The B-1B comes in from the west. As it nears the tanker's tail, it begins the rocking motion characteristic of planes nudging close to refuel in the air. Its movable wings are swept forward, looking like thin arms attached to the broad shoulders of the bomber's sleek body. ``How come his windows look so nasty?'' asks the boom operator, preparing for work in the tanker's cramped rear cockpit.
Master Sgt. Larry Latsaw shades his eyes and looks out from the fuel-laden KC-135. ``He's been practicing low-level flight,'' he replies. ``Look at this guy: He's good, he's stable.''
He is also part of a vanguard. With a thunk and a rushing sound the tanker begins pumping jet fuel into one of the first active-duty B-1Bs in the United States Air Force.
Dyess Air Force Base in the west Texas dust bowl now has 11 B-1Bs. Spare parts are short, training simulators haven't all arrived, and computers that track repairs don't work too well. But 15 new bombers will enter full operational service as scheduled Oct. 1, officers here say. After this initial squadron start-up, bases in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Kansas will receive the big plane. The Air Force plans to have 100 B-1Bs flying by 1988.
``This is the most complicated plane that has ever been brought into the Air Force inventory,'' says Col. Robert Dempsey, commander of the Dyess-based 96th Bombardment Wing. ``Its computer dependency and use is greater than that of the space shuttle.''
That it is entering service at all is testimony to the fact that big new weapons, once they enter development, acquire considerable political momentum. The B-1 has regularly risen from the dead.
The bomber's road to Dyess began in 1970, when Richard Nixon's administration awarded a $1.3 billion research contract to Rockwell International. The Rockwell subsidiary that would do most of the work, North American Aircraft, was based in California, a state that was home to the President and governed by a political novice named Ronald Reagan.
Then Jimmy Carter scrapped the program in 1977. He reasoned that the radar-avoiding ``stealth'' bomber would be available in 15 years or so and that meanwhile 20-year-old B-52s with cruise missiles could bolster the strategic bomber force. The relatively easy-to-see B-1 would be dangerously vulnerable, Carter officials believed.
Rockwell continued work on B-1 development. Republicans turned Mr. Carter's cancellation into a symbol of what they felt was weakness in national defense. When Mr. Reagan was elected, the B-1B was suddenly back in the budget, its popularity in Congress enhanced by subcontracts that had been spread throughout 48 states. Right now some legislators are in the ``man-bites-dog'' situation of urging the Pentagon to buy more B-1Bs than it wants. The House version of the bill outlining 1987 defense programs allots $200 million to keep the B-1B production line open after the planned 100 bombers are completed.
Whatever the merits or demerits of the B-1B, it is certain that people love it in west Texas. In the nearby town of Abilene, numerous pickups sport bumper stickers that say ``A-B1-lene.'' The enthusiasm is easy to understand: Dyess Air Force Base, built on land donated to the government by civic leaders in 1952, is the largest employer in a 32-county area.
The coming of the B-1B has meant $100 million in Pentagon construction funds pumped into the local economy. Nineteen new buildings are rising on the base, including a stylish brick hangar capable of sheltering three B-1Bs at once.
So far Dyess is the only location where B-1B crews are even being trained. As of late July, seven four-man crews (pilot, copilot, and flight officers for both offensive and defensive systems) were ready to go. Eighteen other teams had graduated from the classroom to the runway for in-flight work.
``We're the B-1B schoolhouse for the Air Force,'' says Maj. Charles Heiser of Dyess's 338th Training Squadron.
A B-1B teaching aid the Air Force is particularly proud of is computer-based instruction, in essence a video game that allows crew members to study plane components via on-screen color graphics. Teaching aids Dyess is awaiting include flight simulators: Six cockpit simulators and two weapons systems simulators are on order but won't be fully ready until next year. Meanwhile, instructors are making do with two borrowed engineering research simulators.
The big empty spaces in the simulator rooms are a function of what Dyess officers call ``concurrency,'' and what others might call ``doing things in a hurry.'' The schedule for bringing the B-1B into the active force is more compressed than those for other recent new planes. Pilots at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., are still doing B-1B test flights as the day of the first missions approaches.
Nagging fuel leaks have been a problem. Spare parts bins aren't full; a new computer system that substitutes electronic mail for paper work is proving hard to use. But Lt. Col. E. D. Cole, 96th Bomb Wing deputy maintenance commander, says the B-1B logistics glitches are average growing pains for a new plane.
``We're not having the degree of problems they had with the F-15, for instance,'' he says.
The bomber itself has a fearsome appearance in a way that small fighter planes do not. On the ground, with its long landing gear, it looks high-perched and slender; the crackle of its afterburners on takeoff seems loud enough to be heard in Dallas.
In fact, officers here say, the B-1B is a substantially different airplane than the Carter-canceled B-1A. With a more streamlined shape and tucked-away engine inlets, the jet is much more difficult to see on radar.
It is a big plane, but there is little room inside for people. Its four seats have surprising comfort touches, such as tiny rearview mirrors, air outlets similar to those in airliners, and fold-down rings for holding drinks.
On a mission with nuclear bombs (``stores,'' in the Air Force euphemism) the B-1B would approach its target just above the treetops at 750 miles an hour. Computers would keep the plane from running into terrain. On-board electronics are also capable of finding the target, releasing munitions, and helping protect the plane with electronic countermeasures.
The automated nature of the plane makes it much easier to fly than a B-52, crew members say. But ``there is a degree of apprehension when you're flying that low and fast and are entrusting your life to a computer,'' says Capt. Clarence Taylor, a defensive systems officer.
Back in the airborne tanker, we see that the B-1B has gulped all the fuel it needs for the rest of its practice run. It breaks off contact, then slides eerily back and forth behind the tanker, without banking. It turns and heads back across the plains, the Pecos River curling beneath it. Boom operator Sean Walker climbs stiffly from the chaise-longue-like seat where he has been lying on his stomach for an hour. ``Let's get outta here,'' he says. ``When we get home I still gotta drive to Wichita.''
Tomorrow: Aboard the Aegis-class cruiser.