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B-52 veterans

In April, 2002, in Wichita, Kansas, coinciding with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the B-52's first test flight at the Boeing plant, members of the B-52 Stratofortress Association held their biannual meeting.

This group of about 700 members is made up of retired B-52 veteran crewmembers, maintainers, and others who share an association with the Boeing B-52. It was created to, in their words, preserve "the history and heritage of this magnificent airplane and the men and women who designed, tested, built, maintained and admired her in three wars - two hot and one cold." CNN Producer Craig Duff talked with several of the members during their Wichita reunion.

Former B-52 pilot and author of the book, "Where the BUF-fellows Roamed," a collection of true stories about the B-52.

CNN: Was there one significant thread that you found throughout these stories about this aircraft that stuck out in your mind, something that everyone would say about the B-52?

HOOPPAW: Reliability. I mean things would happen and you'd have emergencies and all kinds of problems. But it kept flying, and it always brought me back. And everybody has had similar experiences.

Until you learn about it and learn how to fly it, it's kind of difficult. It's like driving a great big truck. But once somebody tells you, and you learn it, it's not difficult to fly. For instance, when you make a turn, unlike most aircraft you start your turn and you push rather than pull back or hold it steady. And then, because the nose goes up initially and then it starts to drop, you turn and pull back. It takes a while to learn that, but once you do it, it just becomes second nature.

CNN: Were you surprised when you saw that the role of this plane in Afghanistan has been not only heavy bombing, but also more precise targeting and close-air support (hitting precision targets very close to friendly ground troops)?

HOOPPAW: Not so much surprised because I pretty much keep up with what's going on. But the big difference is, we dropped dumb bombs. And they have the smart bombs now. They can do so much better and they're doing' a better job than we actually (could).

Pilots and the crews get the glory, if you want to call it glory. But the guys that do the work are the ones on the ground. And you don't recognize it so much, but they're the ones that are there when you leave. And they're the ones that are there when you come back. They do an awful lot of work that nobody ever sees, and good work has kept the airplane going. They designed it and they built it, and they built it well enough that it can still do the mission -- even a changing mission -- and will continue to do so in the future. And it speaks a lot for the Air Force, the crews, the maintenance people and especially the Boeing people who built the thing to start with. A lot of people refer to Mr. Boeing as building the best landing gear in the world. And having tested it a few times, I can agree with that.

Veteran aircraft commander

MESERVE: I started training in the B-52 in 1964 -- came out of the B-47 where I'd been a co-pilot for three and a half years -- and flew it from January 1965 until I retired in August of 1979. I was a co-pilot, pilot, aircraft commander and instructor pilot.

Its strength was demonstrated to me one day when I was administering an evaluation to a student crew graduating from crew training at Castle (a former Air Force Base in California). I was in the co-pilot seat. And the aircraft commander I was evaluating was in the left seat. After decision speed and before take off speed the number three engine, which was the second one out on the left side, blew up. And we didn't really know what it was. But we knew something went bang out there. But the pilot kept it going straight down the runway like he's supposed to do. And I thought we'd blown a tire. And (we) got in the air. The landing gear did come up. And then I took the airplane -- I had to do that, his check ride was over when the engine went -- and lifted off. (The B-52) flew just fine. It was flying on seven engines out of eight, which is okay, and the pilot looked out at the engine. It looked like an orange that somebody had put a cherry bomb in. And the airplane held together just fine. (We discovered) very little damage to the fuselage after it landed. But we flew around for about four hours burning down to a light weight to land. It could take a lot of damage. I'm sure other people will tell you some of the things that happened over Hanoi (during the Vietnam War). It's an incredibly strong airplane.

We need the airplane. We don't have anything like it. And it cannot be built again now that the production facilities are gone. It carries, statistically, a tremendous amount of our effort in Afghanistan. It's friendly, (and) it's ours.

Former field maintenance specialist

McCOWN: When I first started working on the B-52, I worked on the H model (the last B-52 model produced). At that time, the H model was 6 years old. And I just could not wait to see it because I had not been up to a plane that was that big. And it was quite something to see at six years old. And then when I went to work on a D model, which was in Thailand (during the Vietnam War), the planes were built in 1955, '56. And I could not believe the difference between the two planes. They looked very similar. But through the engineering -- the changes they kept on upgrading over a period of time, from the A model all the way up to the H model -- it is like a completely different plane. And I would say even now the H models that I have had the chance to look at, are in better shape at 40 years old than the planes that I was working on in Thailand that were only 11, 12, 13, 14 years old. And not as much flying time on them at that time on the D model as the H model has now.

