27.

LOW-LEVEL TACTICS AND THE FLYING BOOM

Schriever’s subsequent confrontations with LeMay were to become less civil. Not that LeMay was always wrong. While the B-52 was in its early stages of development, Schriever proposed extending the life of the existing B-47s by strengthening their wings and reducing the number of B-52s to be built. He argued that given the rapidity with which the nuclear weapons designers were slimming down the weight of bombs while simultaneously increasing the explosive yield, the Air Force didn’t need the 50,000-pound carrying capacity of the big bomber. It could get by with the 25,000-pound bomb load of the smaller B-47 and save billions of dollars. LeMay, in a rage, ridiculed the idea. It was abandoned and Schriever admitted afterward that LeMay had been right: the B-52 was a much better airplane and therefore a much better long-term investment. The problem was not who was right and who was wrong in what was supposed to be a mutually beneficial exchange. The problem was that LeMay was so overcome by hubris, he had turned into a caricature of his former self. He listened now only to Curtis LeMay. He could not sense that what he might least want to hear was what he might most need to know.

An example was the reception he gave Schriever’s warning that SAC needed to change its tactics to survive against advances in Soviet air defenses. On the assumption that bombers would always be able to fly higher than fighters, LeMay believed firmly that, after speed, height was the second most important attribute for a bomber’s survival. Given the intelligence reports the Air Force was receiving on Soviet air defense innovations, Bennie grew doubtful. The progress in Soviet jet fighters showed gains in altitude. The air defense radars to vector the fighters to engage incoming American bombers were also improving. Most worrisome of all were the reports of intensive efforts to field a surface-to-air missile system, the weapon that was to evolve into the infamous SAM of the Vietnam War. As with so much else, the Germans had devised the first surface-to-air missiles. One might have wreaked havoc with the B-17s and B-24s and with the RAF’s Lancasters had it been perfected and mass-produced. It was called the Wasserfall (Waterfall). Twenty-six feet in length with a 674-pound warhead, a speed of 1,900 miles per hour, and an altitude of 42,000 to 52,000 feet, it was radar-guided and designed to destroy an approaching bomber at a distance up to thirty miles. As with the V-2, the Soviets had picked up on this and another German surface-to-air missile called the Rhein-tochter and improved immensely on the German lead.

The Soviets’ first-generation surface-to-air missiles were deployed in batteries around Moscow in 1957. Designated the MK-6 by the Soviets and referred to as the SA-2 Guideline by NATO intelligence, the missiles were steadily upgraded in subsequent years and thousands were emplaced around other Russian population centers and important military sites. Tracking radars at the batteries first picked up the intruding aircraft. The missiles were then guided to their targets by radio control. A proximity fuse detonated the 441-pound warhead as soon as the missile was close enough to destroy or seriously damage the plane. The missile demonstrated its efficacy on May 1, 1960, when the explosion from a near miss caused enough damage to knock down the U-2 photoreconnaissance spy plane being flown by Francis Gary Powers at 68,000 feet over Sverdlovsk in the Urals. What all these innovations in Soviet air defenses added up to for Schriever was that to maximize the chance of a bomber reaching its target, the plane had to come in not high as LeMay thought, where it would display a sharp profile on the radar screens for the fighters and worst of all for the SAMs, but low and under the radar.

Bennie got together with Colonel Delmar Wilson, who, as a major with one of the first groups to come to England in the fall of 1942, had observed bombs flung wildly about, tearing up rutabaga gardens in German-occupied Europe until LeMay arrived and proved that a B-17 could make a straight and level bomb run and survive. By 1952–53, Wilson was a colonel heading up the Strategic Air Requirements Division of the Air Staff. He had been having similar thoughts about how to survive against Soviet air defenses. They contacted Boeing to find out what a B-47 could withstand in low-level flight, where the denser air puts a lot more stress on the airframe, in order to contrive evasive maneuvers that could be added to the low-level approach to heighten survivability. They also gathered information from the Special Weapons Command at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico on low-level delivery of atomic bombs. There were various ways in which this could be done. One was to throw the bomber at the last moment into an Immelmann, a maneuver named for Max Immelmann, the German fighter pilot who originated it during the First World War. This was a half loop upward followed by a half roll away, resulting in a reversal of direction and increased height. While still climbing, the plane would toss the bomb at the target in a parabolic arc and thus be far enough away when the bomb detonated to escape being destroyed by the blast. They designed some charts to illustrate their points and flew out to Offutt to try to convert the man whose bomber crews would want to stay alive and reach their targets against those Soviet antiaircraft defenses.

