My experiences while flying at .77 Mach

In 1956 the 92 Bomb Wing, (H) was alerted for upgrading to Boeing’s new eight engined all jet heavy bomber, the B-52’s. We had three bomb squadrons in our wing, the 325th, 326th and the 327th. All were flying the B-36’s, both the D and the J models. I was assigned to the 327th Squadron and was checked out as an instructor pilot in both models. We were thrilled when “things” started happening that made it look as if we REALLY WERE GOING TO GET THE NEW PLANES.

New six man crews were formed from the 15 or so crew members we had on the B-36 crews and were assigned training schedules with dates to report to Castle AFB, California. In addition, before going to B-52 D training, the pilot-co-pilot team was sent to a B-47 base for “jet indoctrination.”  Since jets didn’t “lumber along” like the B-36, it was felt a few transition flights in the B-47 would be useful. My co-pilot, Capt. Jack Beaman and I reported to Forbes AFB at Topeka,  Kansas for our indoctrination.

Flying the B-47 was a blast! Gone was much of the “get ready” time at the end of the runway, the aircraft was responsive and the increased speed was exhilarating. We flew four or five missions with an instructor and he proclaimed “we were indoctrinated”.

B-52’s

I reported to Castle AFB, Ca. for the B-52 school in April 1956. This was my first really up-to-date aircraft, and I greatly enjoyed it. The plane handled well, performed well and except for being crowded and somewhat uncomfortable on the flight deck, was a real pleasure. What struck me most about these aircraft was the difference in the operation of jet engines. Before takeoff in aircraft with reciprocating engines we had numerous items to check, power checks, magneto checks, prop checks, carburetor heat etc. It took close to ten minutes just to run these checks. With jet engines all this disappeared. Start them up and by the time you were at the runway you could take off. When returning from a mission in the B-36, we’d return at say 20-24000 ft. and would take close to an hour to be on the ground. With the B-52, we’d come over the radio station at say 30-36,000 ft., pull the throttles to idle, set up a 4,000ft per minute decent and in you’d come. Slow to 225 knots, extend the gear, slow to 180kts, deploy partial flaps, all while descending. We could do this and be on the ground in about 10 minutes. You’d run part of the check list before starting descent, more during descent and the  final portion while on final approach. Things moved fast and you had to keep up, but we learned quickly and it proved to be no problem.

Take-off worked the same way. We’d compute our EPR (engine pressure ratio) setting. This showed the amount ofcompression/expansion of the air within the engine. An EPR setting of 2.5 meant you expanded the intake air volume 2 1/2 times, measured between the inlet and  exhaust ends of the engine. We also computed the speed at which the plane would lift off. We’d set 100% power, using the EPR setting and off we’d go. At the computed time a little back pressure and the plane was flying. This would be from 150 to 160 knots. We’d increase speed to 180 kts. retract the gear, accelerate to 225 kts climb to 1,000 ft., milk up the flaps (bring them up slowly), increase air speed  to 280 kts and set climb configuration. Even at maximum weights the plane would initially show 8-10,000 ft. per min. rate of climb which would reduce as you gained altitude due to the air being less dense. This took away so much of the “getting ready” that was required of  airplanes with propellers.

I remember the humongous thunder storms that built up in the desert areas of the South. Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas where you could really have some beauties. We’d be at 35,000 ft. or better, and these thunder bumpers would be from near the ground to twice as high as we. The whole storm cloud would flare-up with lightning  just like a huge florescent tube. Of course we’d never hear the thunder, and would give these storms a wide berth. I believe the damage possible area was some 25 miles down wind, so we never purposely flew through or near them. The radar navigator would raise his antenna so he could see the storms and direct us around the storm center.  On radar, the heavy rain would show as the core of the storm, his help was invaluable in helping us get around those babies. We had one plane accidentally come too close and flew through very heavy hail. The leading edges of the wings were pelted flat with lots of damage.

Another time we were down in the Texas or Louisiana area, during daylight. I was able to look down into a funnel cloud, a tornado. We must have been at 35-40,000ft, and it was off just slightly to our left. When we flew over it, I could see down into it for quite a long way. You could see the swirling of the clouds very well, just like looking deep into a huge deep, living funnel.

