Sunday Evenings With George Thatcher, Resident Bad-Ass In Raiderland. This Week: The B-52 And Low-Level Bombing Runs, AKA The Air Force’s Version Of “Fun” On The Government’s Dime!

The B-52 and Low-Level Bombing

In my eight+ years of flying the B-52, I had the incredible luck of never having had a near-fatal accident.  Oh, I hit a buzzard once, which resulted in a leading-edge hole that looked like  a 75mm round.  And then there was the time when I lost two engines on an approach to my home base.  Yes, I had to declare an emergency and prepare to make the dreaded six-engine landing.  Fighter pilots still cackle at me when I tell that one.

I was reminded of how fortunate I’ve been when I received a “forward” from an old crewdog/friend today.  He sent me an account of a B-52C having been lost back in 1963 when its vertical stabilizer snapped off during a low level training mission.  It had encountered severe turbulence and the “side loads” imparted by the high winds were too much for the aircraft’s structural integrity.  They had been flying at 280 knots and 500 feet above ground level, and it crashed in Norhern Maine with the loss of seven of its nine crew members.  The aircraft simply went into an uncontrollable attitude, which prevented the pilots from attempting a recovery.

That was one of three such accidents that I can remember, but there were probably others.  As a result, the Air Force engaged in a major retrofit of every B-52 in the fleet.  They discovered that certain bolts in the tail section were not strong enough to withstand the stresses of the kind of buffeting  that could be experienced in weather conditions that produced that kind of turbulence.  I might mention that the aircraft didn’t need to be flying at low altitudes for these events to occur.  Nor did they necessarily need to be in the clouds.  I know this because the next year we lost a B-52D at high altitude in clear air while attempting to avoid flying into a thunderstorm.  This happened in rural Maryland during a period of heavy snow.  All of the six-member crew were able to bail out, and four survived.  I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but new revelations continue to bring back those bitter memories.

Why was the B-52, the backbone of our strategic bomber fleet, vulnerable to such mishaps?  The story goes back to the days when the aircraft was designed and tested, back in the very early 1950s.  Our major perceived threat was identified as the Soviet Union, which by then had acquired its own nuclear arsenal.  We knew they were positioning their air forces and long-range missiles so the United States would be vulnerable to an attack.  Back then we were able to achieve something like equilibrium by adhering to the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).  And it was indeed madness.  By this doctrine, if they attacked us, we would have our aircraft and missiles in the air before theirs hit us.  So if they were able to destroy all our major cities, they would be assured of the same fate in return.  So there ensued a stalemate, but both sides continued to develop weapons of mass destruction, as well as better defenses.

All this was happening during the development phase of the B-52.  The aircraft was designed to be a high altitude penetration weapon system, with electronic countermeasures and a pea-shooter array (quad 50s) in the tail for its self-defense.  The older B-47 had been designed a few years earlier, and it was likewise ill-equipped for low altitude combat penetration.  Its airframe was simply not up to the task, although our Air Force strove mightily to adapt the ’47 to the new realities of strategic combat.  But why were we now thinking of converting the fleet to low-altitude bombing?  We were forced to come to the realization that the Soviets had developed a reliable ground-to-air missile system, which it proved by shooting down one of our U-2 reconnaissance aircraft.  This was a total embarrassment to our Defense Department, of course, but at the time we were forced to adapt the existing bomber fleet to the new imperative:  low level penetration and attack.  The DoD had simply put too many of its marbles into the high-altitude game, and they were being outfoxed by the Reds.

The rest is the story of my career in the bomber business.  Low level flying at high speeds became the new strategy, with new gimmicks being developed, like terrain avoidance radar.  In my view, that particular development was nothing more than a BUF-killer, unreliable to the point that I would never use it, preferring to be blinded by a nuclear blast rather than close the lead-lined curtains and take my chances on running into a cumulo-rockus.  So what if it pissed off a few of the colonels?  I knew that my own crew would never rat me out, their own self-preservation  being all-important.

But wait, there’s more.  You already know the history of our adventures in Vietnam, and how we re-configured the B-52 to fly bombing missions once again at high altitude.  This time we carried “iron bombs,” 500 and 750 pounders, which didn’t like being dropped at low altitudes.  So we took our chances one suffering “acceptable losses” and flew over Hanoi, through salvos of Vietnamese missiles.

I sometimes wonder why the world’s most richly blessed country, in terms of talent and resources, could continue to stick its toe in the shark-filled waters of the world, repeating the same old litany of gaffes while expecting new and spectacular outcomes.

George Thatcher

January 2023