home for the next 7 months. We were part of the 4300th Bomb Wing (Provisional), a unit pieced together from various B-52 units: Loring, Griffis, Castle and Barksdale.
Our initial tasking would have been to make low-level runs against Iraqi tank columns if they'd pushed into Saudi Arabia. Not sure how survivable that scenario would have been. Glad I didn't have to find out.
Fortunately we were able to spend much of the next 5 months training for what was probably coming. Wasn't much else to do on an atoll in the Indian Ocean. Note that tropical islands are no longer on my list of vacation spots.
I looked forward to flying, mostly as a break from the mind-numbing boredom. It's funny how you start to really take your training seriously when you know the real deal is likely to happen soon.
Oh, and I spent a lot of time thinking to myself: "I'm going to get shot down. I'm going to be a P.O.W. They're going to beat the crap out of me. THIS SUCKS!"
Like I said before, I'm not claiming hero status here.
I know the war seemed rather one-sided but that's not what we were expecting going into it. General Horner himself told us to expect the loss of six aircraft from our unit. The KC-135 crews were told to expect 20% losses on the first night. Gee thanks General. Great pep talk. I feel much better now.
January 16th, 1991 around 5:00 PM somebody's knocking on our door saying "You guys are going in an hour. Get your stuff together." I walked over the the chow hall and tried to eat something but my stomach had squeezed itself into a tight ball so I sipped some ice tea and went back to the room to wait for our ride down to the Operations building.
At Operations we received our initial briefings. We already knew our targets for the first night so it was mostly a rehash of what we already knew. We'd be briefed on things like what threats to expect and best places for evasion in case we got shot down (bad). We'll be in a 3-ship "cell" attacking an Iraqi airfield. It's one of their secondary airfields, not too terribly far into Iraqi territory. The main airfields have fortunately been tasked to fast-movers like F-111s and British Tornadoes.
We get a final pep talk from the Wing Commander - "Don't run into the ground". OK, good advice. I'll try to remember that Colonel.
After all the briefings we gathered all our gear and headed out to the jet. Unlike a normal launch, we did everything radio silent. I don't think there were any Iraqi submarines hiding in the lagoon snooping on our conversations, but no sense advertising that you're on your way.
We launched something like 31 bombers and tankers that night. The primary strike aircraft plus airborne spares. We did all this purely based on timing. We started engines at our assigned time, taxied on time and took off on time.
We launched into absolute crap weather. There was a line of storms hitting the island right around that time and we plowed right through it. Golly, that was fun. And we haven't even gotten to the good stuff yet.
OK, we're out of the freakin' monsoon at least. Now we've got six hours or so to target and a couple of air refuelings to get through. We're carrying bombs on the wing pylons (27 internal + 24 external) so the extra drag is really making us burn fuel.
After the second refueling it's time to put our gear on. Survival vests and sidearms (like that's going to do much). We took our heavy, Vietnam-era flak vests and positioned them around the cockpit for extra protection. We didn't wear them because we weren't sure what the extra weight would do to us in an ejection. Later we got modern police-style vests that we did wear.
Soon we're "feet dry" over Oman and headed up towards Saudi Arabia. I remember seeing lights everywhere as hundreds of aircraft were heading towards the Iraqi border. And then I fell asleep.
I wish I could say that I was such a steely-eyed warrior I was able to sleep through danger - in reality I was just exhausted. A long day plus two refuelings on top of all the additional stress must have taken its toll on me.
My copilot woke me up an hour or so later saying "Hey, we need to get ready to go low."
We have some housekeeping to do first. The Night Vision Goggles are sensitive to anything except green light. We turn off the red instrument lights, tape over all the warning lights with black electrical tape and tape up green chemical light-sticks to serve as our instrument lighting. We turn off all the exterior lights. Our dark-green aircraft should be very difficult to pick out on a dark night like this.
Now the other two aircraft in the cell (formation) go their separate ways. We've been flying 2-mile spacing off each other up to this point. Now we'll be taking separate routes to the target. This is called a "multiple axis of attack". It's a relatively new tactic for us and we've only practiced it a few times. The plan is to cross the target from 3 different directions with 45 seconds between aircraft. We've never even practiced it this tight. We always used 60 seconds in training. We need to make our time-over-target to zero second tolerance. We don't want the plane behind us flying into our bombs.
