Thursday, November 5, 2009

Crazy 'bout the Buff. . .

B-52H flying over Spokane, Washington, 1993. . .

The big annual Alliance Airport airshow was a couple of weeks ago, and we dragged the boys down to watch some of the planes fly in for display, arriving just as a big, magnificent B-52H from Barkesdale AFB in Shreveport glided in for a landing.

B-52 "Stratofortress" How's that for a name! Though the headline act for the weekend was the Navy's Blue Angles, I really wished a squadron of B-52's, accompanied by a KC-135 air tanker, would've made a flyby instead. Amazingly, the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fucker) has been in service for 54 years--over half the era of manned flight! If one can get a soft spot in their heart for large aircraft specifically designed to carry nuclear bombs, the B-52 has done it for me. There's just something so bad-ass about a big bomber that a hot-shot fighter plane can't possess. . .it's a no-frills, no-nonsense aircraft designed for a specific purpose that has survived because the Air Force has adapted its role in post-Cold War times.

The B-52H we saw glide in for a landing was one of 744 built since 1952 in several variations (and of the last series of planes delivered in 1962). At their operational peak in 1963, they were deployed at 38 air bases under the Air Force's Strategic Air Command. For nearly 40 years, a number of B-52's were constantly in flight, not too far off Soviet airspace, ready to strike at a moment's notice; on the ground, flight crews were in a constant state of readyness, prepared to scramble if necessary. Along with SAC's ballastic missile capability, the B-52's formed the backbome of a US strategy of nuclear deterrence--the notion that Russia wouldn't launch a surprise attack, knowing that relaliation from the US would be just as devestating.

Here's a newsreel from the 1950's on how SAC fought their "blood-less, deterrant war." Check out that SAC television control room! That's how it was done, baby, before computers and desktop monitors! And check out that monster tele-copier to send weather maps--we were the leader in world technology!

Gradually, the Buff's role changed as the US relied more and more on missile defense. The B-52's were adopted for heavy conventional bombing during the Viet Nam War, and equipped with long-distance nuclear cruise missiles which wouldn't require the planes to fly into enemy airspace. With the fall of the Soviet Union and nuclear arms reduction treaties, over 300 B-52's were chopped into pieces and left in the desert for verification by Russian satellites. From a huge, all-powerful fleet of heavy bombers, today, less than 100 B-52's, all of them the latest "H" variation, are left in service. the Buffs are assigned to only two air bases today, Barkesdale and Minot. The Air Force expects the B-52H to remain in its inventory until 2040--by then, there will likely be nothing "original" on any of the survivors as they approach their 80th birthday in service!

I mostly remember them from my years spent living in Spokane, Washington, near Fairchild AFB, home of the 92nd Bombardment Wing and its B-52H's and KC-135 tankers. It was humbling to see them flying above the wheatfields and wondering if they were carrying nuclear weapons. The jets made a distinctive whistling sound as they flew, and earlier versions of the plane often took off leaving a black cloud of smoke from their eight jet engines when using "water injection" to provide more power during takeoffs. I was working for the Spokane newspaper at the time SAC ordered a permanent "stand-down" from 24-hour readyness after the Soviet collapse, and visited the crew quarters at Fairchild.

The B-52's left Fairchild soon afterward, the last one unintentionally going out in a horrible blaze of glory when a hotshot wing commander flew one into the ground while practicing for an upcoming airshow (I vividly remember that day, as I was ready to fly to Kansas City to interview for a position in Burlington Northern's train dispatching class and saw the big plume of smoke west of downtown). The story of the events leading up to the crash, the personalities involved, and the dynamics of military leadership make this a fascinating story (one that, given the cinematic reviews that follow, would make a great motion picture).