I would say the maintenance, the engineering, and the regular inspections have kept that plane flying.

It's very versatile for being a bomber. It's very versatile with the weaponry that it can carry and deliver. And the technology has improved. The B-52 is very adaptable to many missions with different munitions.

There's no airplane like it. There's no other plane that flies like that. I watched them take off. I watched them land and it's a very graceful plane. To me there's no other plane that can fly like it at all.

I never had any idea it would fly this long. It's just history in the making.

I'd hate to go back to the Cold War, but I have a feeling that it was a big part of the deterrent to have a nuclear war because we had this machine.

Former B-52 navigator

FERGUSON: I was a navigator on B-52 D models out of Wichita Falls, Texas. I flew B-52's for only three years, but the attachment to the aircraft is so strong that when when a notice appeared in the Air Force magazine about forming the group (the B-52 Stratofortress Association), I was part of the group that formed it. And now we're over 700 strong.

And so it tells you how strong the attraction is to an aircraft that is so old. It's not young by any standard. And it wasn't a perfect aircraft. It had problems. When you came back from a mission there were always things that were on a write-up sheet whether minor or major.

One time on a take off, the control tower told us something had fallen off the aircraft. It turned out, when another airplane came up to check us out, it was a whole section of flap that unscrewed and dropped off. We just flew around and flew the mission -- there was no problem with it -- and came back and made a normal landing.

And the aircraft was so strong. The one aircraft I always point to is the one at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in the Air Force Museum. That B-52 is the one I flew when I was in active duty. But when it went to Vietnam it was subject to a near miss by a Russian-made missile. And it had so many holes in it from the shrapnel they couldn't land at the regular base. They had to actually land in Vietnam. And the base is being shelled because the Vietcong were trying to knock that airplane out.

So the base commander says you need to take it off or I'll blow it up, so they won't be coming at my people. And that thing took off actually with duct tape. I mean, duct tape was covering the holes of the fuel cells. And fuel was pouring out of the engine, out of the airplane, as it took off. And it had to have a tanker right away. But it was such a magnificent airplane to withstand the attack. It was still functional.

It was an interesting aircraft to fly because you never went anyplace except from where you took off. Usually you landed back there. We've had airborne alert missions that flew around the North Pole. We'd leave Texas and fly out over the Atlantic, go up to the North Pole, cut across to Alaska. And that was called airborne alert. And it was a deterrent to Russian aggression anyplace in the world. For example, when the Cuban Missile Crisis went off, we were one of the first aircraft launched. And our target line was Moscow, which was heavily defended. And normally when you're on this route, radio conversation between aircraft and the ground was often very interesting. (A lot of) chat back and forth, especially up in Canada where they had these lonely radio stations where we made position reports. But that day was completely silent.

And yet that day there was also a chain with links of B-52's twelve minutes apart. So on Russian radar -- as we went around the North Pole and coast into Alaska -- they could pick up all of those aircraft. So they knew we meant business and President Kennedy was successful in defusing this.

And the missions were long. Missions averaged 12 to 14 hours. We did low level work, air refueling. When I first started we were refueling with (a) propeller-driven tanker, the KC-97. And that wasn't fast enough to refuel it. So he had to start a dive and we dove with them in order to keep up his speed so we could make the connection and take on the fuel.

I can remember hanging over an open wheel well trying to insert a metal pin into the gear to make sure it was locked because the pilot, his indications said it wasn't. And here's the ground going by underneath you and you're shoving this pin in.

I give credit to the maintainers, the people in maintenance. When we landed, the aircraft had to go through this myriad amount of paperwork to correct all the discrepancies we had shown. And they really are the only people who kept that airplane going. Now Boeing was only a phone call away. If you had a problem that was brand new to the aircraft -- and in 1960 when I was flying, the airplane was only a few years old -- Boeing was there. And they would help out and you know they knew the airplane better than anyone because they built it.

Boeing over-built the airplane, so structurally strong. There are so many pictures of lost tails, pieces of the aircraft have fallen off and the plane still lands and it's successful in what it does.