The session took place this time in the formal briefing room at SAC headquarters. There was a stage a foot or so high and facing it were rows of chairs with folding seats like those in movie theaters. The rows were well filled by about thirty to forty members of the SAC staff, with LeMay and Power up front as would be expected. Bennie mounted the stage first. Wilson, who was to go on to the two stars of a major general before his Air Force career was completed, recalled long afterward what happened next:

Schriever started our presentation and had no more than introduced the subject of low-level approach and bombing, when LeMay stood up, grunted, stuck his cigar in his mouth, and stomped out of the room. Schriever continued a few minutes more before Power and a few other general officers left.… Needless to say, I never had a chance to unfold my briefing charts. We put our tails between our legs and headed for our airplane.

The next confrontation came over midair refueling. There were two methods in use. One was called the probe and drogue. With probe and drogue, the tanker aircraft trailed behind itself a hose with a funnel-shaped device, the drogue, attached to the end. The aircraft needing refueling maneuvered up from behind and plugged the probe, a pipelike fixture attached to the front of its fuselage and connected to its fuel tanks, into the center of the drogue. As soon as a firm connection was made, the pilot of the thirsty plane notified the tanker over the radio and a crewman turned on the fuel. The second method was called the flying boom. A metal fuel pipe that telescoped and was also capable of being turned up and down and from side to side was slung under the tail section of the tanker. This was the boom. The aircraft wanting fuel approached the tanker’s tail and moved into station just below. An operator sitting in a control compartment in the tanker’s tail, with a Plexiglas window that gave him full view downward, extended and maneuvered the boom until he had succeeded in plugging it into a receptacle built into the front part of the receiving plane’s fuselage. He then turned on the fuel and filled its tanks.

The advantage of the flying boom was that it could replenish an aircraft’s tanks faster because the pipe had a wider diameter than the hose used in probe and drogue and the fuel was transferred under high pressure. The disadvantage was that it could refuel only one aircraft at a time. The probe and drogue system, on the other hand, could simultaneously refuel up to three aircraft by trailing hoses from near the end of each wing as well as from the tail section. The boom was best suited to bombers. They drank the most, yet because of the size of their tanks usually had a margin of safety. It was normally not that critical if they had to wait in line for the boom to be free. The opposite was true of fighters and fighter-bombers, which was why probe and drogue worked best for them: they needed less in a gulp from a tanker. Their far smaller tanks, however, meant they might not be able to wait in line. The Navy, most of whose carrier aircraft were similar in size to Air Force fighters and fighter-bombers, had standardized on probe and drogue with its tankers for this reason. The admirals wanted the ability to keep a maximum number of planes aloft at any one time and without losing pilots and planes in the sea because tanks ran dry.

The boom was the method in widest use in the Air Force because SAC, which favored it, possessed the most tankers. By the early 1950s, however, the time had come to standardize so that any Air Force plane could fill its tanks from any Air Force tanker. Bennie’s Development Planning Office was tasked to do a study. It soon became clear to him that midair refueling had become an absolute necessity, not just for SAC’s long-range bombing missions, but for the entire Air Force, and that the measure was not a stopgap but a permanent demand that would persist indefinitely into the future. The need to refuel fighters and fighter-bombers on their way across the Atlantic in support of NATO, to sustain transport aircraft on long hauls, or to keep planes in the air fighting in one area when they were based at a distance in another—as was now occurring with aircraft flying out of Japan to prosecute the war in Korea—all called for midair refueling.

