“John Wayne” – low level bomb run
By Colonel Richard S. Hefner, USAF (ret) C-141, B-52, C-5 Pilot
The 90-day Arc Light tour passed quickly and I soon found myself ferrying a B-52D back from Vietnam to its home base at Carlswell AFB TX. Taking off in the early afternoon, we flew eastward all night, refueling with two sets of tankers and landing about 19 hours later in Texas. I remember exiting the crew door and needing about 15 minutes before I could straighten my back and stand erect. Nineteen hours in the pilot’s seat with a parachute and helmet on was always tough on the back’s muscles and bones.
I had grown fond of the tall-tail D model. It was a true war horse, even with its underpowered engines and wrinkly skin. However, my home base flew the G model, which was newer and had more powerful engines but lacked ailerons. Also, the gunner’s station was forward with the Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) instead of in the tail where the 50 cal was located. I would no longer be able to wake up a sleeping gunner by stepping on the rudder pedals and wiggling the plane’s tail.
My crew had cut its teeth in Vietnam, so by the time we were back at Robbins AFB in Georgia, we were pretty comfortable with each other. SAC followed the hard crew concept, which meant I always flew with the same co-pilot, navigator, radar navigator, EWO, and gunner. With the complexities of the B-52’s mission, I found it helpful to know the personalities and quirks of each of my crew members.
Our training missions also changed with the return to Robbins. We no longer practiced high altitude, non-nuclear bomb runs in formations. We now practiced for the possibility of delivering nukes to targets in Russia. While the navigation and refueling parts of the mission remained the same, the bomb runs changed dramatically. We now went in alone, high speed, below the radar, using terrain to hide our approach to the target. One bomb for one target, then on to the next target, still fast and low.
The job life became fairly routine. We spent every third week in the mole hole (alert facility). As a crew on alert, we had to get our plane airborne within “X” number of minutes from when an alert sounded. Therefore, we were not allowed to be too far from our plane and we had to stay TOGETHER. We ate together, went to the gym together, and wandered around the base exchange together. Wherever one went, we all went!
When we were not on alert, we spent time planning and flying training missions. Getting to the target and putting the bomb on the target were top priorities every time we flew. Not successfully completing a refueling, getting off the track on a low level run, or (heaven forbid) missing the target on a bomb drop would get you an “interview” with the Wing Commander. Bottom line: failure was not acceptable.
My crew was performing well. Chuck (copilot) was learning how to air refuel, Bo (EWO) and Gary (gunner) were effectively defending the plane, and Jim (navigator) and Jetty (radar navigator) were accurate and precise on low level runs and bomb drops.
Then one day, Jetty was sick and the schedulers gave me a new radar navigator. Our mission brief went well and I had no reason to be concerned about this “substitute”.
We took off the next morning, accomplished our refueling and navigation legs, then headed for our low level bomb run (called an Oil Burner back then, but now known as an Olive Branch). For our training missions, we typically flew 500 feet above the ground and at an airspeed of 350 knots. Using the plane’s radar, we navigated our way through the valleys and away from the peaks. During the daylight we often had visual targets to confirm our location on the intended route. But at night, visual cues were minimal and the radar was essential to staying on course and being able to put a bomb on the target.
As entered the Oil Burner route and descended to 500 feet above the ground, I was glad to see the weather was excellent and visibility unlimited. As I listened to the nav and the “substitute” radar nav guide us through the low level route, I started getting concerned. The radar nav seemed hesitant and maybe even unsure of his headings and airspeeds. However, from the cockpit, all looked well. Our cues and timing back ups were right on target, so I said nothing.
As we made our last turn towards the target, the communication between the nav and the radar nav became more questioning and challenging, and increased my concerns. “They are about to blow this bomb run,” I thought. “We are approaching one minute out and they are still bickering about proper headings and timing!”
Giving it my best John Wayne voice, I radioed down to the radar nav, “Radar, (this is the) pilot … I’ve got the bomb run. We are dropping visually from the cockpit!”
“Yes, sir,” came the reply.
With a wink and a grin, I looked at Chuck and said, “Co, you ready?”
“Yes, sir,” he replied.
As I rode my steed towards the target, I called, “On my signal … ready, ready, NOW!”
Well, that’s how I had my one and only “interview” with the Wing Commander! I missed the target. In fact, I wasn’t even in the same county! And, to make matters worse, film later showed the “substitute” radar would have been “on target”.
When asked what I had learned from my effort to drop visually at 350 knots, I replied, “I needed to trust my crew to do their jobs and believe in the equipment we had on board.”
“Great lesson to learn! Now get out of here and I don’t want to see you again!” (Wg CC).
— End —
Editor’s note: Thanks to Colonel Richard S. Hefner USAF (Ret) for writing these exciting stories; a first hand account of his experiences piloting various aircraft of the United States Air Force during the Vietnam war era and forward. I am very proud to have known him as a pre-teen and teenager growing up in Hickory, North Carolina. Colonel Hefner has garnered thousands of readers and fans over the last half year while writing for us. Our hope is that he will continue to write and never run out of experiences to share with us. Keep up the good work “Dick”…
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