Not too long after we were operational in the B-52s we were given the task of seeing if an airborne alert posture could be maintained. We had 3 bomber squadrons here with probably 15-16 aircraft in each squadron. We maintained almost a third of our planes in the air all the time. Every day, several would take off, fly a 24-25 hour mission, landing the next day. We had lots of refueling practice with this as each flight took two. Our route would take us far up north, and here we saw the northern lights at their best. I’ve seen them so bright, the whole sky would seem lighted up. The blues, greens and rose colors would fade in and out, elongate and shrink, a real show. One night it was just like being in a huge bowl with the display as far around as you could see. One thing you had to be careful about, the lights could be at an angle, not horizontal with the ground, and you would see this distinctive line and easily believe it was the horizon. You’d need to keep referring to your instruments to keep from getting vertigo. You could easily get yourself believing you were in a turn.

In 1960 we did a lot of practicing on dropping nuclear weapons from low level. Our crew was picked  to participate in making a film to show how this was to be “correctly” done. On Aug. 5, 1960 we flew the mission over Flathead Lake near Kalispell Mt. at 2-300 ft., flying north to south several times while being photographed. The military movie outfit from California sent up a T-33 and a C-54, both loaded with cameras. We spent several hours doing this. Since we were so much faster than the C-54, he’d be in one position, we’d make a pass, he’d move down, we’d make another, etc. I never saw this training film.

In Nov. 1959, we flew to Japan. We went out over the ocean for 2-3 hours with a tanker. We took on fuel, he came home,  we went on for a total of 13:30 hours and landed at Yakota AFB, Japan. Col. Beck, the wing vice commander was along for this trip. Since the B-52 was still quite new with none stationed outside the US., we went to Yakota AFB so the munitions people there could practice loading the bombs and guns. On the 27th we flew to Anderson AFB, Guam for the same reason. We came home on Dec 3rd, flying 12:15 hrs.

We had been scheduled to make a flyover at Manila International Airport, in the Philippines during our stay on Guam. We were told it was their Independence Day celebration, with a flyover of all aircraft in the area. The Philippine air force flew across the field first, then a few minutes later the US planes followed. We were to lead the US forces. We took about 4 hours to fly from Guam and let down through clouds, breaking out at 2-3000 ft.  Our control time was for the end of the point of land that forms a big breakwater on the outside of Manila harbor. We made this control time almost on the nose and turned east toward the mainland. After 30-35 miles of the bay to cross the airfield was fairly close. The radar crew member lined us up initially and we headed inbound. Descending to 500ft and accelerating to 325kts, we hadn’t gone far when I saw a “blur” and heard a purrrrrrrt. We’d flown through a small flock of ducks. On we went. Fairly soon I could see the runway and lined up right down the center. At that altitude and speed the noise would barely precede us. I could see literally thousands of people along the edge of the field watching. You could almost see the noise precede us by the way all heads turned.  We must have made a terrific roar. We went to the end of the runway and climbed as steeply as we could to 10,000ft  leveled out some and continued our climb, heading  back to Guam. Maj. General Reynolds, commander of the Far Eastern Air Forces was along riding  the IP seat, between and behind the pilots. As we climbed out he leaned up and said “Good show!” It was his first flight in the B-52.  After landing we found several reddish smudges in the fiberglass covering of a forward panel, the remnants of the duck encounter.

