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Year of the B-52: Historic World Flights
MARCH AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - Three B-52Bs of the 93rd Bomb Wing prepare to depart for Castle Air Force Base, Calif., after their record-setting round-the-world flight in 1957. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Year of the B-52: B-52s make historic, nonstop around the world flights

Posted 3/8/2012   Updated 3/8/2012 Email story   Print story


by Bill Harris
Air Force Global Strike Command command historian

3/8/2012 - BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La.  -- "Gentlemen, you're going to fly nonstop around the world."

Five crews heard those words as they crammed into a secure briefing room at Castle Air Force Base, Calif., on Jan. 14, 1957.

However, unlike their predecessors in 1948 and 1949, who flew propeller powered B-50 Superfortresses; these crews would fly ultramodern B-52B Stratofortresses powered by eight robust jet engines - each having the equivalent horsepower of six diesel locomotives.

Two days later, five B-52Bs ascended into the heavens as they departed Castle's runway. Each bomber resembled an Albatross as its wings flexing upward while the aircraft gained airspeed - Operation Powerflite was officially underway. Two bombers experienced equipment malfunctions and recovered at bases in the U.S. and England, while the other three completed the 24,325 mile flight in 45 hours and 19 minutes - landing at March Air Force Base, Calif.

Gen. Curtis LeMay, then Strategic Air Command commander pinned decorations on each of the weary Airmen as they stepped off the plane. For Lt. Col. James H. Morris, the pilot of the lead aircraft, this wasn't new stuff, since he had flown as the copilot aboard the Lucky Lady II in the 1949 around the world mission. Airman 1st Class Eugene Preiss, the aerial gunner, claimed another first for this flight "I was the first person to fly around the world backward." Like the 1949 venture, the Powerflite crews received the Mackay Trophy for their feat of airmanship. However, this certainly wouldn't be the last of its type.

More than 20 years later, two B-52H crews from the 416th Bomb Wing left K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, Mich., on a 19,353-mile journey taking them across Canada, the North Atlantic, several European countries, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea. The March 12-14, 1980, around the world Mackay-winning flight took 42 hours and 30 minutes.

The third B-52 mission, Global Power 94-7, took place Aug. 1-2, 1994,with Brig. Gen. George Cole piloting the New Orleans II, named in honor of the New Orleans, which circumnavigated the globe in 1924. Col. James Hawkins piloted the second aircraft, named the Lucky Lady IV. The 20,000-mile, 47-hour flight took the crew to Kuwait where they dropped munitions on a bombing range as a show of resolve to the Iraqi leadership.

What was it like to fly for two days? How did it feel to sit in a cramped environment with dozens of gauges, knobs, lights and switches, each with a unique purpose of keeping the aircraft aloft? Although the duration of the flight tended to dampen prolonged conversation, each crewmember worked together as a single entity, constantly interpreting the myriad of analog and digital numbers, needles and countless radio checks. Sleep came infrequently. Who had the time? With so many responsibilities, each crewmember estimated they received only three to four hours during the two-day ordeal. Minds were always on alert expecting the next aerial refueling, checking systems' status, and working through potential scenarios. Still, tenacity and the desire for excellence drove them on; each crewmember understood the importance of the mission.

Moreover, how did each of these seven souls feel about their respective aircraft?

One crewmember from the 1980 flight said, "We've had the H model for nearly 20 years. Like an expensive pair of leather gloves, we're just now beginning to season the aircraft and break it in."

When asked about the B-52's dependability, an Airman on the 1957 flight said, "We trust it -- it's a superb airship."

3/25/2014 11:41:14 PM ET
The B-52H crews from KI Sawyer were assigned to the 410th Bomb Wing not the 416th as indicated in the article. I was a gunner assigned to KI Sawyer at the same time the around the world mission occurred. Us fellow gunners caught wind something was up beforehand and pressed the gunners involved for info but they remained tight lipped. We heard the mission was planned to depart to the east and that was about all the 'intel' we could gather. Soon after they left the rest of the 410th got an order for an exercise deployment to Guam. The next day we took off and headed west for Guam. While refueling over the west coast we heard our 2 crews flying the classified mission talking to ARTCC and still heading eastward. They continued eastward towards home and we continued westward to Guam. Only after we reached Guam were our suspicions confirmed about our fellow KI Sawyer crews flying around the world non-stop.
Kent Wales MSgt USAF Retired, United States
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