61-023 Goes to Final Parking

Another’s one gone. After 47 years the photogenic B-52H tail-number 61-023 (a.k.a “Ten-23”) flew its last sortie. Kind of a sad day for those of us who were fortunate enough to have flown her. She’s the first of 18 B-52s the Air Force is removing from the bomber force. When the cutting is done, we’ll only have 76 B-52s to carry on. I could talk about force-structure but instead let me tell you a story about the old girl.

Most bomber aviation connoisseurs already know about Ten-23 losing her tail when Chuck Fisher went looking for mountain-wave turbulence over Colorado in 1964.

If you’re not familiar with the story, you can get a good review of it on Boeing’s web page or Ed Marek’s “Talking Proud” with more details and some nice pictures.

In a nutshell, the vertical tail was snapped off. The crew almost bailed, but using skill and cunning they were able to recover the aircraft. I’m glad they did, because I flew that particular jet several times during my service.

Here’s a few details from one those. I never kept very good personal logs, but I think this happened on Ten-23.

I had just finished the Central Flight Instructor Course (CFIC) back in the mid-1980s. Lt Colonel Tom Ellers, my squadron commander, was evaluating me. He wanted to know if he could trust me as an instructor pilot (IP). Most aspiring IPs would have flown a conservative mission–but I just couldn’t roll like that at the time.

We had a fighter v bomber event planned on that day. We started mixing it up with the F-4 Phantom with Colonel Ellers supervising from the IP seat–which is between and slightly behind the two pilots ejection seats.

Fighters usually come at you in pairs. But on this day, one of the F-4s had problems. We were one verses one (1v1). Better for us.

I know that sounds silly to the needle-nose drivers, but back in the 1980s the B-52H had a fire-breathing 20 millimeter gatling-gun of a stinger. You didn’t have to like us, but you had to honor our tails. And while our ECM suite didn’t compare to what the BUFF has today, it sure as heck could handle the trons of an F-4.

So for a single F-4 to get a kill on a Buff, he needed a special-blend of skill and luck.

After a few failed attempts to get us, he moved in for a close-range gun-pass on us. My gunner wanted him, but he had settled in our four o’clock high. A B-52 pilot can’t see that spot from the left seat because of the cockpit design. Fortunately, we’re issued a copilot when we go fly. That day I had “Smokin Joe” McBrearty in the right seat. He was keeping close tabs the F-4.

The F-4 matched our velocity, preparing to make a raking gun-pass across the top of old Ten-23. But we weren’t going to just hang there and let him have his way with us. As soon as he committed to the diving left turn–I banked hard to the right and then pulled up.

Colonel Ellers was a little concerned about my aggressiveness, but not nearly as much as the F-4 driver was. A speeding freight-train was headed for him and he was standing on the tracks. What could he do?

Yep. He had to move, which made him abandon his gun-pass. No longer the hunter. He pushed his nose over and dove under us. As he did that, I reversed our turn. Then rolled into his six o’clock, probably just inside of 2000 feet away. Way too close for his comfort. He was now the prey.

Imagine his surprise. Embarrassing. What could he do?

He pushed in some power and pulled up into steep climb. So did I. We weighted less than 250,000 pounds at the time, which is very lightweight for the Buff. As his energy ran out, he converted into a lazy-eight. I followed him.

I’m sure he was irritated when he saw us follow him up, over and then started down with him. But not as much as when I made the call, “Guns, guns, guns. Splash one Phantom.”

And you’re right. The Buff didn’t have forward firing guns–not even then. But it really sounded cool at the time. In my years of flying that followed, I taught that maneuver to a few Buff pilots. Warning–it won’t work on the new fighters, unless they really get stupid on you.

What happened to the F-4? Well, he converted into a split-S and the day was over for the F-4. He RTB’d, but we still had some adventures left.

I went on to make a series of overly-aggressive decisions, all of which were debriefed in the sober atmosphere of Colonel Ellers’ office that evening. But that’s what colonels are for–helping aggressive captains mature into dependable instructors.

I could share the details of how I almost ran out of fuel later on that same sortie, but not today. The low-fuel story is not nearly as much fun as one about shooting down a fighter. But it would be more fun than hearing about another reduction in our heavy-bomber force structure.

Seventy-six B-52s. Sixty B-1s. Twenty B-2s. That’s all our heavy bombers. All.

Global war in progress. Enemies like Venezuela acquiring modern weapons and rattling sabers. Nuclear weapons being developed in Iran. How long can we trust North Korea to behave? What is China thinking–planning? Is Russia really talking about putting forces in Cuba?

Seems like we need more heavy-bombers–not less.

It just makes sense.

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