ABOARD A B-52H STRATOFORTRESS — A B-52H Stratofortress’ hulking gray frame rumbles through the cloudless blue sky, closing in on targets 19,000 feet below.
The plane’s weapon systems officer, Capt. Jonathan “Loaner” Newark of the 11th Bomb Squadron at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, furiously taps targeting coordinates into a computer, his face bathed in green light.
Numbers on the screen tick down to zero as the bomber looms over its destination. The bomb bay doors open with a whir and a thump.
”Weapons hot,” Newark says over a crackling intercom. He reaches to his right and flips open a small panel covering a button designed to let loose a 2,000-pound bomb. “Bay three, releasing.”
In one of several passes, and without warning, the bomber jerks sharply upward as its student pilot, 1st Lt. Clay Hultgren, disengages the autopilot at the wrong time. Within seconds, the plane climbs past its assigned altitude limit of 20,000 feet — where it could run afoul of other aircraft.
Instructor pilot Lt. Col. Michael “Fredo” DeVita quickly grabs the yoke and wrestles the 185,000-pound bomber back down to a proper altitude, banking hard to the left. The plane steadies and resumes course as quickly as it veered off track.
No bombs — real or fake — were aboard the B-52 during its Jan. 4 training run. But the five-person aircrew on the flight dubbed “Scout 93″ practiced each step in the process as if they were headed for a airstrike at war.
Stratofortress pilots control six-decade-old hardware with a 185-foot wingspan — and the lives of the four or five airmen onboard. But the moment the Vietnam War-era bomber’s wheels leave the ground, anything can happen — and some of the most important lessons cover more than routine flight procedures.
During training flights, instructors impress upon younger lieutenants the seriousness of life and death when controlling one of the most formidable weapons of war ever built. Its crew must make calculations, down to the smallest decimal point, that ultimately determine whether the bomber strikes its intended target or innocent civilians.
“It’s tough to really glue everybody together,” Newark said. “At the end of the day, we’re all crew and we’re all in charge of those weapons. We all own them.”
Cold War plane, 21st-century training
Hultgren aims to join a long line of pilots that stretches back to the B-52′s debut in 1954. If his training goes as planned, he’ll be among those in the cockpit as the fleet remains in service for decades to come. The Air Force is now working on a series of upgrades, such as new engines, that aim to keep the B-52 flying until about 2060.
Five crew members were aboard the bomber that day, including three instructors: DeVita, 40, a pilot who commands the 11th Bomb Squadron; electronic warfare officer Capt. David “Rumble” Bumgarner, 35; and Newark, 34, the weapon systems officer. Rounding out the crew were pilot trainee Hultgren, 27, and WSO student 1st Lt. Jeremiah Tackett, 27, both too early in their careers to have earned their own call signs.
The mission marked Hultgren’s sixth training flight on the B-52, and Tackett’s 10th.
Their unit, the 11th Bomb Squadron, is the active duty component of the Air Force’s B-52 formal training unit. It takes airmen about nine months to finish the academics and flight training syllabi to learn to operate B-52s and their weaponry. About three dozen students graduated last year, the service said.
For Hultgren occupying the co-pilot’s seat is an exciting opportunity. He dreamed of flying when he joined the Air Force and would have been happy in any aircraft, he said. But being chosen to operate the B-52 — with its deep history and strong community with others who fly the Stratofortress — was thrilling.
“I like that I’m doing something that people have been doing for a while,” Hultgren said.
‘You scared him’
On the morning of the training flight, the crew strapped into their parachutes, donned their oxygen masks and buckled up for takeoff.
Their aircraft — completed in 1960 and dubbed the “Red Gremlin II” — eased onto the runway, following another outbound B-52 that spewed a plume of jet fuel exhaust as it departed.
Hultgren’s left hand rested on the bomber’s eight throttle levers, which allow the pilots to individually adjust the power to any engine that shows signs of trouble. DeVita reached over and guided him as they pushed forward in tandem.
A whine rose from the plane’s engines as it accelerated through the acrid cloud of exhaust. DeVita stuck his hand into Hultgren’s peripheral vision, flashing a thumbs-up. The student let go of the throttle and gently pulled back on the yoke with both hands. The Red Gremlin II was airborne.
A typical B-52 training mission almost always follows the same script: takeoff, a few passes with an aerial refueling tanker, simulated bomb runs, and a few touch-and-go landings. Each sortie lasts five or six hours.
