28.

THE LAST TANGLE AND AN AMBUSH

While LeMay and the rest of the Air Force leadership were keen to acquire a nuclear-powered bomber as soon as possible, they also intended to create in the meantime an intermediary aircraft that would be the most up-to-date conventionally fueled bomber. The plane was seen as a kind of insurance policy in case there were more technological obstacles to the building of the atomic aircraft than could be anticipated and its production in quantity was delayed. The role of the intermediate strategic bomber would also be to replace the early models of the B-52 when these became a decade old in 1965. This “follow-on bomber,” or “HB-X for Heavy Bomber—Experimental,” as it was referred to in the planning documents, was intended eventually to supplant all of the B-52s and become SAC’s mainstay until the nuclear-powered bomber supplanted it.

In accordance with his convictions about speed and height, LeMay had laid down a SAC requirement for a supersonic aircraft, one capable of several times the speed of sound, and with an extremely high cruising altitude. He also demanded a heavy bomb load and the ability to strike the farthest possible targets and return to base in the United States with no need for midair refueling. Even the B-36, with its 3,500-mile combat radius, required midair refueling when carrying a full bomb load to strike targets that were deep within the Soviet Union and get back home. LeMay regarded midair refueling as a crutch, not a permanent feature of intercontinental flying as Bennie had concluded, because Schriever could not perceive any way around it short of nuclear power. LeMay felt, however, that SAC should put up with midair refueling only as long as necessary and then do away with it.

The intermediate bomber was the place to start. This meant a bomber with a minimum range of 11,000 miles, and LeMay was compounding the problem with his simultaneous demand for supersonic speed. Aircraft burn fuel at a much faster rate when flying supersonic, even at high altitudes where the air is thin and there is less resistance. And LeMay’s requirement for a heavy bomb load made things still worse. Bennie tried to explain to him that they would end up with a mammoth plane, “a battleship,” as he later dubbed it, which would be wildly impractical. LeMay would not relent. “He just didn’t wish it, that was it,” Bennie recalled. “He could say, ‘Well, you bastard, you aren’t really trying.’ He was of the school that ‘Goddamn it, I know what I need. This is a requirement, goddamn it, now go out and do it.’”

A lesser man would have humored “the king of the mountain,” as Blasingame remembered thinking of LeMay as they sat in the SAC conference room during the flying boom versus probe and drogue episode. A lesser man would have given the king what the king desired, no matter how ludicrous it might be, picked up a promotion, moved on, and left the consequences to his successor. There were plenty of such lesser types in the Air Force, as there are in all major institutions. Price in the Requirements division was an example. It was a measure of Schriever’s character, however, and another reason he would accomplish so much when his turn came, that he was constitutionally incapable of caving in to pressure he considered unjust. Attempting to browbeat him into doing something he believed was wrong usually had the reverse effect, as it did in this case.

He formed a Strategic Air team in his office and set it to work on a Development Planning Objective for the intermediate bomber that would reflect reality and the best technology possible to cope with that reality. He knew that the way LeMay wanted to go was absolutely the wrong direction. The growth and the nature of Soviet air defenses made that conclusion inescapable. He would try again to convince LeMay as the team’s work progressed. If he did not prevail in the end, he would at least have fulfilled the trust the Air Force had placed in him. He chose Paul Blasingame to head the team. Aeronautical engineers of Blasingame’s quality were rare in the Air Force in the early 1950s. He was one of the first of the postwar Ph.D.’s, the result of a decision by the Air Force, again inspired by Hap Arnold, to offer more of its bright and technologically inclined officers an opportunity to obtain advanced degrees at government expense.

