Return to Rick O'Kelley - Return to Blytheville Air Force Base


Boeing B-52 Stratofortress "The BUFF" - Big, Ugly, Fat, F*#ker
# of B-52s MFG
XB-52 Seattle 1952 1
YB-52 Seattle 4/15/1952 1
B-52A Seattle 3
B-52B Seattle 23
RB-52B Seattle 27
B-52C Seattle 35
B52D Seattle & Wichita 170
B-52E Seattle & Wichita 100
B-52F Seattle & Wichita 89
B-52G Wichita 193
B-52H Wichita - June 22 1962* 102
Total   774
The first B-52 Stratofortress to fly was the Boeing YB-52 when April 15 1952 just a few weeks before my birth it rolled out of the Boeing Aircraft factory in Seattle Washington.  The above photo depicts the YB-52 flying over Mt Rainier on this first historic flight.  The XB-52 was to fly that day but didn't because of a hydraulic problem so it's back up twin, the YB-52 took the center stage and became the first B-52 to grab the wind beneath its wings.  Both jets had the same in line seating arrangement as the six engine B-47 shown in the photo to the right.  The B-47 was the USAF's sole all jet SAC bomber in 1952 and the copilot in the B-47 set behind the pilot but this was changed to side by side seating at the direction of SAC Commander General Curtis Lamay.  The B-52 fixed some of the things that bomber pilots didn't like about the B-47 which was the first all jet powered USAF bomber and was the Strategic Air Command's main bomber in 1952 but mostly the B-52 could travel at the same speed as the B-47 but carry twice the payload.  President Dwight D Eisehower was so impressed with the YB-52 aircraft that over the alarm and objections of his US Secret Service detail, the President boarded the aircraft to see the inside first hand.  I am sure for this old WWII Allied Supreme Commander that he was thrilled at the experience.  One B-52 could have reduced WWII Germany to rubble and if England had fell to Germany it is very possible the B-52 would have come sooner as America built the B-36 Peacemaker to fly from bases in America to Europe so the pressure to develop a jet bomber of the B-52 class would have been enormous but when England didn't fall, the B-36 was put on the back burner and all efforts went to the building of the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator, and the B-29 Superfortress

Born in the Cold War, the B-52 is "the wise grandfather" whose usefulness never seems to wane.  Between April 15 1952 the date of the first B-52 to fly and June 22 1962 the day the last B-52 was manufactured, it was built as an A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and lastly an H model.   Today's only the B-52H remains in active military service and it is much different than it was when it rolled out of the Wichita Kansas factory more than fifty years ago.  It still has much of its original air frame but the continued upgrades keeps it modern, capable, and deadly.  Some of the older models are on static displays around the world, a few still remain in "moth ball" at Davis-Monthan AFB in the desert in Tucson Arizona.  Many B-52s, mostly the G models like those assigned to Blytheville AFB were destroyed as a condition of the Start treaties with the former Soviet Union.  We didn't just closed bases in the 1990s, we also destroyed many of war machines that were assigned to these former bases.

As a child growing up in the 50s and 60s in western Arkansas during the "Cold War", many lazy summer days I laid in my yard gazing up at the long contrails painting the blue clear skies not knowing that many of these contrails were created by the SAC B-52s on their training missions and flying alert missions always ready to respond on a moments notice.  It would be in 1972 when I became a member of the US Air Force and was assigned to SAC that I would come face to face with this mighty warrior. 

