Riding the Boeing B-52
by Harry Paul Mann, Jr.
During RIMPAC exercises in 1988, LT Peter Bouffard and I were chosen to fly with Air Force B-52H crews to act as Tactical Coordinators (TACCOs) during a mission to locate the opposing "blue force" battle group. The battle group (I can't recall the specific carrier) was transiting from the West Coast of the United States to Hawaii on the way to a WESTPAC deployment. The B-52 crews were assigned to the United States Air Force's 5th Bombardment Wing and had flown to Hawaii from their home base in wonderful Minot, North Dakota specifically for these exercises. In addition to their strategic nuclear capability, the missions of these B-52H crews included maritime missions such as mining and anti-ship warfare.
The morning of our flight, Pete and I were briefed on our mission at the COMPATWING TWO Antisubmarine Warfare Operation Center (ASWOC) at NAS Barbers Point. We were tasked to locate the battle group and then report its location, and general course and speed back to the ASWOC via radio. The target battle group was expected to be in EMCON (Emission Control - the ships would not be operating certain active sensors such as radars) and therefore it was unlikely to be detected using passive means. We were to rely upon our B-52H's radar for detection, which was more than suitable for this purpose. In addition to reporting the position of the battle group, Pete and I were to act as "liaisons" to advise our Air Force B-52 crews on operating in the battle group airspace environment, something that the crews had little experience with. The ASWOC provided us with their latest intelligence on the battle group's probable position, passed us our reporting frequencies, and then Pete and I drove to Hickam AFB (Honolulu) to meet up with our B-52 crews.
After quick introductions, and an extensive Air Force crew briefing in one of the buildings adjacent to the ramp, we boarded our aircraft. I was very surprised to find out how cramped the B-52 crew compartment was. The B-52 was a giant bomb bay with wings on it, and room for little else. The crew compartment had two decks; an upper and a lower. On the upper deck was the cockpit with a pilot, copilot and a gunner and electronic warfare officer facing aft, and on the lower deck was just room enough for a couple of forward-facing seats for the radar navigator and Navigator. A ladder connected the two decks. On the upper deck, the overhead was so low that I couldn't stand up fully and had to stoop to get to my seat. I sat just aft of the pilot and copilots on a small bunk, so I got a good view of everything. It was unbelievable to me (and still is) that B-52 crews flew (and still fly) 24+ hour missions in the B-52.
P-3 Orion crewmembers like Pete and I, were lucky to have our galley (which was complete with a convection oven, hot cups, and a table, two racks (beds), and a separate head (bathroom)). On the trusty old P-3B MOD we had plenty of room to walk around, stretch our legs, or take a nap when the mission allowed it. On the B-52, the only convenience that I could find was the simple urinal.
Our flight of two B-52's departed in late morning. We took off and headed East towards the projected battle group location. It was incredible how loud the engine noise was in the cockpit. Many of our conversations on the P-3 Orion were carried out without the use of the intercom system (ICS), but on the B-52, that would be impossible. Airborne, all conversations on the B-52 were carried out on the ICS. It was obvious to me that the B-52 was not designed to carry humans, it was designed to carry nuclear weapons.
A few hours into the flight, the radar navigator reported a couple of surface contacts located generally where we expected to find the carrier battle group. I left my seat and climbed down to the radar navigator’s position to observe. As we continued east, we detected additional contacts and eventually the telltale circular configuration of the contacts (the "screen") confirmed that we had located our target of interest. We picked the biggest radar return, which was likely to be the carrier, determined its position, course and speed (west at 10-12 knots), and sent the required contact reports via HF radio back to the ASWOC.
Soon afterward, we were intercepted by a flight of two F-14s from the carrier. Initially they fell in behind us, but within moments they were jockeying from one side of our aircraft to the other. Our tail-gunner, who operated both the rear firing cannon and the air-to-air radar, was a well-seasoned B-52 veteran of the Vietnam War. Although our crew couldn't actually see the fighters, they had a good idea where they were located because our tail-gunner, based upon his radar information, could accurately pinpoint their location. He kept up a constant chatter as the interceptors approached and maneuvered around us, keeping the pilots informed about the location of the F-14s in relation to our aircraft. I was impressed with his skill. "If they had tried to shoot us down using their gun, they would have been dead" he shouted to me off ICS as I crouched near his station, "Most fighter jocks underestimate how far back from a plane that a rear firing cannon can hit". Admittedly, our B-52's were at that point officially out of the exercise, but our mission of locating the battle group had been accomplished.
As we continued to approach the battle group, we contacted "Red Crown" on the radio. Red Crown was the battle group Anti-Air Warfare Coordinator, the authority that granted permission to aircraft to allow them to approach the battle group. Red Crown determined who was friend and who was foe. “Roger, I’ve got you on my gadget.” In peace time, straying into the battle group airspace without contacting Red Crown might get you a nasty radio call on “Guard” frequency or intercepted by F-14s. In wartime however, not checking in with “Red Crown” would get you shot down. Our Air Force crews were particularly interested in seeing the carrier, and we wanted to visually confirm the location of the carrier, so in addition to checking in, we requested a fly-by of the battle group. Apparently, there weren't any flight operations being conducted, so with our F-14 escort in tow, we were given permission to approach the carrier, to descend, and conduct a fly by at low altitude. As we got closer, we also checked in with the Air Boss who was in the carrier's tower who confirmed that we had permission to conduct a fly by. I don't recall being given a minimum altitude, but our pilot decided that 1000' would be good enough.
That must have been a hell of a show for the crews on those ships as our two B-52s took turns flying by the carrier and a few of the other escort surface units. It's not often that B-52's fly by US Navy ships at low altitude. At the time, I kept thinking about how nervous the skippers on the ships must have been with our B-52s buzzing around them. It would have been a very bad thing if one of the pilots on one of those huge aircraft had made an error, or if we had experienced a catastrophic mechanical failure and unintentionally flew into one of the ships, or even impacted close to one. But B-52 crews regularly practice very low-level flight over uneven terrain, so flying low over the water was quite comfortable for them.
After the fly by runs were complete, we climbed back up to cruise altitude, recorded the position of the battle group one last time, and returned to Hickam Air Force Base.
When we got back to Hickam, Pete and I exchanged notes. At the time, I had thought that OUR low-level fly bys were exciting; Pete's crew apparently had no problem "getting down in the weeds" and had flown their "BUF" past the carrier at or below FLIGHT DECK LEVEL. Pete told me that when he looked out the window, he had to look UP in order to see the island and the masts! P-3 operating procedures only allowed us to fly at a minimum of 200-300 feet, but apparently the Air Force guys had no such minimum altitude limitations. After a few goodbye handshakes with our Air Force friends on the ramp, Pete and I returned to the NAS Barbers Point ASWOC for a short debrief. We had both gained respect for the hardship endured by B-52 crews, and an appreciation for the "luxury" that we enjoyed flying P-3B's.
Aloha, Harry Mann