When we converted to B-52s we needed one gunner per crew instead of the several on the B-36 crews.  Usually the senior gunner, or one who planned to make the military a career was kept on flying status. Because of this Sgt. Bill Goins, a former gunner, was now working in the maintenance squadron. He had said he’d like a flight in the “new bomber” so I arranged for him to go with us on a flight on 12 December 1957. Take off was to be around 4-4:30PM. We were at our airplane loading our equipment, when another B-52 took off. I did not see the following, but this is according to Capt. Yohannon, who watched the plane take off. As soon as it was airborne, it started climbing VERY steeply. It was in a heck of a steep angle and looking very dangerous.  Yohannon said “Look at that plane. He’s in trouble.”  The plane stalled at about 500ft and came crashing back to the ground just a mile or so off the runway end.  This caused a huge ball of fire and smoke. This was when I saw what had happened. All the fire equipment and rescue trucks came roaring into action heading to the crash site just west of the base not far from the new hospital. It was still some 30 minutes before we were to take off, so I called the command post and ask if flying had been cancelled. The answer was “negative.” So I went to the crew and according to Sgt. Goins, said something like this. “I’m sure sorry that plane has crashed. But we’re scheduled to fly shortly. Flying has not been cancelled, so I’ll leave it up to each individual. If the crash bothers you, you do not have to fly.” I added “Flying is what we get paid to do, so I’m going to go.”  Every one of them, including Sgt. Goins, said they wanted to go. Someone said to him, “You’re not even getting flight pay for this, why are you going?” He replied “I’ve always wanted a flight in this plane, and if Capt. Potter says it’s safe, that’s good enough for me.”  We had to delay our mission several minutes until they got one fire truck back on the field, then we took off. The story about the crash in the local paper the next day carried as its last line “Despite the grim scene, many heads swung upward as another B-52 roared into the sky from the field. ‘He made it,’ one airman breathed.”

Sep. 5, 1958 we were flying a night mission. I was in the left seat and had a newly assigned Major, formerly in B-47s, in the right seat for night refueling practice. We were in the Boise area, had just finished that portion of the mission and were climbing back to altitude. Believe we were passing 36,000 ft. when all of a sudden we experienced an “explosive de-compression”. That is, we lost all inside cabin pressure. At 36,000 ft. our cabin pressure should have been the equal of around 8,000 ft. Both of we pilots had our oxygen masks fitted on our face, normal procedure for climb out. The air inside the plane condensed so fast, it caused fog so thick I could not see the instruments. I felt we were still in controllable flight, but did not know what had happened. My first thought was that a fighter had hit us by just skimming the fuselage or hitting us near the tail, why else had we lost pressure? I called for a crew report on the interphone. For emergencies, there was an answering sequence that was to be followed. I thought everyone answered. A few seconds later the fog cleared, the instruments all looked correct, so I knew we had a flyable plane. I called Air Traffic Control outfit with a “Mayday” (distress) call. They answered quickly, I reported we had lost cabin pressure and needed to descend immediately. I had told the Major to start a descent. ATC cleared us to any lower altitude. In cases like this, traffic is cleared out from under you if there is time. Anyway, things were happening fast, getting cleared, trying to determine what happened etc. Next, the ECM (Electronics Countermeasure Officer) called and said we’d lost the ECM hatch. It’s about a 3×5 ft. overhead hatch through which he would eject. He also said the gunner is in the seat, but has lost his helmet and oxygen mask. I told the ECM to “stick the oxygen hose into the gunner’s mouth and hang on, we’re descending.”  I looked back at the instrument panel and we were doing something like 325 kts.. At this altitude the Mach needle was just about to cross over the red air speed needle. This instrument showed the MAXIMUM airspeed you could have and still rely on the  airplane holding  together. The Major had done as he did in the B-47, left engine power on when he started his descent. In the B’52’s you do not do this, it accelerated too fast, procedure was to retard all throttles to idle. So I yanked the throttles back to idle and slowed our rate of decent. We were coming down at something like 15-20,000 ft. per minute. It took us very little time to reach 10,000 ft. where we leveled off. You can breathe normally at this altitude. We came on back to Fairchild and landed without further excitement. What happened was the ECM operator had gotten out of his seat to use the sextant for the navigational leg we were going to do next. As was normal, the gunner who was flying forward for some reason (he may have had a student gunner in the back) had moved into the ECM’s seat. This seat had a different configuration that the seat in the rear where he normally rode. While getting hooked into the seat, connecting his oxygen etc., he claimed his oxygen hose hooked under the right seat handle, pulled it up and “blew” the hatch. This armed the seat for ejection. Pull the left handle next, and “you’re out of there.” When the hatch went, the big  differential in pressure, sucked his helmet from his head, took much of the planes insulation out around the hatch, took some of the books he had, and of course sucked all the sand and grit off the floor. With the instant loss of  inside pressure, it felt as if someone had hit me across the chest/stomach area with a 2×4 because the air in my lungs expanded and forced its way out very rapidly. With the ambient pressure so low you have to “force inhale” to make air go into your lungs, then relax to expel.

