'BUFF' and Tough.
The B-52H Stratofortress is mighty because of the airmen who maintain it. It could take a crew - like Airman 1st Class James Hazelton (on stand) and Senior Airman William Hodgkins of the 23rd Bomb Squadron - eight hours to do the preflight checks. Minot maintainers regularly work in winter weather that drops to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Some people have badmouthed the B-52 Stratofor-tress. The Viet Cong did. So did Iraqi soldiers. And the Serbs don't like it much.
They met the business end of the huge bomber up front and personal. When the aircraft's bombs and cruise missiles rained down on them, they ran for cover or died for their country.
As B-52 pilot Capt. Stacy Housholder says, "When the skies rain fire and brimstone, you can bet the B-52 is causing the storm."
One former Viet Cong, Truong Nhu Tang, will never forget the horror of a B-52 raid when bombs shook the earth around him. He described it in his 1985 book, "A Viet Cong Memoir."
"The first few times I experienced a B-52 attack it seemed, as I strained to press myself into the bunker floor, that I had been caught in the Apocalypse," he wrote. "The terror was complete. One lost control of bodily functions as the mind screamed incomprehensible orders to get out."
Stunned by constant attacks, Tang wrote that some of his "VC" pals suffered nervous breakdowns or went crazy. Some fled to Cambodia, or went home. And some switched sides.
But the shock of the unending terror did wear off, Tang said. "Veterans would no longer scrabble at the bunker floors convulsed with fear. Instead people just resigned themselves -- fully prepared to 'go and sit in their ancestors' corner."'
B-52 raids helped force North Vietnam to talk peace. Played a major role in Saddam Hussein's surrender when his troops gave up rather than face its deadly onslaught. And helped force the Serbs to stop their genocide.
The B-52 has been an enforcer of U.S. policy since joining the service in 1955. Now it's the oldest combat plane in the force. The H models in service today first flew in 1960 and 1961. It's the grandfather of the strategic bomber force -- a Cold War relic.
But it still packs a punch. And remains at the core of the Air Force's strategic plan. One part of that plan is "to create desired effects within hours of tasking, anywhere on the globe, including locations deep within an adversary's territory."
Going deep has been the bomber's bread-and-butter play for nearly six decades. During that time, airmen grew to love it. They call it the "Buff." That's for "big ugly fat fellow." At least that's one version of the nickname.
But the Buff is taking "friendly fire." With the average Air Force airplane now more than 20 years old, the 94 B-52H's still on duty seem ancient. That weighs heavily on a force worried that its aging fleet is what's causing lower readiness rates. Some critics want to can the Buff.
But "them's fightin' words" to guys like Map Joe Gootee, a Buff instructor pilot at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. He said no one can convince him, or those who fly or maintain the bomber, it can't do the job, and do it well.
"We proved that in Desert Storm and Kosovo," said Gootee of the 23rd Bomb Squadron.
Buffs were the first bombers in both scraps. Mainly because they can carry just about any weapon the force has, and in any kind of weather.
"No Air Force bomber has a higher mission-capable rate than the B-52," he said.
The Buff fleet's cumulative mission capable rate from March 2000 through March 2001 was 80.5 percent, said Air Combat Command officials. The B-1 Lancer's rate was 53.7 percent and the B-2 Spirit's 30.3.
Way into its "middle age" years, there's no doubt Buffs still can do their job. Day or night, in any weather. They can fly in and drop tons of "dumb" bombs on a target. Or, stand off and fire cruise missiles, laser-guided bombs or joint direct attack munitions [See "Not So Dumb Bomb," Page 2]. And they can deliver a nuclear punch if needed. That flexibility gives commanders massive firepower.
Not bad for a plane designed in the late l940s.
It has surpassed all expectations foreseen by its designers, said Col. Jim McGinley. He directs the B-52 system program office at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. No one, he said, dreamed the Buff would last so long.
The plan was to retire the Buffs in the late l990s. But when the Air Force learned it wouldn't get more B-2s, the Buffs stayed on duty. So they're only halfway through their expected service lives, McGinley said. To keep them flying that long, the Air Force knows it must continue investing in upgrades.