Blasingame had gained his Ph.D. in 1950 after three years of study under Professor Charles Stark Draper, the MIT genius who led the way in the use of inertial guidance as the means to navigate ships and aircraft and to guide bombs and missiles to their targets. (An inertial guidance instrument contains data laying out a course to a predetermined destination. The instrument measures the speed and direction of the plane or other vehicle in which it is installed and compares these to the stored data to maintain the correct course.) To recruit disciples within the military who would promote his instruments and techniques, Draper had shrewdly organized a master’s and a Ph.D. degree program at MIT for Air Force and Navy officers in what he called Aircraft Instrumentation. Blasingame was one of its earliest graduates. He had an excellent, clear-thinking mind and vision as well. After later serving under Bennie as one of the senior figures in the ICBM project, he would go on to found the Department of Astronautics, the science of space travel, exploration, and use, at the Air Force Academy.

Although Blasingame was still atmosphere-bound in 1953, the bomber he and his team planned under Schriever’s guidance was a high jump in aircraft technology. They based their design on the concept that Schriever and Delmar Wilson had earlier conceived of going in under the radar in a low-level attack. If one took LeMay’s route, it wouldn’t make any difference in the end how high and fast the bomber flew. The promise of rocket technology said that the Soviets could always build a surface-to-air missile that would destroy the bomber by going higher and faster. A bomber flying at approximately 600 miles an hour, something approaching the speed of sound, Mach .85 or .9 in the professional’s terminology, would suffice. What mattered most was to approach on the bottom and then, if detected, to immediately adopt evasive tactics while staying down on the deck to prevent the Soviets from locking onto the plane with their radars and taking it under fire.

The team found itself immediately faced with a conundrum. Pure jet engines, the type with which the B-47 and the B-52 were equipped, achieve propulsion, i.e., propel an aircraft forward, by the backward thrust of high-speed jets of gas generated when their fuel, a type of kerosene, is burned. They are notoriously inefficient at low level because the backward thrust is not powerful enough to overcome the denser air and thus they gobble profligate amounts of fuel. The team needed a jet engine that would give them much greater fuel efficiency. The result of their search was a pioneering model called the turbofan or high bypass ratio engine. It has a large turbine-driven fan installed in the front. The fan is turned by diverting some of the gas from the burning fuel. The great whirling blades of the fan create vastly more forceful backward thrust than a pure jet engine does to drive the aircraft ahead. There were other advantages. The big increase in thrust of the turbofan meant that fewer engines would be required for aircraft of equivalent size. The pure jet B-47, for example, had six engines and the B-52 would have eight. Blasingame and his team thought they could get by with four turbofan engines on the strategic bomber they had on their drawing board. The additional lift the turbofans provided through their higher thrust would also allow the bomber to take off from a much shorter runway.

Innovation did not stop with the turbofan engine. Blasingame exploited his Draper education to give the plane the most advanced navigation and bombing system he could imagine. He twinned an inertial guidance navigation instrument with a radar that was not yet in production, but soon would be ready, in order to produce a night and all-weather bomber. The inertial navigation device would keep the aircraft on the essentially correct course while the radar enabled the pilot to adjust it with precision. The radar was a type called rapid forward scanning. Its signal did a constant quick sweep of the terrain ahead of the plane and bounced back the images it encountered at high speed. These images were also much sharper on its screen than on those of the older radars. The pilot or the navigator/bombardier would have to thoroughly familiarize himself beforehand with a map in order to translate what he was seeing on the screen to the actual terrain ahead of him and the features he wanted to follow to his target. But if he did so, he could attack at low level at night and in bad weather and the radar would serve as his eyes. This instrumentation package that Blasingame conjured up for the intermediate bomber was a forerunner of the sophisticated electronic systems, the avionics suites for navigation, bombing, and air-to-air combat, that were to form such a critical feature of warplanes of the future. An example was the next logical step in radar—the terrain-following radar that was to appear in the early 1960s. The pilot cranked the necessary data into a computer and the radar then took over and flew the plane automatically on a ground-skimming course.