During the nearly 6-hour, counterclockwise loop over Arkansas, Oklahoma and back to Louisiana, the B-52 flew alongside the first bomber, met up with a KC-135 Stratotanker for aerial refueling practice and logged bombing runs at Fort Johnson, Louisiana.
Aerial refueling is one of the hardest things for a pilot to master — especially when flying something as massive as the 159-foot-long B-52, mere feet away from a tanker that is almost as large, tens of thousands of feet in the air at hundreds of miles per hour. It requires a steady hand, Newark said, and is “where pilots make their money.”
“Two big airplanes, with a lot of aerodynamic forces, and you’re trying to make really small corrections,” DeVita said. “We’re talking corrections of … a couple feet left or right, on airplanes that are really close together. That’s the hardest part.”
There’s a lot of aerodynamics to consider. As Hultgren pulled the B-52 closer to the KC-135 for yet another round of refueling, the bomber entered the tanker’s downwash. The B-52 began drafting off the KC-135, causing the bomber to speed up as its air resistance waned.
A buzzer blared and red light flashed. The KC-135 pulled away. DeVita pushed Hultgren’s hand off the throttle and eased the plane back.
“You scared him a bit,” DeVita said. “That’s why I took over.”
But after spooking the tanker, Hultgren showed he could learn from his mistakes. DeVita gave him back the throttle and offered pointers on making incremental changes to the bomber’s power to find the “sweet spot” behind the KC-135.
“Whenever you’re ready,” DeVita said. “If you need a little bit more of a break, that’s fine.”
“Think we can do one more?” Hultgren asked. He slowly maneuvered the B-52 forward for its sixth refueling connection.
“Crank the power just a hair,” DeVita said. “Good.”
“F---ing awesome,” Hultgren murmured, as the refueling boom loomed larger and larger above the cockpit.
“That’s really good, dude,” DeVita said as the boom settled into place with a thunk. “Contact. Perfect.”
Hultgren kept practicing to get aerial refueling right, over and over, before the bomber parted ways with the KC-135 and flew back to Louisiana for bombing practice.
Like most training missions, this run was designed to pit the B-52 against a generic, unnamed adversary, Newark said. The crew of the Red Gremlin II practiced entering a simulated battlespace with enemy fighters and friendly forces — in this scenario, F-22 Raptor and F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters and an E-3 Sentry airborne target-tracking jet — before striking imaginary ground targets.
But instructors can throw students some curveballs. The bombing simulation began by striking soft targets such as aluminum aircraft hangars, before the instructors directed the crew to hit hardened two-story buildings in other locations. The deviation pushed Tackett, the student WSO, to decide what combination of munitions could best destroy the sturdier buildings, and to work with Newark to update the targets.
“It gives them [experience with] live problem-solving,” Newark said. “That’s what drove all those good discussions about, how would we destroy a troop staging area? How would we destroy a hardened building? Because we didn’t tell them ahead of time what it would be.”
For years, Stratofortress flights required five airmen — two pilots, two WSOs and an electronic warfare officer. But advancements in technology are allowing the Air Force to fold the EW officer’s duties into the WSO job, blending the bomber’s offensive and defensive roles and shrinking the crew to four.
Now WSOs can handle electronic warfare and airstrikes from computers that show data for both jobs, rather than making airmen sit at a designated station that can perform only one role.
Combining those tasks isn’t daunting for Tackett, the WSO-in-training. When asked how he juggles the sometimes-conflicting duties of a WSO, whose job is to take a plane close enough to a combat zone to strike targets, and an EW officer, who is responsible for keeping a plane out of danger, Tackett said: “A lot of it comes down to commander’s intent, and our mission for the day, making judgment calls, and assessing the situation from there.”
“Knowing both sides of it, I’m able to provide better recommendations to pilots” about where to go and what to hit, Tackett said.
A cramped ride
Flying on the B-52 can be exhausting, and even more so on operational missions that can last up to 36 hours. Despite being one of the biggest bombers ever built, the Stratofortress doesn’t leave much space or comfort for the crew.
It’s cramped and noisy. The constant roar of its six-decade-old engines creates such a din that airmen wear earplugs under their noise-canceling headsets and flight helmets. Without the communications system, it’s impossible to hear what someone else is saying, even when shouted from inches away.
Airmen must stoop when making their way from the cockpit to the electronic warfare station at the back of the jet’s upper level, and then down a ladder to the WSO station. Their posture in the seats isn’t much better.