Later, thinking about the episode, I remembered seeing the red light on my instrument panel flash which indicated a hatch was “not locked.”  It was normal to keep an eye on this light before take off, but not too necessary in flight. I thought it just flashed on then off. I reported this in my report of the incident and sure enough, that is the way it worked. It would turn on when the hatch unlocked, but when the hatch blew off, the light would go out. A modification was made to the system which kept the light on if any hatch was not locked or missing. A rancher found the hatch and returned it to the base.

When something like this happens the AF puts out a Flying Safety Supplement to explain what the problem was and how to react to it. This became part of our operating procedures immediately and would be incorporated into our flight manual at the next revision. In early Jan. 1959 such a notice came out stating that some of a certain company’s black boxes that ran our artificial horizon instruments were faulty. There had been a report or two of these overheating and developing a fire. It was physically located in a panel just behind the AC’s (Aircraft Commanders) seat, forward of the ECM operator. The way to correct for this failure was to pull the circuit breaker that powered it, located on the panel just aft and left of the AC. This shut off the electric power and the fire should go out. The artificial horizon was a most important flight instrument, one we depended on all the time. The co-pilot had a similar and separate system, to preclude losing both at the same time. I was in the Standardization Section at the time, giving lots of check rides. To make myself more familiar with this circuit breaker, I went to an aircraft, sat in the aircraft commander’s seat and located the correct CB. It was in about the third or forth row (some 20 rows in all) from the bottom, and was about in the center of it’s row. You had to turn almost all the way around to read the printing which was near impossible when strapped in. So I practiced reaching around and grabbing, I soon was hitting the correct one most of the time. By feel I could count up the rows, and figure out which one to pull. Also, at this angle it was awkward to pull something out although it needed to come out only about 1/3 of an inch. But, I practiced and was feeling confident about finding it.

On Jan. 30, 1959 we took off in mid afternoon on a mission. The weather was typical January in Washington State, about a 200 ft. ceiling lots of clouds some rain-snow etc. All in all, just a nasty day. On many of these flights, by the time we’d get to 4-5000ft, we’d be in bright sunlight, so I always enjoyed these takeoffs. We were cleared to depart, taking off on runway 05 (050 degrees-north east) We got off all right, broke ground, started the gear up, entered the clouds, went on instruments, when about then my artificial horizon showed a bank to the left, increasing rapidly. From the rest of my instruments, I was certain we were not turning, but to help, I looked at the co-pilot’s artificial horizon. It was steady, showing a climb straight ahead, as it should. About then the ECM operator called saying “AC, there’s a fire in the panel behind you, flames coming out.” At almost the same time, I could see the smoke swirling in the cockpit. With this and the fact my artificial horizon had failed, I knew what it was. I reached around and grabbed what I hoped was the correct CB and pulled it. I told the ECM to get the fire extinguisher and use it if he could do any good. By checking with the co-pilots instrument we climbed out and got on top of the clouds at about 5-6,000 feet where we leveled off. I turned and rechecked to confirm I had pulled the correct circuit breaker. By now the smoke was pretty thick. The ECM man was out of his seat now and reported “the fire has gone out.” So all we had was fairly thick smoke. I could still see the hazy flight instruments. I told the command post I was going to Larson AFB (Moses Lake, app. 80 miles west) to land immediately. They had pretty good weather so we started there. By the time we were about half way there, the smoke had cleared, the fire was out so the emergency was over. The Fairchild command post, said the weather at home  was due to lift soon, so we should stay in the local area, burn off fuel and when the weather broke, land. Some 4 hrs and a half later we did. Another interesting mission.

Feb. 21, 1961 saw us on a mission to Puerto Rica. They were having a meeting of the heads of the governments there. President Kennedy was to be there. We took off from Fairchild and flew to Florida, met a tanker and took on fuel. We then rendezvoused with two other B-52’s from a base in Michigan. We flew on to Ramey AFB, got into a three ship V formation, let down and made about two or three low level circles of the base where the meeting was taking place. Was in  mid afternoon when we did this. After two or three loops, we climbed back to altitude, separated and went our own ways. We had been ordered to land at Turner Field, Albany Georgia (where I took B-25 training) where we spent the night. This flight took a bit over eleven hours. We returned to Fairchild the next day.