To help with the study, Bennie recruited a colonel working in research and development at Air Force headquarters in the Pentagon named Jewell “Bill” Maxwell, who had conducted a previous inquiry on midair refueling and was considered the expert on the subject. Maxwell had been a bomber pilot, but he favored probe and drogue because of the versatility it would give the Air Force to refuel various types of aircraft in virtually any situation. Pilots, he had discovered, preferred it as well, since it was easier to hold in position behind the tanker, particularly if there was turbulence, when hooked up to a flexible hose that allowed for some movement in contrast to being attached to a stiff pipe. Another characteristic of probe and drogue also made pilots less nervous about the possibility of a midair collision: the hoses were longer than the flying boom and the refueling aircraft therefore did not have to approach as close to the tanker. The objection that the boom fed fuel to bombers faster could be overcome simply by installing wider-diameter hoses and higher-capacity pressure pumps. A memo summing up the study that Bennie sent to Major General George Price, a powerful man as head of the overall Requirements branch of the Air Staff, won him over to the probe and drogue method, principally because of the versatility it offered. He told Bennie he would endorse a recommendation that the Air Force standardize on it. If the recommendation went through, SAC would have to convert. LeMay, apparently alerted to what was happening, summoned Bennie out to Offutt to brief him.

The setting was the same SAC conference room with the stage in front and the rows of movie-theater-style chairs facing it. The audience filling the chairs was also the same, except that this time Bennie seated himself close to the general and let Maxwell, the man with the specialized knowledge, do the briefing. LeMay slumped in his chair, ruminating on his cigar and saying nothing while Maxwell paraded through his charts and viewgraphs projected onto a screen to illustrate the merits and drawbacks of each system toward his conclusion that the probe and drogue method best served the entire Air Force and would work fine for SAC.

As soon as Maxwell was finished, LeMay turned his head around to the rows of SAC staff officers seated behind him. “Well,” he said, “we don’t want any part of that. We’re going to stay with what we’ve got.” Then he asked, “Any difference of opinion around here?” There was silence. If any member of LeMay’s staff thought that Maxwell was right, it was a long way from a mess hall in England, where Colonel LeMay would gather all participants in a mission, from officer pilot to enlisted gunner, to thrash out how to fly it better the next time, and would invite anyone to tell the group commander he was “a stupid son of a bitch,” provided he gave a reason. LeMay then swung himself back toward Maxwell up on the stage. “Who the hell keeps promoting that probe and drogue stuff?” he asked. “General, I think I can answer that question,” Maxwell said. Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin P. “Paul” Blasingame, an aeronautical engineer with a Ph.D. from MIT who had recently joined Bennie’s team, watched fascinated as Maxwell, a tall, strapping man with a ruddy complexion who had flown forty-four combat missions in Europe, strode across to the edge of the stage, pointer in hand, and looked down at LeMay, close enough to appear to be confronting the demigod. “Every pilot that ever flew it is promoting it,” he said, in a voice that resonated through the room. LeMay stared up at him for a moment, then stood and walked out.

Maxwell got away with his boldness to win two stars before leaving the Air Force, but Bennie received an unpleasant surprise after they returned to the Pentagon. He learned that Major General Price, the Requirements chief, had changed his mind and was now recommending that the Air Force adopt the flying boom method. Bennie had known and admired Price since his cadet days and they had become good friends while serving together as test pilots at Wright Field before the war. It was the end of the friendship and of Bennie’s admiration. He marched over to Price’s office in a fury. “I went in there and just flew off the handle,” he remembered years later. He told Price “that I felt he had pulled the rug out from under me and asked him why the hell he did it.” They had agreed that probe and drogue was the method the Air Force needed and Price had told Bennie he was behind him before Bennie had gone out to Offutt. Price did not contradict him nor did he give him a satisfactory answer, but Bennie knew the answer. LeMay had intimidated Price. And Bennie knew LeMay’s motive. He wanted to do all he could to keep the Tactical Air Command, with its fighters and fighter-bombers, in check. He had no intention of facilitating its ability to more easily refuel and extend the range of its aircraft and employ smaller nuclear weapons to compete with him in the bombing business. The Air Force standardized on the flying boom system of midair refueling and Bennie Schriever moved on to a larger struggle with Curtis LeMay over what kind of strategic bomber the Air Force ought to build to succeed the B-52.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!