Usually SAC (Strategic Air Command) was very programmed. You planned a mission you flew it exactly. (In Afghanistan), B-52's are called online immediately to go over and bomb a particular set of coordinates. And they're there, so flexible. More flexible I think than we were at the time we were flying.

And it makes me proud to see the airplane still doing what it's supposed to do.

Come see us in 2040 when the last airplane goes to its bone yard (the aircraft graveyard at Davis-Monthan Air Base) and then look back and see how well this airplane has protected the United States of America. Airplanes that were supposed to replace the B-52 are long gone. The B-52 flies on. Just like the United States. We soldier on, get through the difficulties and this airplane is helping to do that.

Former B-52 gunner

(Editor's note: Early models of the B-52 had a gunner in the tail of the aircraft. Later models moved the gunner to the main cockpit, beside the Electronic Warfare Officer. The Air Force discontinued the gunner position in 1991)

LEBADIE: I was a B-52 gunner. I went to Castle Air Force Base through gunner school, and I immediately was sent to Guam (during the Vietnam War). As a fully qualified gunner I never flew a training mission. I flew the real thing for a couple of years.

And I flew 101 combat missions before I ever flew another training mission. On the 26 of December, after a stand on at Christmas, we flew the biggest bomb raid in the history of the world, according to our briefing officer. And on that raid our target was the Hanoi railway yards. We had our bomb bay doors open and a pilot said "crew we have two at one o'clock." He was [saying) there were two surface-to-air missiles heading directly for our aircraft. Nobody said a thing. Then a few seconds later, he says, "gunner, they're under our belly." And I immediately grabbed for the ejection panel because I had the only manual bail out position on the aircraft. I knew if we were hit I had to get out immediately because I had to eject some of the gunnery system off the back-end of the aircraft so I could jump out.

And when I looked up those two missiles passed my cabin off the horizontal stabilizer and banked up over top of me when they both went off in directions away from me. And if those missiles had come back up mid-wing alongside our fuselage, it would have separated both of our wings and we would have been immediately down.

That was the most harrowing event that I've ever experienced on a B-52. It's a very reliable aircraft.

(I flew in) a D model that had a gunner on the tail. We don't have any of those now, except the ones that are on display at museums across the country.

I think the secret to the B-52's longevity is the superior maintenance that was done on that aircraft by our maintenance people. I just praise them so much because they kept those planes flying especially when we were doing heavy bombing like that. We bring our aircraft back from a bombing mission, they load that thing up and turn it right around and send it off again. I remember one time we came back from a mission, we landed the airplane, they loaded the bombs back up on it. And my roommate, he had over five hundred combat missions under his belt, they took it on another raid. They were shot down. He ended up swinging between two palm trees he said, like a monkey, and they had to have the rescue come and get him and penetrate the jungle to get him out. But they got him out. I guess all the crew was saved. But they lost the aircraft.

Former aircraft commander

WATERS: I was a B-52 copilot at Westover Air Force Base and B-52 aircraft commander at Davis Air Force Base, Texas. And I was also a C-130 aircraft commander at Clark Air Base.

SAC (Strategic Air Command) really believed in the crew concept. So when you put a six-member crew together -- pilot, copilot, radar navigator, navigator, electronic warfare officer and the gunner -- unless there was some really big problem, those people stayed together.

I think it's mainly because of the Cold War nuclear mission. They needed people to be stable and to work well together. If there was a personality conflict, nobody was considered to be at blame. They just made the change.

You really don't think it's as big as it is (as you're flying it from the cockpit). It doesn't have all these new types of controls. It was still cables, assisted by hydraulics and things like that. But you really didn't realize what you had behind you because things were controlled fairly well. When I first got in the airplane it was probably around 20 years old. So I was 5 years or 6 or 7 years older than it.

They never seemed to fly straight because they sort of got bent out of adjustment. It was a good plane. The fighter jets are the ones that are sort of what you call the bleeding-edge of technology and have small envelopes.

Just as long as you followed your checklist, made sure fuel was in the right tanks -- that was a copilot's responsibility -- the center of gravity was proper, and you maintained your airspeed perimeters, then you didn't have any problems flying the plane.

Low level was fun, but the thing I enjoyed the most was air refueling. Especially when both of you took your autopilots off. The gunner didn't like that because it was sort of like snap the whip.