In late 1962 we were getting the equipment and training to handle the Hound Dog Missiles. These were air to ground missiles and would be carried on all war time type missions. Being in stand board, my crew was picked to fly to Eglin Field, Florida, receive a bit of training on in-flight monitoring and bring back the first two to Fairchild. We flew down on Dec 2nd, and back on Dec 7th. We spent the time there going through the ground school. These were the first load (2) of airborne missiles to be on this base.

One of the more unusual and still unexplained happening occurred late one night. We flew out several hundred miles over the Pacific ocean to fire our guns. We’d clear the area with our radar and hope we didn’t miss anything. Besides the projectiles leaving the aircraft, the 50 cal. casings (about 5-6 inches long) would also fall. We were out there one night, black as it could be, the stars were just brilliant. We were flying west, when quite a distance off to our left, I spotted a light. It was slightly behind, not quite parallel to us, level and seemed to be coming in toward us and rather fast. I watched it for several minutes. It kept coming nearer, getting brighter and somewhat larger. Since it was out my side, I had the best view, but I believe the co-pilot also saw it. It appeared to be at our same altitude around 35,000ft and was going to intercept us. I asked the air traffic control radar people about this but they said they had no other traffic in our area. This meant they could see nothing but us on their radar.  I was beginning to get uneasy and figured I’d have to change course or altitude if it continued closing. I kept watching and it closed to what I’d call VERY CLOSE, (probably less than 5 miles, some 10-15 seconds flying distance). I was starting to disengage the auto pilot to descend when the light went out. Just vanished. We were not aware of anything passing over or in front of us, felt no shock wave, no jet turbulence or anything. It just wasn’t there anymore. I filed a “unusual sighting” report when we landed. I never heard any more about it. And yes, we did discontinue firing our guns while this was going on.

In the spring of 1962, Major Edwin E. Aldren came to Fairchild. He was here to talk at the Spokane Kiwanis Club. He was in the astronaut program, but had not flown a mission. It was customary when a dignitary or important person visited a base, that base assign a person of near or equal rank as their escort. An escort  is to see that he gets where he should be with what he needed. I was an L/C and was assigned to act as escort for his visit. Believe he was here three days. I picked a young Capt. and a young lst Lt., both very sharp people, to assist. We used a staff car to drive, had meals with him, showed him the base etc. For those few days we had no other details so this was very enjoyable. He talked freely of his training and answered all questions we could think to ask. In his group of astronauts he was considered the “most brainy.” He had at least one master’s degree and I think a doctorate, a real brain, but a very down to earth nice fellow. I really felt for him when he had his problems after returning from the Moon. His wife left him; he became an alcoholic and fell into mental depression for a while. Several years later he seemed to have gotten back on track. He wouldn’t remember me but I’ll never forget him.

In 1963 I received my permanent promotion to L/Col. This put me in line for staff jobs, so I gave up my crew and flew a desk. After a short stint as a staff member, I was assigned as Squadron Commander of the bomber squadron. I stayed current in the B-52D’s until I moved to Beal AFB, California as chief of training. There I checked out as an instructor pilot in the G model. When I moved to Minot AFB No. Dak. as an O-6 in 1967 I gave up flying the B-52. It was too hard to stay current and also keep up with my ground responsibilities, so I checked out in and flew the less complicated C-47.

When flying the C-47 from Minot to surrounding bases, the missions were all routine. We played what we thought was a joke on the passengers on one flight. We spread the word to the passengers that Col. Potter had forgotten his glasses and couldn’t land the airplane with out them. Several brought glasses up for me to try to see if they were close enough to help.  None wondered aloud why the co-pilot couldn’t just make the landing.

Flying the desk proved quite different from flying the planes, but was interesting and challenging. Everyday was a “long” day, but I enjoyed them all. I’ve had a great career and a great life!

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