I was stationed at Blytheville Air Force Base July 1972.  We had only B-52G and KC-135 Tankers assigned and in the below photo one can see our B-52s armed with nuclear weapons and our KC-135 tankers on alert always ready to launch but when I arrived July 1972 our B-52s were all stationed in Guam and Thailand where they were supporting the ground troops still fighting in Vietnam.  It was our B-52s and our air crews from Blytheville AFB that helped bring the Vietnam War to an end with the carpet bombing of North Vietnam and Hanoi during Operation Linebacker and Linebacker II.   Some of our air crews from Blytheville AFB bought the war's end with their lives as the memorial at my former base still stands in witness.  I was engaged in serious life and death business and while I didn't fly in a B-52, working in NORS Control, I was one of five airmen, one WAF, and one civilian whose job was to keep those alert bombers supplied with parts so they could fly when ordered to war.  NORS stood for "Not Operationally Ready Supply" and it was our job to issue parts for Alert aircraft after hours, on weekends, and holidays but more importantly if we didn't have the part then locate the part anywhere in the world and have it flown in so we could be ready to go to war when ordered to do so.  Everyone from the man who ran the base theater to those who cooked the meals played an important part in the winning of the Cold War and we shared a risk because if war had broke out everyone in and around my base would have been killed so it is easy today to think this wasn't a big deal but I remember the time when it was a very big deal because even before I arrived the 97th Bomb Wing of the Blytheville AFB and its B-52Gs had established a noble reputation during the Cuban Missile Crises in 1962 when it played major role and may have been the contributing factor in preventing Nuclear War with the Soviet Union.  DEFCON was made famous by the movie War Games and DEFCON 2 was declared, the highest it ever during the time of the Strategic Air Command and was the closest we ever came to nuclear war.  Our bombers were flushed and took their holding pattern awaiting the Presidents order to "go to war" and as the crises continued for more than a day and the air crews became fatigued circling awaiting their "go to war" orders, replacements relieved them with fresh B-52s and crews from Blytheville AFB.  Because of their readiness and the critical role they played during the crises my unit, the 97th Bomb Wing was awarded a Presidential Citation, one of the ribbons I wore on my chest was earned by the men of the 97th Bomb Wing ten years before my service.  In 1962 the B-52 had never been used in war, but its service and reputation was so impressive that it was likely the threat of the B-52 played an important part in the Soviet's willingness to negotiate and end the hostilities thus avoiding war so if you think the ole "BUFF" is just another old bomber, you might want to rethink that.  The ole "BUFF" influenced world peace and saved millions of innocent lives but 1962 wasn't the only time we came near to nuclear war when in the early morning October 25 1973 DEFCON 3  was declared.  I received my Alert phone call in the AM hours Thursday and my normal 16 hour shift in NORS Control began that evening at 4PM so since my unit was already a 24x7 hour operation, our mission was to support the aircraft that were on alert so every day we were working as if we were on a war alert, I only had to appear for a unit briefing by my supervisor where we were put on travel restrictions and ordered not to talk about our activity to anyone, not even our spouses  After the early morning briefing then I was allowed to return to my home and resume my normal duty schedule that night.  I don't recall how long DEFCON 3 was maintained but my memory is it wasn't longer than 24 to 48 hours.  This was all due to the growing tensions in the Yom Kippur War in the middle east and the concern that the USSR was going to intervene to aid the Muslim countries.  Some Air Force wives took their children and left the area.  Renee' choose to remain and that wasn't a small deal, the general feeling on base was this could be the end for us because if the "go to war" order was given, Strategic Air Command bases would be the targets of the first strike weapons of the Soviet Union because as soon as our Alert aircraft were flushed, our remaining bombers and tankers would be prepared for the second and third waves to go to war. 

Our Bombers were armed with two AGM-28 Nuclear Hound Dog Missile and the Strategic Air Command figured out a way to use the engines on the two AGM-28 Nuclear Hound Dog Missile engines to give the B-52 more take off power allowing it to use a shorter runway.  To the right is a photo of B-52G like those assigned ot Blytheville and you may click on the photo to the right to see a larger image where you can see the AGM-28 Nuclear Hound Dog Missile in white between the engines and the body of the B-52.  A AGM-28 Nuclear Hound Dog Missile hung on each side and which the bomber would dropped their engines started and ran at full speed crashing from as high up as 45 thousand feet into their targets.  They could travel about 600 miles from the B-52 reducing the risk to the bomber and its crew.  Before the Vietnam War this was the paint scheme of all B-52s but when they were converted to do conventional bombing in Vietnam they received the camo paint job that is seen on Miss Piggy below.  The under belly was white so looking up they would be difficult to see but the upper body was painted camo so Migs looking down would find them difficult to see against he jungle.   I never saw the paint scheme to the left, when I arrived on base all B-52s were camo and some of the D and F models were black.

I discharged from the USAF in 1976.  The photo of "Miss Piggy" was taken at Fairford Air Base in England in 1980.  My old base, Blytheville AFB was renamed Eaker AFB in 1988 but was closed in 1992 as part of the base closings.  Perhaps the largest blunder of the George H W Bush administration was the Strategic Air Command was also deactivated in 1992 so it wasn't just bases and equipment that were shut down, major commands that had been active for almost 50 years were decommissioned signally the end of the Cold War and lulling our nation into believing we could relax the danger was over.  September 11 2011 awoke America that we will always be in needed of a first strike rapid response unit like the Strategic Air Command.  The Global Strike Command which is much smaller than SAC but just as deadly and operates some former SAC bases where B-52Hs set on alert to respond to global threats on a moments notice was created August 7 2009 during President Obama's first year in office. 