They lost an aircraft at Guam because the wing just fell off right after takeoff. But they began to realize the problems with these planes. They began to develop techniques to X-ray them, to see where the corrosion was. With the B-52 D's, when Vietnam was over and they came back, they took eighty of them and brought them here to Wichita to the [Boeing) plant. And they completely took them apart. They gave them new wings. They put in new ejection seats. Basically, if anything on them was structurally bad they replaced it.

I was talking to my wife yesterday and told her that initially when I first flew the aircraft it was basically designed to carry two, 10,000-pound nuclear bombs. And they filled the bomb bay. But when they made the big belly modification, now it was able to carry 84 500,000-pound bombs inside. So it's been very adaptable.

I'm not an engineer but I guess they had a good basic structure and they've known how to take care of them.

For initially an $8 million aircraft I think the American public's really gotten good value for their dollar.

Former maintenance crew chief and flight chief

WEINBERGER: All my old airplanes have been melted down according to the SALT treaties (Editors note: Under the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, hundreds of B-52 bombers were destroyed as part of the agreement). From what I have understood, the Russians were really afraid of the B-52 because even though they have one that's similar, it doesn't have the ability that the United States manufacturers of aircraft have over Russian aircraft.

I think the reason for the success of the aircraft is the fact that Congress has appropriated the monies for the upgrade and they see the stability of the aircraft. They know they get the job done with it. It's going to outlast even the B-1 and the B-2 [bombers) because of the upgrades, the preventative maintenance programs that are in effect.

And of course back in the [Cold War) days we had ground alert. We had airborne alert. I was a flight chief on the alert force. With as many as fifteen aircraft loaded, ready to go within five minute's notice. We had airborne alert, flying 24 hours a day, two of them from each base for I don't remember how many bases had airborne alert going at the same time. But they would rotate that through all of Strategic Air Command. Winter, summer, through the whole cold war.

Former aircraft commander and instructor pilot

MOORE: Well I think it's the best airplane that the Air Force ever had because it's an honest airplane. It's stable. 's a stable platform. It does what you tell it what you do. It flies like a dream. It can fly low, it can fly high.

When I first got into it, it was a high-level nuclear deterrent. And then they said, "Well they've got SAM missiles (surface-to-air missiles, developed by the Soviet Union to destroy bombers flying as high as 50,000 feet) so now we're going to change to low level."

And then the Vietnam War happens, they say, "Well we're going use it for iron bomb modifications instead of strategic. We're going to use those in a tactical role." And it's changed. But the reason the aircraft has been around so long: it has room in the airplane for growth. Room for change. Everything's not packed on each other. It's a fast airplane, it's a good airplane. It's stable. It will do anything you want. And there's room for making modifications without tearing the whole plane apart. There's lots of room in the airplane.

CNN: What made that H model the superior one in your mind?

MOORE: Well it has superior avionics. It has superior engines. It has a TF-33 engine with about 17,000 pounds of thrust compared to the other ones around 11,000 pounds of thrust. It's a turbo fan and it's more fuel-efficient. You burn less fuel in the H model than you did in the earlier models. The generators, or the alternators on the airplane are three and four times as big as the other ones. You have enough electrical power to power everything that you need.

CNN: I was surprised yesterday when I looked in the in the bomb bay. You would think that inside this fairly large aircraft there's going be a lot of space up in there -- and the bomb bay's a fairly large area.

LACEY MOORE: Yes it is.

CNN: But most of this aircraft is fuel tanks.

MOORE: That's true. The B-52 H can carry people don't realize it but it carries three hundred and eleven thousand pounds of fuel, which is equivalent to about fifty thousand gallons of gasoline. And that's a lot of fuel. You burn around 20,000, 25,000 pounds an hour. And, of course, you're delivering all you can carry: 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 pounds of ordnance. Whatever it is. Iron bombs. You can carry missiles. You can carry the all kinds of missiles, the cruise missiles. You can carry the smart bombs, the dumb bombs, combinations, mines, anything.

CNN: As you've watched this aircraft in its role in Operation Enduring Freedom on television, what's been on your mind as you watched the B-52's over there?

MOORE: Well, my old navigator I had at Castle (Air Force Base), he retired in '73. And when this all happened, I said, 'Don't you wish you could go?' And he said, 'you drive, I'll go.' (Laughter) He said, 'You drive and I'll navigate.'

