Mighty shadow over the fjords: a B-52's cold response

MORÓN AIR BASE, Spain -- Flying more than seven miles above the earth in a grey-painted behemoth that rolled off the assembly line in 1961 is an experience unlike any other. With a crew of six, 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron B-52 Stratofortress tail number 61-022 cruised through the skies of Europe for the better part of a day, March 1, engaging in an impressive show of force seldom seen in the region since the end of the Cold War.

The day starts early. An initial mission briefing begins promptly at 4:00 a.m. and includes crew members and operations personnel poring over voluminous maps, charts and tables, scrutinizing everything to the tiniest detail. Routes, radio frequencies, contingency plans, everything is accounted for and discussed at length. At first, it seems overly meticulous to be planning a slight bank to the right at exactly 10:17 a.m. at a location more than 1,500 miles away, however, for those who fly into combat, a minute can mean the difference between overwhelming success and critical failure where mistakes can be measured in lives lost.

After the final details are ironed out, the crew steps out to the waiting jet. Four stories tall, with a wingspan even Evel Knievel would think twice about jumping over, the beast awakens as dozens of experienced maintenance personnel carry out their innumerable duties, rushing around in practiced patterns that look chaotic to any untrained eye.

Climbing up through a small hatch on the jet's cold underbelly, the conditions seem forbidding; dim lights glow from a thousand knobs and buttons, bathing bare metal bulkheads and thick insulation in a ruddy  glow. The crew moves with ease, running through checklists and procedures like they've done it a hundred times. After finishing their assigned tasks, they strap into  ejection seats and prepare for takeoff, connecting a bewildering array of buckles, hoses, cables and straps.

At precisely 7:18 a.m., eight engines scream with all the fury of enraged banshees as they strain to lift the nearly 200-ton bomber off the ground. After rolling down the runway for several thousand feet, they succeed in their monumental task, and the jet climbs steadily into the cold morning air.

For several hours,  an ever-changing cast of air-traffic controllers direct the B-52, now identified by call sign Mighty-5-1, to climb or descend based on traffic patterns in the region . As the jet travels north, accents change from Spanish to French, identifiable but never thick or obscuring. Here above 30,000 feet, they are one small reminder that below the ever-present clouds lie political boundaries and distinct cultural differences.

Three hours into the journey, an unexpected call comes in.

"Mighty-5-1, Mighty-5-1. This is French control. Do you agree to friendly intercept?"

The aircraft commander, Capt. Cody Bias, exchanges a look with copilot Capt. Brian D'Arcy for several seconds before replying.

"French control, Mighty-5-1. Repeat that last."

The message again comes in, unchanged. The crew engages in a quick discussion before responding back, "Mighty-5-1 to French control. That is affirmative. We agree to friendly intercept."

Soon, a new controller comes on the radio, "Mighty-5-1 this is French military control. Please turn to heading 2-0 and prepare for friendly interception by one Mirage 2000."

"French military control, Mighty-5-1 copies. Wilco."

Ten minutes pass. The electronic warfare officer, Maj. Mike Stepan, tracks the incoming fighter, reporting various sensor contacts. After another 15 minutes that seem to last an hour , the Mirage appears off the B-52's wing. It remains for several minutes, keeping pace as it calmly cruises at 41,000 feet.  The blue and silver-painted Mirage looks small but dangerous as it races along outside the window, eventually wagging its wings and diving away, flashing the B-52 a brief glimpse of the air-to-air missiles slung under its wings and the French roundel on its fuselage before it disappears into the clouds.

"Well that's something you don't see every day," says combat systems officer 1st Lt. Nate Lingon over the intraplane communication system.

Friendly interceptions are relatively common between allied nations, providing practice and experience beneficial to both parties. These often impromptu exercises increase coordination and capabilities between military units.

After leaving French airspace, the B-52 passes over London and banks east towards Norway where it's scheduled to participate in the biennial NATO military training exercise known as Cold Response. This massive exercise takes place in the arctic Trøndelag region of Norway, and gives thousands of international troops a chance to work together in the air, on the water and on the ground.

The B-52 descends to 3,500 feet before meeting up with a protective escort. Two Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16s approach the giant bomber, eventually settling into formation with one off each enormous wing. Uniquely, an RNAF pilot flies one fighter, while a U.S. military exchange pilot flies the other. After the formation tightens, they spy their lead aircraft ahead.

Following the example of the distant RNAF P-3 Orion, the formation dives, leveling off at a mere 1,000 feet. An icy fjord dominates the view as the aircraft emerge from low-hanging clouds. Rocky islands and vibrant evergreens dusted with snow poke out from the black, arctic water as the aircraft flash past. 