Finding replacement parts is an issue. There's concern because fewer contractors remain who make repair parts. So managing that process is a full-time job, he said.
But there's no immediate concern that there will be a shortage of spares. Before going to the "bone yard" at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., B-52G models had compatible parts salvaged for use on H models.
So it's not tape and bailing wire that keeps the Buffs flying. The Air Force has "wisely invested in bomber modernization," McGinley said. There'll be more in the future.
The upgrades planned are many. Avionics tops the list as part of a midlife improvement plan still under development.
"With some systems 37 years old, we must upgrade our offensive and defensive avionics," he said. That will update navigation, mission computer, weapons delivery and inertial navigation systems.
That should fix the avionics concerns, McGinley said. Plus it'll allow Buffs to carry the new "J-class" -- joint -- weapons, like the joint direct attack munition.
Also coming are new defensive systems that will help protect the "un-stealthy" bomber.
But McGinley said there won't be many structural problems because of the steps taken over the years to shore up the bomber. Depot maintainers strip the Buffs down "to the bare metal" every four years for a complete overhaul as part of a continuing maintenance program.
Plus, the Air Force has done tests on bone yard Buffs to anticipate future problems.
"When we find a problem, we fix it," he said. "And based on our engineering analysis, we believe the B-52H will remain structurally sound to carry Out its mission through 2040."
Not dad's Oldsmobile
The Buffs on the line at Minot and Barksdale Air Force Base, La., are in for the long haul.
Col. Dick Newton commands Minot's parent 5th Bomb Wing. His father flew Buffs. And he first flew them 14 years ago. He moved to B-1s, then B-2s and now is back with the B-52. He can't believe the changes made to the bomber.
"On the outside, it looks pretty much like the B-52s built in the '60s. But it's not your father's Oldsmobile," he said. "Not your father's B-52."
Housholder, an aircraft commander with the 23rd Bomb Squadron, said the new B-52 is a quantum leap from those flown just 10 years ago.
"And with each new weapon system it can carry, it grows even more," he said.
But Newton said the airplane's growth isn't just about upgrades. The people who fly and maintain the aircraft are better than the "best and brightest" of the past. "We've had a leap in the capability of our aviators and maintainers."
Staff Sgt. Jeff Golabiewski has worked on Buffs for more than four years. Now he's the dedicated crew chief for the 23rd Bomb Squadron commander's bird, the Bomber Baron.
This Buff's his plane. Pilots just get to fly it twice a week. To make sure his jet takes off, he babies it. He's always checking the bomber, doing the little fixes that prevent bigger problems. Always "wiping it down, keeping it clean."
His Buff leaks a bit. That's because of Minot's extreme weather changes that cause the plane's seals to shrink and expand. it's a minor problem, he said.
Still, before each flight, he and his crew put the Buff through an eight-hour preflight inspection. Most days, it's a simple process.
"But some days you get a tough pre-flight," he said. "We have a lot of things to fix."
Minot's Buff maintainers excel at keeping their aging charges flying, Gootee said. No job is too tough for them. They don't complain because they know how important their job is.
"I've'seen our guys out in minus 44 degree weather launching these planes. And they start them up first time, every time."
Golabiewski doesn't like the cold. But he likes the feeling of pride he gets when marshaling a Buff to the runway for a launch -- no matter the weather.
"I like getting the salute from the aircrew at the end," he said.
As long as maintainers take care of their Buffs and the Air Force keeps upgrading them, Golabiewski said the aircraft will be in the Air Force "for a long, long time."
Probably longer than anybody who flies or works on the Buffs today, Gootee said.
"it's a tough old bird. When the B-1 and B-2 end their service, B-52s will do the fly-by at their retirement ceremony. I believe that."
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|Title Annotation:||the B-52 bomber has been a valuable and effective member of the Air Force since 1955|
|Author:||Arana-Barradas, Louis A.|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2001|
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