While I didn't volunteer to fight in combat in Vietnam nor did the USAF send me into the war zone, the psychology of that war had far reaching impact upon my life and those around me.  It isn't something one can explain and those who didn't experience it can't understand it, you would have to have been there and done that to know the impact that war had on my generation of young men who were subjected to the military draft.  I spent four years of the prime of my life serving my country during the "Cold War" and in the support of the nuclear mission of the B-52.  I am the only one of my family to have done so and my service and my mission was the primary purpose of those four years.  I had no choice, my US Air Force service to Strategic Air Command came first, it came before my life and before my marriage because during those four years I was committed by law to the US Air Force, they owned me as surely as a master owned his slave and my discharge gives testament that I fulfilled my commitment and duties as it says "This certificate is awarded as a testimonial of Honest and Faithful Service".  I took my commitment and duties very seriously and I backed them up with my life, I had to, it was serve or go to federal prision so I had a greater bond with the B-52 than anyone or anything on this earth.  I had a greater bond, duty, and responsibility during those four years to the B-52 than to my wife or my mother as I always had to serve the USAF while they were free to do as they wished and I doubt my wife or my mother every understood or accepted this.  They have nothing to compare to know what my life was like to have no choice in the matter.  I wasn't a free person like they were; 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for four years I was a member of the USAF and told where to go, told what to do, and forced to submit to any medical examination required, unlike them, I had no rights to say "no".  It didn't matter if I was having a bad day, if I wasn't feeling well, I had to be on duty or in the hospital and I could only take off when I was on authorized leave, there were no exceptions.  This wasn't an ordinary job that most people can relate to because I couldn't call in sick because I was sad and having a crappy day.  For most people their job isn't more important their their life but a military person must give our life to accomplish our mission.  My entire purpose during the almost four years of my life that I was assigned to the Strategic Air Command was to ensure that the B-52s and KC-135s assigned to my base and setting on the alert pad had the critical parts they needed to do their mission and while my military service may not sound desirable to most people, I temper my memory with the sure and certain knowledge that in return for my honorable service the USAF was good to me.  My service opened doors that were previously closed to me, it forced me to make independent and sometimes risky choices that both my wife and my mother may have desired me to take the safer choices.  My USAF service made a man out of me who could stand on his own two feet and do more than I could before I entered service, do more than the average person.  The confidence learned during Basic Training was critical to my success and accomplishments in my law enforcement career, my photography career, and my Internet business.  My Air Force confidence gave me the critical skills to be a father and a husband and today at the age of 62 I believe I am luckier than most men and women of my age because I can look back to that time and accept the pride because I did something very important and meaningful with my life.  I didn't do like most ordinary people and just have children and work at a common and ordinary jobs.  I am a USAF Veteran, a Cold War Veteran, a SAC Veteran, a former licensed Private Investigator, a retired Deputy Sheriff who commanded a major criminal investigation division and I owned and operated two successful businesses and these are all very big deals that few people can truthfully say about themselves and I owe all these opportunities to the confidence given to me by my USAF Military Training and Service.  What a great way to enter my retirement years and it contributes to my pride to know that the ole B-52 that I once supported is still out there kicking and making a different and likely will be long after I am gone.

But when I drove away from Blytheville Air Force Base Feb 1 1976 the B-52 was considered to be an aging bomber that needed to be replaced with the supersonic North American Rockwell International B-1 Lancer bomber.  The Air Force had used the B-58 Huster and was using the newer FB -111 Aardvark to deliver smaller bomb loads because both could exceed the speed of sound but these medium bombers were not replacements for the long range B-52 heavy bomber that the Air Force depended upon so approval to was given under President Ford then canceled by President Carter in the late 1070s then approval was restored in the 1980s during the Reagan years and the Air Force received 104 B-1 Lancer bombers but the B-52 didn't disappear as some thought.  Today it seems ironic that the older B-52 is scheduled to continue in service until 2040 while the newer B-1 is expected to retire in 2030 and this came about because the war planners changed their thinking from large fast expensive supersonic bombers to using the resources they already had with the near supersonic B-52 allowing the Air Force to position supersonic weapons such as the cruise missile anywhere in the world.  Some of these missiles are said to travel 5x the speed of sound which is many times faster than the fastest bomber making them almost impossible to shoot down.

Service in the Strategic Air Command was so serious that a 1955 movie titled "Strategic Air Command" staring Jimmy Stewart was dedicated to those of us who served in the Strategic Air Command.  It is recognition of the importance of my service and demonstrates some of the difficulties SAC had in keeping personnel as even in my time SAC airmen would try to transfer to TAC or MAC to avoid some of the pressures and demands that they experienced serving in SAC.  If war broke out, my wife could pack up her stuff and flee and go far away to some place of safety and have a real chance for survival.  My parents and brothers, and all of Renee's family could go anywhere they wished to seek shelter and have a chance of survival but the duties of everyone assigned to Strategic Air Command required that we remain at our base and our posts and face what in that time was surely death by a Soviet Nuclear Missile because our B-52s and KC-135s on alert were only the first strike force, the additional aircraft that set on our flight line would be readied for war as soon as our alert aircraft flew away so we were very much at risk from the first strike weapons of the Soviet Union that would be in route to our base to wipe out our ability to continue to make war.  It is likely that the Strategic Air Command and its B-52 is all that prevented nuclear war from happening during most of the Cold War, that while I was one of many who helped keep these old warriors flying, these old B-52 warriors protected us all from sudden death.  They continue to protect us today.  The next time you walk or drive by an old B-52 setting at static display, show it some respect because you might be not be alive today if not for that old war bird and the veterans, the men and women who served in the Strategic Air Command.  "Peace is our Profession" was our motto and I believe history records that the threat presented by our USAF B-52s kept the peace. 

* The last B-52H rolled out of Boeing Aircraft Wichita Kansas factory June 22 1962 and that aircraft remains in service at Minot AFB North Dakota.  Source: "B-52 Stratofortress: The Complete History of the World's Longest Serving and Best Known Bomber" by Bill Yenne