“This is why our backs are all so screwed up,” DeVita said. “We’re sitting hunched over like this, with this heavy parachute on.”
Amenities are few. A single bunk behind the pilot’s seat allows airmen to grab some shut-eye on long-haul flights; a small, well-used oven that can heat meals up to 400 degrees sits in the back. Typically, the crew brings light sandwiches or other snacks to ward off hunger, and — since it’s easy to get dehydrated while spending hours at high altitude — large bottles of water.
The B-52 crews find ways to entertain themselves in transit on ultra-long flights. Sometimes that means bringing a book; other times, 11th Bomb Squadron members plug a music player into the intercom, courtesy of a jury-rigged cable one airman soldered together.
In 2022, Air Force Global Strike Command launched a program at Barksdale called “Comprehensive Readiness for Aircrew Flying Training,” or CRAFT, to give airmen the physical, nutritional and mental tools to better weather the grueling missions.
But there’s one thing the Air Force can’t give crews: a real bathroom.
Behind this bomber’s WSO station, next to the bomb bay hatch, sits a single urinal without a curtain for privacy. Passengers are often reminded of the “Big Ugly Fat Fellow’s” cardinal rule: Do not go No. 2 on the B-52. An emergency garbage bag is on hand for those who really must go, but the crew is clear: Using it won’t win you any friends.
Debriefing the mission
After a series of repeated touch-and-go landings, the bomber came to a safe halt at Barksdale. The crew made their way back to Thirsty’s, a heritage room decorated with the insignia of the 93rd Bomb Squadron and other aviation memorabilia, a pair of arcade machines and a bar.
The crew popped jalapeño popcorn and cracked open small beers — only one per person — before the instructors started the debrief to run through the results of the day’s training.
They successfully refueled the bomber, and they hit their targets, which was good, DeVita said.
But then, DeVita said, the mission “started to go downhill.” The crew missed check-ins and roll calls they were supposed to make with other aircraft, and started to fall behind schedule.
“In real life … they might cancel the whole ball, because we didn’t speak up or show up,” DeVita told Hultgren and Tackett. The students listened with neutral expressions.
Then there was the matter of the lurch. After a simulated bomb drop at about 19,000 feet, DeVita said, Hultgren had turned off the autopilot while attempting a ‘break turn,’ in which an aircraft turns away hard from a potential threat. Hultgren didn’t account for the bomber’s nose pitching up, causing the sudden and unexpected climb, DeVita said.
“I’ll take the slap on the wrist for that,” Hultgren said. Some of the crew chuckled — but not DeVita.
“Did anybody tell you to kick off the autopilot and make that aggressive of a turn?” DeVita asked him. “Someone taught you that? Or did you teach yourself that?”
“My first-ever break turn, they said don’t use autopilot,” Hultgren said.
“Who?” DeVita said.
Hultgren demurred: “I don’t want to out him.”
DeVita told Hultgren that, at his current skill level, he should stick with the autopilot in those scenarios. And he warned Hultgren that kind of flying endangers the bomber and its crew.
“[At] the roll rate that you did today, I wasn’t comfortable that you were not going to break the airplane — not to mention the fact that we didn’t have control of the airplane, because we climbed 300 feet out of the airspace,” DeVita said.
But DeVita owned up to making his own mistake, when he relayed the wrong data to the crew during bombing practice.
“It can happen so easily, even to experienced people,” Newark said. “It has to be exact.”
The instructors stressed to the students that — even when they’re the new airman in their squadron, and even if it’s a more experienced commander who made a mistake — they need to speak up if they see even a single decimal point out of place on a bomb’s coordinates. Newark said he’ll sometimes give students the wrong coordinates during training to ensure they double-check the numbers.
“I wasn’t paying attention” won’t hold up as an alibi in court, Newark said.
“Don’t just be a passenger in that situation,” Newark said. “If we drop the bomb on the wrong target …”
“We all go to jail,” DeVita answered.
Though the training on “Scout 93″ didn’t go perfectly, that’s why the Air Force spends so much time training B-52 students, DeVita said. Instructors give their unvarnished feedback; students learn and grow from their mistakes.
Hultgren acknowledged his mistakes and said his aerial refueling skills have greatly improved, thanks to DeVita’s frank feedback. He and Tackett are on track to graduate in March.
“If we fly a sortie, and we don’t debrief anything [that went wrong], then we shouldn’t have wasted the taxpayer’s money by taking the airplane airborne,” DeVita said. “It’s not personal.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.