We drop down to a few hundred feet off the ground well before crossing the border into Iraq. My aircraft is carrying cluster bombs filled with mines. The idea is to sow mines over the airfield to make it difficult to repair the damage our two wingmen are going to do. They're carrying British 1000-pound runway cratering bombs. These things will dig a hole and then wait to blow up later on at various intervals.
The bad thing about dropping cluster is we'll have to pop up to 1000 feet to release the weapons. 1000 feet is a bad altitude. You either want to be really low or really high. Anything in between is a good place to get shot. They've planned for us to be first across the target, hoping the additional element of surprise will make up for being that exposed.
It's very dark. Not really enough light for the NVGs to do much good. I'm flying the terrain trace and watching the FLIR, which is doing a decent job of picking up the warm desert.
We cross into Iraqi airspace and now the NVGs start to work. They're picking up all that anti-aircraft fire you probably saw on cable. The goggles now actually work too well. It's hard to tell how close this stuff is. I suspect it's further away than it looks and I pass that on to the crew because they're starting to get a bit excited. I am too, but I don't want to let on. I'm supposed to be the cool, fearless Aircraft Commander (ha!).
I'm seeing everything from small arms up to the big 57mm stuff. I can't tell if they're really shooting at anybody or just hoping someone will fly through it.
And now my EWO is telling me he's picking up what he thinks is a MiG-25 search radar. Great.
The MiG never locks on to us. I doubt he even knew we were there. His radar wasn't worth much down low and neither was he (they didn't train for it). Plus there are F-15s at least in the general area so I figure they'll keep him busy. The guns worry me more, but so far nothing is coming anywhere close to us.
Finally we hit the Initial Point for our bomb run and we're inbound to the target. The Navigator is calling airspeeds for me to fly to make the timing work. I'm making sure to keep the Course Deviation Indicator centered so that the bombs go where the Radar Navigator is aiming. A typical bomb run lasts about a minute from start to finish:
"RCD connected, light's on" (The final arming step is complete. No sense going through all this trouble and have the bombs stay on the plane!)
"Stepping out to my final offset" (This is the Radar Navigator adjusting his aim point)
"20 seconds - climb!"
I climb to 1000 feet. It's dark. I can't see a damn thing out here.
"10 seconds - doors"
The bomb doors open.
"5, 4, 3, 2 1 bombs away"
The bombs start to ripple off the aircraft.
Flash! Flash! Flash! Flash! Flash! Oh this is not good!
I think they're shooting at me and I can't do a damn thing about it while the bombs are releasing! The flashes are just the right rate of fire to be a medium sized AA gun. I'm waiting for what I think are 37mm shells to come ripping through the plane - nothing. Either they're not a very good shot or it's something else. I'm not going to stick around to find out.
The bomb doors close, I push the throttles up and the nose over. I start violently gun-jinking the plane around in three dimensions. We're headed back down and passing 390 knots (limiting airspeed), 410, 420!, 430!
The plane is now starting to mach-tuck. The faster we go the more the nose wants to go down which makes it go faster which makes the nose go down more. Not what you really want to be doing a few hundred feet off the ground on a very dark night.
I'm suddenly remembering a conversation I had with one of the Vietnam-era guys "You can fly this thing faster than 390 but she'll mach-tuck on you so be sure to run some nose-up trim".
I give the trim switch on my yoke a quick burst of nose-up and sure enough problem solved.
Dear Lord please don't let me get shot coming off the target.
OK, we're finally out of the target area and I haven't managed to kill us evading the real or imagined guns. It's quite possible that what I saw was the little explosive charges that opened our cluster bombs but I didn't realize it at the time.
Now during all the excitement the Navigator has lost his situational awareness and has got us turning back towards the target. Not good. That's about the last place I want to be right now. The Radar Nav (the senior navigator) fortunately gets us pointed back in the right direction.
Shortly after our wingmen come off target a flight of F-15Es come in to finish what we started. Scratch one airfield.
The rest is mercifully uneventful. We egress at low-level, rejoin the formation and head for home.
We're alive! Woo hoo!
Years later I would always get a little antsy right around January 16th. I'd be thinking to myself "Why do I feel so weird today?" Eventually I'd remember what day it was and think "Oh yeah, that's why."
Nobody ever did ask why I was going so fast. My answer would have been "Because it wouldn't go any effing faster!"
I did manage to find a pretty good article from Air Force Magazine about this operation. I think I knew the guy who wrote it.