The B-52s: short on space, long on thunder

The morning sounds of an office coming to life grow louder as Chuck Holland and his colleagues gather to discuss the coming day's work. Their briefcases stuffed with papers and books, thermos bottles and sandwiches, could easily belong to young lawyers or accountants.

But their workplace this day is out across the flight line at a US air force base. A chilly, windswept space separates them from most Americans in what they do but brings them very close to an increasingly common concern: how to prevent nuclear war.

Captain Holland is a bomber pilot. At 29 he is the ''old man'' of a crew of six young men prepared to drop and launch in a single flight more destructive power than 100 Hiroshimas would have seen.

They fly Boeing's B-52 Stratofortress, known among crew members as the ''Buff ,'' for ''Big Ugly Fat Fellow.'' Decked out somewhat uncomfortably in parachutes , helmets, and oxygen masks, two journalists have joined this day's training mission. They are trying to find out something about the airplane some say should be relegated to the Smithsonian Institution and about the crews, whose members often are younger than the planes they fly.

Our craft this cold, lowering South Dakota morning is a B-52H, the newest B- 52 and last delivered to the Air Force 21 years ago. That means Chuck Holland and company probably were concentrating on the TV program ''Leave it to Beaver, '' Little League baseball, and the mysteries of long division when their bomber first entered service some 9,000 flight hours ago.

As we approach the hulking craft, which has a ground crew standing by and a number of umbilicals attached, I notice that its camouflaged skin is wrinkled. ''Twenty years of flying will do that to you,'' explains Holland. ''Just like a face.''

After a quick walkaround, a tug here, a kick there, crew members burrow up through a hatch in the plane's belly, crawl to their assigned spots, and strap into ejection seats.

The aircraft commander and copilot are up front in the only spot with windows. Electronics warfare officer and gunner are 12 feet behind, facing aft. Navigator and radar-navigator are down a ladder beneath pilot and copilot in a cave dimly lit by the erie, red glow of what seems like a thousand gauges and dials. Reporters are wedged in between black boxes and will spend most of the next eight hours on hands and knees.

The B-52 was not built for comfort.

''I honestly think at the last minute they remembered they had to put a crew in so they scraped out a little space for us,'' says Capt. Holland. There is no place to stand. The best way to be sure of a good meal is to bring it from home. The incessant noise of the cabin pressurization system makes it impossible to talk without shouting or using the intercom.

''It's a flying gas tank with a little spot in the front for the crew and a spot in the middle for the bombs,'' he adds. A big spot for the bombs, he might have said. The B-52 can carry 70,000 pounds of weapons, including four of the biggest bombs mankind has ever built and eight short-range attack missiles (SRAMs) in the bomb bay. Twelve more SRAMs can hang under the wings. Each SRAM explodes with a force equal to 200,000 tons of TNT, more than a dozen times the size of the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan.

The crew goes over its preflight checklists and begins turning up the eight engines. Each engine produces 17,000 pounds of thrust, all of it necessary to propel the 244-ton behemoth down the runway and into the air.

As usual with B-52s, not everything works on start-up. There is a problem with the celestial navigation system, which seems to correct itself as the plane bumps and jiggles during taxi. On our flight, two other important systems - terrain-avoidance radar and cabin pressurization - will fail.

In six years of flying B-52s, Captain Holland says he has never landed without some maintenance problem.

With a roar and jerk, we accelerate about a mile down the runway, gaining lift at 142 knots (becoming ''unstuck'' as the pilots say), and heading quickly into the haze and fog. Our eight-hour flight will take us over South and North Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Nebraska, and Montana.

The Strategic Air Command has about 300 B-52s, originally designed as a high-altitude bomber. But over the years, improvements in air defense weapons have forced it to fly low to maintain its ability to penetrate hostile airspace. And its ability to adopt to new strategies and technology have presented it with more tasks, including ship surveillance and support for the Rapid Deployment Force. Several months ago, B-52s began carrying long-range cruise missiles.

The Pentagon (especially at budget time) likes to stress that these bombers suffer from varying degrees of aging and obsolescence, and that they need to be replaced by the B-1. Two B-52s have crashed within the past six months, a third blew up during ground fueling, and the wing collapsed on another.

In fact, the B-52 is very different from the plane first introduced nearly 30 years ago, and is likely to remain in service for years to come.

