Air Force navigators and bombardiers have long labored under the shadow of pilots—their contributions undervalued, misunderstood, or simply unknown to the general public. This was especially the case with the non-pilot officer aircrew in the Vietnam and Cold War-era B-52 Stratofortress. Of the six people who operated the bomber, three wore navigator wings—two of those men were also bombardiers, the other an electronic warfare officer. It is no exaggeration to say that without the navigator-bombardiers in particular, executing the nuclear war strike plan or flying Southeast Asian conventional bombing sorties would have been impossible. This book reveals who these fellows were and what they did down in the “Black Hole,” the story told by one of their own.

Chapter One thrusts the reader into the thick of the Vietnam War’s climactic 1972 Hanoi Christmas bombing, an operation so poorly planned, it nearly became an epic disaster. Beginning with Chapter Two, the narrative flashes back to the origins of air delivered ordnance beginning with the first “bombards” of fourteenth-century Europe. Following chapters explore the science of navigation, trace the development of optical and radar bomb aiming techniques, discuss air instrumentation breakthroughs, explain the evolution of bomber aircraft, recount the 1940 creation of dedicated “navigators” and “ bombardiers,” and then focus in depth on the Vietnam-era B-52. The final chapters return the reader to the “eleven-day Christmas war” over Hanoi and Haiphong, an insiders narrative of the conflict’s defining battle and likely the last the world will ever see of massed, heavy bomber raids. The final chapter brings readers up-to-date on the twenty-first century B-52 and its capabilities. An Afterword offers reflections on the Vietnam War in general, and Operation Linebacker in particular, from the perspective of B-52 aircrewmen.


Introduction/Prologue -- Pages 1-6 Introduces the author, why the book was written, the B-52 and its aircrew, and explains the book title.

Chapter 1

  “Operation Linebacker Two--The First Day”--Pages 7-16 Readers enter the story with the action at full throttle. It is December 18, 1972 and 129 B-52 Stratofortresses are making ready to attack Hanoi. But SAC’s battle tactics are so incredibly incompetent, the crews launch with great trepidation over what’s about to transpire.

Chapter 2

  “A Booming Sound”--Pages 17-24 The story flashes back to the first effective use of “bombing,” which came at the Battle of Crecy in 1346. The evolution of ground based cannon to air delivered bombs is briefly explored. Beginning with World War One, readers learn how the new flying machines were turned into aerial bombardment vehicles, followed by a very brief survey of American bombers through the post-World War Two era.

Chapter 3

  “The Big Ugly Feller”--Pages 25-32 The how, when, and where of the B-52’s conception is explored, plus insights into its peculiar characteristics. Thumbnail sketches of the crew’s responsibilities are related, along with a discussion of the “Buf/BUFF” nickname origins.

Chapter 4

  “LeMay”--Pages 33-40 A biographical narrative of General LeMay and his role in creating the legendary Strategic Air Command, including a number of revealing anecdotes about the famous bomber commander.

Capter 5

  “Early Navigators and Bomb Aimers”--Pages 41-59 Explores how the science of navigation was discovered and developed over the centuries. Considerable attention is given to early bomb sights and instrumentation breakthroughs following World War One, and then comes a fairly detailed account of events leading up to the 1940 “birth” of the formal navigator and bombardier non-pilot officer aircrew positions.

Chapter 6

  “Training the Cold War Magellan”--Pages 60-70 Readers find out where SAC’s flying officers came from in the 1950s and 60s and discover the nature of navigator training in the new jet/Cold War age.

Chapter 7

  “Stratofortress Bombardier Training”--Pages 71-77 The training of SAC bombardiers, from among those individuals selected after receiving their navigator wings. B-52 Black Holers had to be cross-trained.

Chapter 8

  “Welcome To The Big Leagues”--Pages 78-86 Graduates of the navigator and bombardier schools received their B-52 “type ratings” at Castle Air Force Base, California.

Chapter 9

  “Getting SAC’emcised”--Pages 87-106 The specifics of joining the Strategic Air Command, learning the airplane and the Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP) strike plan in great detail, and becoming a certified B-52 Combat Crewman, qualified to fly airborne or stand ground nuclear Alert.

Chapter 10

  “Turning On The Arc Light”--Pages 107-122 The Vietnam War turned a Cold War “Peace is our Profession” nuclear SAC into a conventional bombing air force. In 1965, the B-52s began combat in Southeast Asia under the auspices of Operation Arc Light. The campaign continued for a brutally long eight years. Readers learn of the inner workings of the operation, and of the toll the war took on the B-52D cadre wings, the only model Stratofortress used for most of the war.