CNN: Its role has changed even more since you were flying. First in Desert Storm and now in Operation Enduring Freedom. What do you think about that change of this aircraft?

MOORE: You can't stay the same. You have to adapt to changing times, changing political thing, if you're going to survive. And that's true with anything. If you don't change you don't survive. And (the B-52 has) been able to change and keep up with the times even more than anybody ever thought. For instance, it was high level only and it can go low level. It was nuclear only. Now it can be nuclear, it can drop iron bombs. It can launch cruise missiles. It can do anything. It can stand off. It can be evaluating ECM (electronic counter measures) around. It can do anything. It's got a long range, long legs.

Boeing takes every airplane, takes it apart every four years down to the bare bones. Examines it, rebuilds it and you get a brand-new airplane. To me that's going keep it going as long as they want to keep it going. As long as it's funded it can go 40 years, 50 years. As long as you have pilots and crew to fly the thing it'll be there.

Peace is not cheap. You have to have a strong military to keep the peace. If you don't have a military and you say, 'Please don't do this,' people do not respect that. You have to be strong to keep from getting beaten up. And as long as America is strong and has a strong Air Force, strong Army, strong Navy, I think we're going to provide democracy for a long, long time. But once we get weak and people perceive that you're weak, then the peace won't be there.

Former electronic warfare officer

CNN: Tell me about the role of the electronic warfare officer.

COMEYNE: Well electronic warfare officer was to protect the aircraft from both ground and air threats, electronic threats basically. And so I started out in the B model with one little red light that would tell me if I had a fighter in the front or in the back. And my equipment to find the threats with the little scope that was about four inches wide that I had to manually tune up and down to find the frequencies of the threats that were coming at us. In the H model, we had a great big full scope, no tuning, no nothing. All the frequencies were on there. The jammers were either automatic or semi-automatic. You could just put them on auto and when the planes would lock on they'd start jamming. And if they dropped frequency and moved it would drop frequency and find it.

Where in the old B model I'd have the search and hit-and-miss-type thing and then get my jammers on it. I'd have to tune my jammers.

I had a hundred combat missions in Vietnam. My longest flight was during the Cuban crisis. It was 28 hours and 20 minutes. And we were flying a whole bunch of 24 hour missions at that time, carrying nuclear weapons. And I have over 7,000 hours.

We used to fly to the Mediterranean and just over the Mediterranean in case something happened. And of course we had nuclear weapons on board. Thankfully we never had to go where we were destined to go and we always came back home.

We started out as high-level nuclear weapon delivery. We then went low-level nuclear delivery. Vietnam came along and we went with the iron bombs. And we also can drop not land mines but sea mines. And so the B-52 has great capability. Right now I imagine in what I've heard in Afghanistan is the like a standoff type aircraft. They've got the smart bombs, they just fly around till the ground radios them a target. They program it into the smart bomb and then they let it go and wait for the next target to pop up.

It's just like if you have a Model T Ford and you just keep it up and keep it going and if a part wears out you replace the part. And so as long as model T Fords are still running the B-52s are going to run as long as they keep it up and as long as they have money and the budget to keep the system up.

I don't think the American people really know what role the B-52 has played, especially during the Cuban crisis. I've flown 100 combat missions in Vietnam but I think the missions that I flew during the Cuban crisis were probably more important. We never dropped a bomb but we were there as a deterrent. I think we stopped people from doing things.

And I wish I was flying back in them again.

Former superintendent of B-52 bombing maintenance

YARWICK: The bombing system that's on the airplane is what I maintain. It was the airborne bombing and radar system. It was actually four systems in one. It was a bombing system, it was a navigation system. It was a radar display system and a radar system in itself.

We had a mission back then, it was a Cold War kind of thing. We used to have a saying: there's a couple of things you never could find: a real crew chief when you're on an airplane, and you never knew what the big picture was. Just prior to retiring, we had a wing commander at Ellsworth (Air Force Base) who put it in perspective for me. The big picture was when Ivan's commanding officer came in to the command post in Russia he says, 'today's the day we attack the United States.' And his guy would look at his board and he would say, 'Not today.' So our scheme of things was don't let Ivan tell his commander that today's the day to go in. We want to stay at 100 percent. So he never said today was the day to go.