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One more look: combat veteran gets restored

  • Published
  • By Gary Miller
  • Eighth Air Force Museum director
As I stood outside looking up at the black belly of the old tall tail B-52D bomber, the heat and humidity was nearly the same as it was in Thailand so many years ago. Now, she was weathered and faded, tattered and torn, but she still had that look of a warrior.

I stared at the number "0629" stenciled on her nose. The last time I saw her, she was in a revetment on the flightline at U-Tapao, Royal Thai Naval Air Base, Thailand, being loaded for a bombing mission over Vietnam. It is evident today that if we could not save her, she would one day be headed toward a scrap yard.

I could not help but think back to 1958 when my father, a naval aviator, who had flown off the USS Enterprise CV-6 had come home and announced that the "Big E" - the Navy's most decorated ship in World War II - couldn't be saved and would be scrapped. Retired Fleet Adm. William Halsey, after years of trying to save the Enterprise as a museum, had failed because of lack of funding. Saving America's treasures has come a long way since that time, but preserving numerous military aircraft such as this B-52D sitting in the hot Louisiana sun was going to be a great challenge.

Recently, at a commander's call held at the aircraft, my chief of restoration received a call from a young major who wanted members of his squadron, who now flew the advanced B-52H "Cadillac" models here, to have a look back into yesteryear. Since the entry hatch was jammed, gaining entry would take hours for a flightline maintenance team to help us open it. The rumor was the crew that flew it into Barksdale many years before could not get it open, and it had been jammed ever since.

Once it was opened, I put my boot on the entry hatch and pulled myself up into the belly of the bomber and entered the dark world of the navigator-bombardiers ... and yesteryear. As I regained my balance at the top of the steps, my eyes began to adjust to the dim light in the windowless den.

First, I could see the yellow radarscopes and the instrument panels; then the ejection seats came clearly into view. Most all the black boxes, AN/ASQ-48 Bombing and Navigation System, vacuum tube racks, gauges and switches were still there just as they had been decades before. The smell was now musty with evidence of mold, instead of the sweet smell of JP-4 kerosene as it had been in Southeast Asia, but the feeling was unmistakably the same ... dark, cramped and uninviting - "The Black Hole of Calcutta" as we called it.

The space was even more cramped than I remembered. I squeezed between the two seats and sat down on the right-side ejection seat and placed my hand on the navigation table, which was covered in dust and grime. I looked to the left viewing the gray tracking handle on the radar navigator's table and the yellow indicator lights near the ceiling that indicated to the navigation team that the bombs had released from the bombay. In my mind for a few moments I was home in flight, high over Vietnam, staring at the blinking, dim yellow lights. I could even feel the upward thrust of the aircraft as the 108 bombs released for their long drop to the enemy target more than five miles below -- somewhere in the jungle. Then I was back.

Today, as director of the Eighth Air Force Museum here, my mission is not to hit a target in Vietnam, but rather to save this war veteran, which was hit by a surface-to-air missile over the Duc Noi Target area North of Hanoi in North Vietnam on Dec. 18, 1972, during the Linebacker II Operation.

For those of us that flew Arc-Light missions in Vietnam, the D model is the only real true B-52 combat aircraft. With its black underbelly and "meanest mother in the valley" reputation, it looks like the dealer of death, which it truly was.

The restoration has begun. New sheet metal is being skillfully riveted on to the wings while years of corrosion are being scraped off. A primer and coat of fresh new paint was being applied over the black faded paint on the fuselage. This was the first step in trying to save this peace of Air Force history.

The new museum is in the very early stages of development, but the first steps in the long road are encouraging. As with any birthing process pain is always involved. The concept is to revitalize the existing small museum and use that as a staging area and spring board to gain community grassroots support for launching a new state-of-the-art facility. It will one day house this B-52D combat veteran along with the museum's vast collection of other historic aircraft, especially the B-24, B-17 and B-29 of WWII fame. The local community support is the key to this undertaking as it is with all preservation efforts.

As I stand looking at my old friend, I can see it spotlighted in the new museum, the story of America's airpower being told to a new generation. All bombs on target!