As the jets bank left, naval vessels participating in the exercise come into view. The aircraft are low enough to see froth kicked up in the wake of the ships as they cut through the icy water. Speeding past the convoy, the formation banks right toward a new stretch of the fjord and another cluster of ships.

The process repeats twice more before the demonstration  is complete, the fighters peel off and the B-52 once again climbs above the clouds.

Hundreds of man-hours have gone into planning this part of the mission , which lasts all of 12 minutes, but its effects are seen immediately. A Norwegian citizen posts a video of the flight online  minutes after the jets pass his bedroom window. General officers aboard the ships nod with approval as the jets roar by overhead. Dozens of photos taken from the ground and onboard the ships surface on the internet hours later. The show of force definitely makes an impression .

The B-52 crew, soaring toward a new destination, refocus on the next part of their mission: close air support for ground forces participating in the exercise. Bias  connects with the joint-tactical attack controller frequency. Calls for strike packages begin rolling in moments later.

"Mighty-5-1, this is Warlord. Requesting support for strike on hard target. Have target data. How copy?"

The B-52 crew invariably responds quickly to these calls.

"Warlord, Mighty-5-1 copies and reads you five-by-five. Send it."

What follows is usually a description of the target, desired outcome, position of friendly forces and a long string of numbers that identifies the target's location. The bomber's combat systems officers select the best weapons to defeat the target, program the fuses and plot a course to the target. This information is relayed to the pilots via multifunction displays and radio calls.

When the B-52 reaches the optimal release point, a weapon release is simulated. The aircrew and JTAC coordinate each strike as if it were the release of a live weapon.

"Warlord, Mighty-5-1. Two GBU-38s released. Fuse, 15 milliseconds. Impact in 40 seconds."

The releases are monitored by computers and the effect of these virtual weapon strikes are determined by a series of programs, which feed the results to the JTAC who called the strike in from the frozen ground. Those results are then relayed to the B-52 crew circling high above.

"Mighty-5-1, Warlord. Good hits. Bridge is collapsing. Target destroyed. Thanks for the assist."

This pattern repeats for several hours, scoring only one miss. During a simulated strike on another bridge, one of two bombs missed the target by a scant 50 meters due to miscommunication between the Norwegian JTAC and the combat systems officer .

Issues like these are exactly why exercises such as Cold Response exist, giving forces a chance to coordinate and jointly develop and perfect their tactics, techniques and procedures for operating together. In this case, the crew and JTAC identified a miscommunication, developed a fix and hit every remaining target without fail. Their mission was incredibly successful, digitally eliminating nearly a dozen simulated targets before heading home.

Withdrawing from Norway, the iron giant set a course for home with one more stopover. Operating eight engines providing 17,000 ft/lbs of thrust each for hours on end circling Norway for hours left the Stratofortress' fuel supply too low to comfortably return to base . Fortunately, this detail was foreseen in the incredibly involved planning meeting and a solution was standing by.

"Quid-2-2 calling Mighty-5-1. We hear you might need some gas," came the radio call from a nearby KC-135 Stratotanker, based out of Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England.

The tanker met the B-52 as it cruised down the English coast and the two aircraft began the intricate dance known as aerial refueling. The aircraft connect via a long, small-diameter fuel boom, while matching speed as they fly less than a hundred feet apart, both miles above the surface . Though difficult, this support gives American airpower the worldwide reach for which it's famous.

The aircrews handle the exchange calmly and with incredible focus, smoothly correcting for each bump of turbulence. After gulping down nearly half of the KC-135's 200,000- pound transfer fuel capacity, the B-52's crew thanked that of the tanker and separated.

With its thirst now quenched, the goliath continued flying south, catching occasional glimpses of the English Channel through the clouds below as it neared the northern French coast.

After nearly 14 hours in a cramped metal tube whose designers had never heard of ergonomics, the crew was anxious to be back on the ground and have a chance to stretch their legs. To their credit, they never once complained and hardly seemed bothered by the claustrophobic space or interior air temperature that appeared to have only two settings: liquid nitrogen and lava flow.

Upon landing, the crew went through their checklists with practiced ease but exceptional attention to detail. Only after this process was completed was the hatch un-dogged and glorious fresh air allowed inside.

The mission was a complete success . A single American B-52 crew interacted with men and women from across Europe and represented their nation with quiet competence and an ever-present air of confidence in the face of the unexpected. These Airmen visibly demonstrated the U.S. commitment to its allies and to the peace and stability of the region. Consummate professionals, the men and women who maintain and fly these massive centerpieces of American airpower stand by to deter enemies, assure allies and remind the world that Uncle Sam can still reach out and touch  them at any moment, no matter where they are.