The plane was never built. Schriever couldn’t sell the proposal to LeMay He remained adamant against low-level attack. The team’s effort got no further than publication as an internal Air Force document in 1954. (It has since been lost.) The aircraft that did emerge from all of this wrangling was America’s first supersonic bomber, the B-58 Hustler, a high-altitude, medium bomber with a top speed of approximately 1,300 miles per hour, approaching twice the speed of sound. Schriever had proposed it in an earlier and separate Development Planning Objective in 1952 in an ill-considered attempt at compromise. The Hustler was a boldly handsome aircraft of full arrowhead, delta-wing design, but unfortunately its attributes—high altitude where Bennie soon came to see low as a necessity, shorter combat radius of approximately 1,600 miles, and a medium bomber when LeMay wanted long-range and heavy—satisfied no one.

LeMay was eventually to get his way when Schriever was no longer at the Pentagon to frustrate him. In 1957, the same year LeMay left SAC and moved up to become vice chief of staff, the Air Force gave North American Aviation a contract for the bomber he wanted as the successor to the B-52. It was the B-70 Valkyrie, massive at 500,000 pounds (bigger and more than 50,000 pounds heavier than the B-52); high-flying at 75,000 feet; supersonic at more than three times the speed of sound (Mach 3.2); expensive at $9.2 billion to obtain and test two prototypes; and useless. When decision time came in 1961, LeMay fought as hard as he could to have the plane accepted and put into production. He argued that the B-70 could be used as a reconnaissance-strike bomber to find and destroy Soviet airfields and missile complexes that had escaped an initial American nuclear attack. The trouble was that if the B-70 survived the Soviet surface-to-air missiles, the crew would not be able to see anything on earth while flashing across the stratosphere at more than 2,000 miles an hour and 14.2 miles high. No sensors existed at the time to replace their eyesight and detect the airfields and missile sites below for them. President Kennedy canceled the Valkyrie, except for the two experimental prototypes, as “unnecessary and economically unjustifiable.”

(There never was to be a satisfactory successor to the B-52 as a heavy bomber. The Air Force resorted to keeping the last model, the B-52H, in service indefinitely, periodically sending the planes back to Boeing to have them rebuilt. For nine years, from 1965 to 1974, B-52s were to carpet-bomb Vietnam and then Laos and Cambodia, snuffing out many thousands of lives and causing incalculable environmental damage to the forest and agricultural landscape, with the conventional high-explosive bombs LeMay had wanted to abolish in favor of nuclear-only munitions. The SAC staff referred to these ordinary 500-pounders as “garbage bombs.” During the Gulf War of 1990–91, the B-52s were to be back at carpet-bombing, this time in a just cause, liberating Kuwait by helping to destroy the army of the Baghdad dictator, Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi soldiery were to find no shelter in desert bunkers that the strings of bombs collapsed into tombs. The B-52’s role in the second Iraq war of the second President Bush was to be limited, but the fuel capacity of the massive bombers made them the perfect aircraft to loiter in the skies over Afghanistan and periodically launch one of the latest in precision-guided 2,000-pounders at a redoubt of the Taliban or the al Qaeda terrorists. As of the publication of this book, the B-52s are still flying.)

By 1953, Schriever had begun to suffer an affliction that was new to him, severe headaches from the tension of being repeatedly at odds with the biggest man in the Air Force. Although he was actually accomplishing a lot, he couldn’t see the results of his endeavors because they lay in the future. If Boeing’s shrewd conversion of the KC-135 jet tanker it produced for SAC into its renowned 707 jetliner was to bring a major surge in international air travel, the introduction of the turbo-fan engine was to set off a revolution in military and commercial aviation. Blasingame blamed LeMay’s attitude for retarding its advent by years, but when the engine builders and aircraft manufacturers caught on to its potential at the beginning of the 1960s, it soon became the universal engine. The H model of the B-52, which emerged from the Boeing production lines in the final runs in 1961 and 1962, was equipped with an early version of the turbofan in place of the J-57 pure jet engines that had powered previous models. As a result, the turbo-fan’s economy in fuel consumption was to enable a B-52H to establish a new long-distance flying record in January 1962—12,532 miles from Kadena Air Base on Okinawa to Torrejón in Spain with no midair refueling.

