My love affair with the “tall tails!” Flying the Big Bombers

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How many sweethearts or love affairs can one man have or expect to have in his short life time? How many times can he look at someone or something and say “Boy, she is really a beauty!” How I’d love to know more about her! She is really something else.

So that I don’t get into trouble. I’m not referring to the type of experience I had/have with that young girl who left St. Louis, Mo. and came to live in the very small Illinois town that was my home. When I first spotted her among my hi-school classmates, my blood pressure jumped, my heart skipped several beats which gave me a lasting case of the “wowies!” As we said back then, she was something, she really was the “cat’s meow!” And this young lady, who has been my lifetime companion and help mate now for 67 years, still has this place secure in that part of my life. But I’m talking about a different love affair, one that only men seem to have. The love affair for a nice piece of equipment, their first automobile, a favorite tool, or a new gun. Those lucky enough to fly often have had the same type of “love affair” with one or more of the aircraft they “mated” with.

I had my first airplane ride from a dirt field in southern Illinois in 1935 or ‘36. Barn-stormers flew a Ford Tri-motored aircraft to our town and sold  rides. Don’t remember the charge, it was probably in the range of a dollar or two. Few had extra money to spend on something that frivolous during the great depression. . But somehow I managed to secure a seat and enjoyed my first 20-30 minutes of overcoming gravity. Very few in my small town had been off the earth for that long back in those days.

But since then flying has been my life, and my working career was with the Army Air Corps, then the Air Force, I’ve had several fond experiences with some of the machines the AF owned. I’ve had a great career, have flown all over the Pacific, been many places and seen many things. But my first breath-taking aircraft love affair was after finishing my tour on the Berlin Airlift when I was stationed at Fairfield-Suisun AFB, near Fairfield, California. The B-29. What a huge chunk of  aluminum that had more than proved itself in ending the war with Japan. Night time raids of more than 2,000 aircraft devastated great areas of many of their cities, including Tokyo, Osaka and others. These great raids, flying over their cities at altitudes less than 5,000 feet and mass dropping hundreds of incendiary 100 pound bombs were devastating.  But, by the time I worked up to them, I had accumulated over 1,500 hours. But there again, seeing this aircraft and knowing some of its history was great. It had a tail that stuck up into the blue 29feet 7inches. My first experience with a “tall tail.”It looked like it was a real airplane.

Later on, I think it was early 1950 my wing was scheduled to convert to the then new B-36A. That is where I met that great flying machine, the B-36. At that time, she was a pure “pusher”.. She was something! Just to walk around that beautiful hunk  of aircraft and see the many different parts, those four bomb bays and the six 19 ft square tipped propellers was awe inspiring. To read the Tech, manual  was something else. This was the early model so did not have the four jet engines hanging from the wings. Just that beautiful hunk of metal with a tail that was an unbelievable 46feet and 10 inches off the ground. Quite a distance for aircraft of that day. How could anyone with flyer’s red blood not fall in love?  Soon crews were formed and we started our check out/familiarization flights.. The wing received about 2-4 per each of the three squadrons during that period. Then serious problems began, fuel leaks. Just sitting on the ramp, you could see 140/octain avgas  dripping from several spots. This problem proved to be more difficult than the locals could handle and it wasn’t too long until all B-36’s were recalled to the factory. It was up to them to do the fix.

I sat in the forward confines of this beauty for about 1200 hours or  a total of  127 flights. (my records) Since most fights were normal training missions, few  were without their moments.  On many flights I remember boring holes all over the western third of our country, visiting one RBS (radar bombing sites) after another. I wonder if boring all those holes made the atmosphere any less dense and is causing the drought we westerners now experience. Probably not.  Shutting down engines, having collector ring failures and other such excitements.  Other flights were more of the serious kind, the evaluation flights SAC (Strategic Air Command) was so fond of scheduling. An “unidentified” aircraft would land at a SAC base, and within minutes the  Wing was  under inspection. A No-Notice ORI. (operational readiness inspection) These inspectors were really adept at keeping their arrival a secret.  Within minutes, the “recall” of pertinent personnel was in effect. All flight crews would report to their squadrons. Aircraft were assigned and the crews were responsible for getting the aircraft ready for a simulated combat mission. Thousands of rounds of ammo were delivered. Crew gunners loaded their guns, bombs were loaded by the armament people, gas tanks topped off, strut pressures checked and so forth. Briefings were scheduled, and a final review of the planned mission completed. Theoretically, we were not to know the departure time, but since we still had to comply with ATC (air traffic control) regulations, take off times had to be scheduled.  After anywhere from 3 or 4 days to a week, the inspection was over. We would all assemble in the large briefing room to hear the results.  If all went well and the wing had proven its “readiness” the commander stepped up in the line for his star. If it went the other way, we immediately started preparing for the re-inspection which was to come within a given short period. My wings seldom, if ever, failed completely. We had sections that needed improvement, but overall, we usually were found at least satisfactory. In less than a decade this beauty, the B-36 was declared no longer needed and was sent to that great desert grave yard in Arizona.

But, even thought the -36 was never forgotten, I also reminisce and miss my later love, the tall- tailed B-52D. When I saw this beauty it was a sight that is forever imprinted on my internal hard drive. I can never forget it. I saw her sitting on the Castle AFB, CA parking apron in April 1956. The gas in its wings, caused the wings to droop giving it a head- on look of a mother hen spreading wings to gather and protect  those that came  to her! What a sight! And to be told, she’d take you up almost to where the sky turns black and still hold together at just under the speed of sound. What a gal! What luck I had to be flirting with her? Reporting to the flight line for my first flight, after several weeks of intensive ground school of lectures  and tests,  covering all the systems, the flight characteristics, the flight procedures, all with emphasis on emergency procedures  we were to be introduced. On the flight line, I met Major Jennings, who introduced himself saying he would be the instructor pilot on our flights, and it was his intent to make me a competent and safe Aircraft Commander so that I could see that this aircraft would perform as it was intended. And this gal had a tail that stretched up an incredible 48 ft. 4 inches.  Finishing this period of intensive training, I returned to my home station, Fairchild Air Force Base at Spokane, Washington where I flew the B-52 D for almost ten years. When the newer models came out with the shortened tail, we looked at them and suggested they came out of a” cheese box” Lowering the tail, gave them a more chunky or compressed look. Not nearly so sleek as our “tall tailers.” More like something you might carry in the bomb bay!

But as time passed and experience was gained, those in charge felt I should move “up” and take on a more responsible position. As if flying a 7 ½ million dollar aircraft wasn’t important enough. But “move up” I did and my flying days became only those where I could manage to “slip away.”

And so it goes. Since they cut eight feet off  the newer B-52 models, limiting their height to 40ft, 8 inches. Now there just isn’t many of the really tall tails remaining. And most of them are on display around the country.  But they say this is progress, and we trust it is, but that doesn’t diminish the joy and pleasure that those that flew and enjoyed the “tall tails” experienced. As an aside, I accumulated nearly 5,000 hours of flying, instructing and evaluating hours in those beauties, along with a total of 347 ;landings An experience I’ll never forget.

Francis H. Potter

Col. USAF Ret.

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