The B-52--and its SAC predecessors, the B-36 and B-47--were photogenic machines, and figured prominently in a number of Hollywood movies. Most notable, perhaps, was director Stanley Kubrick's 1964's "Dr. Strangelove," a dark comedy in which a SAC base commander goes rogue and orders his bombers to attack Russia. Peter Sellers, George C. Scott and Slim Pickens star, but to me, the B-52 is the real headliner, with a realistic depiction of life on the flight deck during a "full out, toe-to-toe, nuclear engagement with the Rooskies." Who could forget Pickens as Maj. "King" Kong riding a nuclear bomb, rodeo style, out of the bomb bay?

Three other movies, of a decidedly more pro-SAC tone, just joined my film library: 1955's Strategic Air Command, starring Jimmy Stewart; 1957's Bombers B-52, starring Karl Malden and Efren Zimbalist Jr., and 1963's A Gathering of Eagles, starring Rock Hudson and Rod Taylor. None of these three films are particularly great movies, the three sharing a common theme in a time of Cold War that, by God, our SAC crews are ready at a moment's notice to defend you from Russian bombs, damn it, and even in peacetime, we can't let our guard down! The scripts aren't particularly great, nor the acting. The musical score is at times too rah-rah military. But what makes these films great fifty years after their release is the historic footage of SAC and its aircraft.

Strategic Air Command features the big, new B-36 assigned to Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth. Stewart plays a reservist pilot recalled in the early years of the Cold War from a successful baseball career to an operations officer. And, of course, his wife doesn't like him being gone all the time flying, but he's got a job to do to keep America safe from Russia. He crashes a B-36 in the frozen north after leaking fuel catches the plane on fire, and eventually is assigned to the flashy, new B-57 at McDill AFB in Florida. Spectacular footage of the massive B-36 and its "six turning and four burning" prop/jet propulsion. Glimpses of what was once rural land around Carswell back in the 50s. Wonderfuly Paul Mantz aerial photography. And the head of SAC is obviously modeled after Gen. Curtis "Bomb them back to the stone age" LeMay.

Bombers B-52 is a love triangle between Karl Malden's career maintenance sergent, his young hotshot wing commander (Zimbalist) and Malden's too-young daughter (Natale Wood), against a backdrop of B-47's and new B-52's at Castle AFB in Merced, CA. Malden isn't too happy his young boss is tapping his daughter, and this friction is contributing to a decay of our tactical nuclear readiness. This time, in-flight malfunctions include a stuck landing gear (requiring Malden to climb into the wheel well to fix the problem, very reminiscent of the Pickens scene in Strangelove), and a malfunctioning "secret troubleshooting control panel" which goes up in flames, requiring most of the crew to bail out as Zimbalist bring the crippled plane in for a landing. Malden is missing after bailing out, and Zimbalist strikes out to find him, finally earning Malden's respect and Malden's daughter. And, there's another LeMay clone.

A Gathering of Eagles stars Rock Hudson as a go-getter assigned as commander of a B-52 wing at Castle. He's replaced his well-respected predecessor after his wing failed a surprise inspection. Hudson arrives and shakes things up, pissing off his underlings, getting officers demoted, transferred or outright booted out of the Air Force in an effort to improve the wing's performance. This time, the in-flight contretempts is a leaking air-fueling coupler which nearly results in the plane catching fire mid-air. Rock is right on it, though, bringing the plane in safely and dressing down his maintenance chief for not delegating authority. Through the whole film, the idea of constant readiness is pounded into our heads: there might not be a war, but how can we make a war movie where there isn't a war interesting? Good coverage of the state-of-the-art SAC headquarters in Omaha, and more great footage of B-52's in their prime, including a spectacular sequence of a half-dozen Buffs taking off in a Minimum Interval Take Off. Oh, and there's the required LeMay-like General as well.

For the film buff, this trio of mid-century movies aren't any great shakes. They view more like Air Force recruiting films. But no matter: it's the jets that are the stars here, and they're preserved in beautiful full-color, wide-screen glory. They're a great journey back to the wonderful days of Civil Defense, Duck-and-Cover, and nuclear brinksmanship. Back when the Buff ruled the sky and they were much more than just a side-show in the Air Force arsenal.