Chapter 11

  “First Combat Mission”--Pages 123-153 A detailed narrative of a hypothetical D model bomber crew flying their first combat mission. Increasing amounts of technical information are allowed to flow into the discussion (carefully avoiding excessive or unexplained jargon), building on the reader’s growing knowledge base begun in previous chapters. It is intended throughout the work to gradually bring the reader to a certain level of competence regarding the bomber’s capability and how the men operated it. This will be especially enriching during the final chapters when the Linebacker battles are described.

Chapter 12

  “The Southeast Asian War Games”--Pages 154-168 A chronological discussion of the war from the perspective of the B-52s, with considerable attention given to major battles the Stratofortress was engaged in. Comment is made regarding the irony of the strategic bombers fighting a tactical ground support war in South Vietnam, while the fighter-bombers of Tactical Air Command were engaged in a strategic bombing campaign in North Vietnam. This chapter follows the war up to 1972, when President Nixon initiated Operations Linebacker One and Two.

Chapter 13

  “Back To SAC”--Pages 169-180 The D model B-52 cadre crews were on an almost ‘permanent’ temporary duty (TDY) combat rotation schedule--six months in Southeast Asia, six months back to Stateside SAC, then overseas again for another six months. This chapter also goes into some detail about nuclear Pad Alert and Positive Control procedures.

Chapter 14

  “Won’t Somebody Please Turn Out The Arc Light?” -- Pages 181-200 The always agonizing return to SEA, especially as the war-without-end continued to drag on. Divorce rates soared and morale kept sinking. As a defense, the crews coped by way of a certain determined resignation and dark humor; Heller’s novel, Catch-22, became quite popular. But by the winter of 1971-72, everybody was just hanging on. Then came the 1972 Easter Offensive and the war again turned white-hot. The B-52 force in Asia was beefed up to its highest levels ever.

Chapter 15

  “December 18/19, 1972--Linebacker Two's First Day”--Pages 201-209 The story line picks up where it left off at the end of Chapter One, with 129 bombers attacking Hanoi. There are more losses than SAC expected, the fighting fierce. However, due to the long lead times and underlying fear a change in tactics would cause greater problems than it’d solve, the Day Two attacks are ordered ahead as originally planned. The bombers are lucky on Day Two and only two B-52s receive damage. SAC heaves a sigh of relief. Day Three, using exactly the same predictable tactics as the first two days, is ordered a go.

Chapter 16

  “The Third Day”--Pages 210-231 The Third Day is a disaster, with six B-52s shot down and one heavily damaged out of 99 bombers. SAC now accepts they have committed grave blunders, putting the entire operation at risk--and along with it Nixon’s strategy for ending the war. Yet, it is so very hard, with the long lead times, planning inertia, and great distances involved, to change the tactics. For example, even before all the Day Three bombers land, the first of the Day Four bombers must takeoff. Great consternation and on-the-fly adjustments continue throughout Days Four, Five, Six, and Seven. Almost mercifully, the Christmas pause comes, and SAC gets a thirty-six hour reprieve to pull its act together.

Chapter 17

  “Getting Smart . . . And Finishing Them Off”--Pages 232-238 The Eighth Day raid, made up of 120 B-52s, is a stunning success. The change of tactics plus the experience gained in the first seven days pays off handsomely. Day Nine is a repeat of Eight, with the same good results. By Day Ten, the North Vietnamese are in deep trouble, and running out of surface-to- air missiles. During the Day Eleven raid, which is almost unopposed, North Vietnam signals Nixon they are ready to return to the Paris Peace Talks. Nixon orders Operation Linebacker Two stood down before the last bomber lands.

Chapter 18

  “The 21st Century Buf/BUFF”--Pages 239-250 The nuclear bomber fleet returns to the Cold War. This chapter brings readers up to date on today’s B-52H model and its capabilities. Speculation is also made about the future of the B-52, which may have its operational life extended until 2040. There is a discussion of Middle East actions and the B-52s role in the War on Terror. Navigators and bombardiers are replaced by Combat Systems Operators in 2004, marking the end of an era.

Afterword--Pages 251-258 Operation Linebacker Two is deemed largely responsible for the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on January 27, 1973, the subsequent return of the American POWs, and an end to America's involvement in the war. Reflections on the conflict, including a critique of the Linebacker battle tactics, are offered from the vantage point of B-52 aircrewmen.

Acknowledgments--Pages 259-262

End Notes -- Pages 263-280

Acronyms -- Pages 281-286

Bibliography --Pages 287-292

Index -- Pages 293-301