''It really isn't a 20-year-old airplane,'' explains Col. Robert Durkin, commander of the 28th Bombardment Wing at Ellsworth. ''I would be surprised if there's an original rivet in any of those airplanes we have out on the ramp. It's been rewinged. It's been reskinned. It's been retailed. It's not an unsafe airplane.''

''The airplane has been continually modified over the years,'' continues Colonel Durkin, who soon will pin on his general's stars. ''There are a number of systems in the airplane that are state-of-the-art. We couldn't have anything better if we wanted it.'' That includes the new offensive avionics system (OAS), which has begun to replace older analog computers and navigation components with modern, solid-state digital systems.

After takeoff, Holland and crew climb to 27,000 feet to rendezvous with a KC- 135 tanker (a modified Boeing 707) for aerial refueling. The two giants slowly join together, the bomber flying up underneath the KC-135 until the tanker's probe bumps and scrapes across the B-52's shoulders and into the proper receptical. We fly along in formation while the B-52 takes on 1,000 pounds of jet fuel for the drill. Without refueling, it can fly 10,000 miles. With tanker support, its endurance is limited only by that of its crew.

After more high-level navigation, the pilot throttles back and we descend to 750 feet for low-level navigation and practice weapons delivery.

This is where the radar-navigator, electronics warfare officer, and gunner are busiest. Simulated enemy radar and defenses are detected and countered electronically with 17 different transmitters or with strips of metal chaff and flares.

Some jamming frequencies are purposely avoided on these training runs. As the electronics warfare officer, Capt. Jon Antonson, says, ''People get a little upset when you block out their favorite soap opera.''

If enemy fighters appear, the six-barreled, 20-millimeter Gatling gun in the tail can spit out 4,000 rounds a minute under automatic radar guidance. This fire-breather is controlled by Staff Sgt. Randy Kendrick, the crew's only enlisted man.

Things are tenser now as the northern Great Plains rush beneath us at eight miles a minute. The B-52 heaves and pitches like a mechanical pterodactyl. It wasn't designed for this kind of treatment, and its wrinkles show it. Oxygen masks that had been removed for comfort are clamped back in place. Eyes and hands dart from controls to instruments and back. The intercom is punctuated with clipped reports and orders.

At predetermined points simulated SRAM missiles are launched against ''highly defended targets'' (mostly small towns and farms) within 100 miles of the flight path. ''There goes Malad City,'' someone remarks cheerily over the intercom.

In the practice bombing area, several passes are made and a tone sounds as we approach the target under the control of the radar-navigator, Capt. Howard Philip, the soft-spoken Southerner who actually unleashes the B-52's nuclear fury. When the tone stops, bomb release is simulated and ground observers can plot within feet how close the hit would have been. If this were war, curtains would have been drawn to avoid flash effects and the low-level maneuvering would be strictly with the electro-optical viewing system, a low-light infrared TV screen that shows pilots the terrain ahead.

We climb out and head back to Ellsworth, but have to stay at 10,000 feet because the jet has lost cabin pressurization. More relaxed now, crew members talk about their plane and mission.

The problem with the B-52, they say, is that it has been refurbished and modernized as much as it can. The plane is hard put to generate enough electricity to run the new gear. Many of the spare parts manufacturers have gone out of business. But mostly, it's the increasing ''threat environment'' that has made the hulking Buff so vulnerable.

Copilot Mike Guillot (who's working on his MBA at the University of South Dakota) uses this analogy: On an enemy radar screen, if the newer B-1 were the size of a desk, the B-52 would be as big as a hanger. Or as Wing Commander Durkin puts it, ''We've run out of ways to suppress the observables.'' This includes not only size, but noise and infrared emissions from the engines.

Chuck Holland and his fellows do not strike a visitor as ''Strangelovian'' in any way.

If asked, they will tell you that a manned bomber remains a necessary part of deterrence and the US strategic triad. They note that bombers, unlike missiles, can be launched and recalled without inflicting any damage. But they don't have much time to think about such things as strategic doctrine, nuclear parity, or geopolitics.

With families in mind and the knowledge that Ellsworth is a prime target for Soviet missiles and bombers, they don't relish the idea of taking off other than for practice.

Using the breezy jargon for the start of a nuclear war, copilot Mike Guillot says: ''The chances are, if the bubble goes up, I'm not going to have much to come back to.''

''We don't ever want to use this thing in anger,'' says Holland as he guides his B-52 back home at day's end. ''On the other hand, we have to stay ready.''

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