By Col. Dick Hefner, USAF (retired) Former pilot (C-141, B-52 D/G, C-5 A/B)
My upgrade to the left seat in the C-141 was complete and I was looking forward to my time as an aircraft commander and then an instructor pilot. Unfortunately, the “needs of the Air Force” (as they usually do) totally derailed my plans for longevity in the Starlifter. For some reason, unknown to lowly lieutenants, SAC needed pilots and convinced MAC to send 50 pilots (aircraft commander qualified) to fly as B-52 aircraft commanders in SAC.
Being a naturally lucky guy, I was one of the 50 in that MAC to SAC transfer. My whining and objections fell on deaf ears and I received orders in early 1972 to report to Robins Air Force Base to fly a plane designed in the 40s to fly in the 50s and now flying in the 70s. My sleek, high powered Starlifter was replaced by an 8-engine behemoth that had wrinkled skin and leaked fluids all over the parking ramp…and was affectionately called “the BUFF” (Big Ugly Fat Fellow?). And, to make things even better, I would be going to Vietnam right away.
After basic B-52 training at Castle AFB in California, I was sent to Rome NY to qualify in the G model. The training sorties came and went quickly and I soon found myself signing in at my home base in Warner Robbins, GA. Unfortunately for me, there were no crews or planes there … the bomb wing had deployed to southeast Asia (SEA). However, within a few weeks I received orders to Carswell AFB, TX to train in the D model then deploy to SEA on an ARC Light tour.
While at Carswell, I met my crew…or, since I was the aircraft commander, the crew met me. My co-pilot was a lieutenant, straight out of pilot training. My navigator was a lieutenant straight out of navigator school. My electronic warfare officer (EWO) was a lieutenant straight out of navigator and electronic warfare training schools. My gunner was an airman first class, straight out of basic training and B-52 gunnery school. Wow, at the advanced age of 26, I was older than almost everyone on my crew of six.
The only crew member older than me was my radar navigator (also known as a bombardier), a lieutenant colonel named Dick Spears. So there we were…4 crew members on their first assignments, me as a transfer C-141 pilot and zero B-52 experience, and Spears, a seasoned veteran who had served 4 ARC Light tours in Vietnam and was now going back for #5. After 3 training missions and no major flying problems, we shipped out to U-tapao Air Base in Thailand. However, to this day I am convinced that Dick Spears must have made someone at Headquarters SAC really mad to saddle him with this crew of rookies.
Fortunately (from my perspective) we got to U-tapao after Linebacker I and II, so the actual bombing of North Vietnam had come to a halt. However, our first mission out of Thailand was a show of force and readiness to reopen bombing if the peace talks fell though again. This show of force was named “Operation Busy Bubble” and involved a formation of 38 B-52s taking off from U-tapao, flying comm out (no radio transmissions) to the border of North Vietnam, then after their radar locked on to us, flying back to our home base in Thailand.
Being the newest crew to arrive at U-tapao, we were plugged into the Busy Bubble formation at the very end … slot #38. All we had to do was silently follow 37 big planes, grouped in a formation, all headed in the same direction. Sounded easy…until take-off. Getting a large formation of B-52s airborne meant we would be doing a MITO, a Minimum Interval Take-off, which meant launching a B-52 every 15 seconds. No problem if you are one of the early launches in the sequence, but at #38, we were in for a wild ride. I had practiced MITOs with a 2-ship or 4-ship formation … but a 38-ship formation!
We started our engines on time and joined the long line of Buffs waiting to take-off. As more bombers took off, the sky became increasing black with the exhaust from the D models’ smoky engines. Nine minutes and 30 seconds after the first B-52 took off, I began my take-off roll — all 8 throttles to the max! I could not see any of the 37 Buffs in front of me … only streaks of black exhaust smoke. As we gained airspeed, the ride was getting rough … and we weren’t off the runway. Finally, we reached take-off speed and rotated into the air, but it was like taking off into a weather storm…we had all sorts of turbulence and no visibility in front of us. As we continued to gain altitude, we finally we found a patch of clear air and started looking around for the other planes.
As we passed 5,000 feet, we could see the formation taking shape, so we slid into our position at the back and everything seemed to smooth out. Now, following “comm out” procedures, all we had to do was just follow the planes in front of us. As the formation approached North Vietnam and their radars started locking onto us, we begin our massive turn back to the south…mission accomplished!
The flight back to U-tapao was pretty boring … just keep quiet and follow the formation. Then the co-pilot let me know that our fuel was getting out of balance and he needed to do some transferring between tanks. No problem. Then some hydraulic pumps started dropping off line, which required my attention. Still, no problem. I dropped back from the formation a little, made sure the autopilot was engaged, and started working to get the hydraulic pumps back on line while the co-pilot continued with the fuel transfers. Fuel transfers can take some time and I was struggling to get the hydraulics back on the line, so 10-15 minutes probably slipped by easily.
The co-pilot and I solved our problems about the same time and gave each other a “thumbs up”. As I started to advance the throttles to re-join the formation, I suddenly realized there was no formation to rejoin. There was not a single plane in front of us. Thirty-seven B-52s had disappeared! This necessitated one of the worst intercom calls I ever had to make, “Radar, do you have the formation on the radar. We’ve lost them.”
“You’ve what!” Spears shouted in total disbelief and so loudly that the intercom wasn’t even necessary.
“Dick, I’m sorry, but we were working problems up here in the cockpit and when we were done, the formation was gone!” I replied. “They must have done a turn and we missed the visual signal.”
After several very quiet minutes, Dick came back, “turn left 30 degrees, I think I’ve found the formation; however, it could be a flock of birds! At least we are headed in the right direction, U-tapao and not Hanoi!”
I pushed the throttles forward as far as they would go and as we approached the “flock of birds”, we saw they numbered 37. Thirty-seven beautiful Buffs starting their descent into U-tapao. About half way down the formation’s descent, I slipped back into my #38 slot.
After landing I was expecting to get a call from someone of significantly higher rank, asking me, “what happened?” I never got the call. No one ever said anything to us and I do not know if we were even missed. I certainly was not going to bring the subject up, so I also said nothing. But I was certainly happy to have my first ARC Light mission in the books and done – known or unknown!