While Blasingame and his colleagues were still engaged in their study for the intermediate strategic bomber, Bennie had given another team the task of planning a wide-body cargo aircraft that would utilize the turbofan engine. This study was to bear its first fruit in 1965 in the grand C-141 Starlifter transport. With just four turbofan engines, the C-141 could loft 154 fully equipped troops and their weapons or 7,000 cubic feet of cargo 4,000 miles. In 1968, the mammoth C-5 Galaxy appeared, again with only four hefty turbofan engines, which could lift virtually anything that might be loaded into its astonishing 34,000 cubic feet of cargo space. Standing inside its cargo bay, one had the sensation of being in a flying warehouse. In 1990 and 1991, both transports would perform an indispensable role in ferrying troops, tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters, and the rest of the manifold equipment and supplies necessary to deploy an army in Saudi Arabia to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

The impact on commercial aircraft was even more dramatic when, in 1970, the first of the jumbo jets, Boeing’s 747 jetliner, went into service with Pan American and Trans World Airlines. Its four turbo-fans could fly 400 passengers from New York to Paris and beyond. With the mass market these giants fostered, air fares fell accordingly and millions who might otherwise never have traveled abroad flew off to see the world. It was no small irony that this miraculous engine had first emerged in a search for a low-level nuclear bomber to attack the Soviet Union that was never built. Bennie was even to be vindicated on low-level tactics to counter Soviet air defenses. SAC was to start switching to them in 1959 under LeMay’s successor and the crews of the lumbering B-52s would learn how to hug the contour of the earth.

Nevertheless, the premonition that lay behind Bennie’s tension headaches was not without substance. On June 23, 1953, he was promoted to brigadier general. The photograph in his study years later would show an excited and happy Bernard Adolph Schriever standing between two men, one of them Jimmy Doolittle, each pinning a silver star onto his shoulder tabs. In a note to Nathan Twining, Bennie thanked the chief of staff for his first stars with Schriever restraint. “My one hope is that I can do the job expected of me,” he wrote. LeMay then almost got him. Colonel Schriever had given Curtis LeMay enough trouble. Brigadier General Schriever would give him more. The Cigar reached out to burn him. Bennie suddenly received orders assigning him to South Korea as chief of logistics for the Fifth Air Force units stationed there. His boss at the time, again Laurence Craigie, now a lieutenant general and deputy chief of staff, development, called him at home to warn him that the orders were coming through from Personnel. Craigie told him not to give up, that he was going to intervene and rally others to try to get the orders overturned.

There was no doubt that LeMay was behind the maneuver. No one else had a motive to boot Schriever off into exile. At first, Bennie was stunned and then deeply angry, but he would have tamped down his anger and gone if he had to go, rather than leave the Air Force and make money in one of the military industries, as he might easily have done. Had LeMay succeeded, history would not have been the same. As Curtis LeMay had been the indispensable man in the success of the strategic bombing so important to victory in the Second World War, Bernard Schriever was to be the indispensable man in the creation of the intercontinental ballistic missile during the Cold War and the enormous consequences that were to flow from it—America’s penetration of space and an unspoken but permanent truce of mutual deterrence with the Soviet Union. Lieutenant General Earle Partridge, an admirer of Schriever who had given him the funds for a turbofan engine prototype while head of the Air Research and Development Command, had recently been promoted to deputy chief of staff, operations, in effect the third man in Headquarters, USAF. He and Donald Putt, another of Bennie’s former superiors, who had replaced Partridge at ARDC, joined forces with Craigie. They apparently went to General Tommy White, the vice chief who had known Bennie slightly out in the Pacific, and to Twining. The orders were rescinded. Schriever had survived and just in time, for he had begun to set in motion the great work of his life.

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