B-52 Midnight Express Ghosts
Presuming you've read other
parts of this website, or been to one of my many aviation talks, you
already know that I think airplanes are living things, and as such,
have Souls. And, inhabiting them are Ghosts - the Ghosts of those
humans who have been connected with them, worked on them, flew them.
One of my self-appointed jobs is to save the Souls of as many of these
airplanes as I can. But, of equal importance, is to find the
Ghosts who inhabit these Ships of the Sky, and reconnect them with
their airplanes - and most importantly, tell their stories to the other
people who will see these historic aircraft. And, if unable
to find them, then to learn their stories and
make them part of the history for all to see.
After obtaining this particular B-52 from USAF, I spent many hours and
days poking around her silent shell, as I often do with my many airplanes, thinking about "things."
Thinking about the history of this particular airplane, from
manufacture, through service with the Strategic Air Command, to her
retirement. Thinking about the people who were connected with
this airplane - who they were; what they did; where they were now.
B-52G 2584, the Midnight Express, is a particularly inviting airplane
with which to conduct a Ghost search. For the first 10 years of
her life, she was part of the Chrome Dome fleet - B-52s that would
launch and remain airborne for 24-26 hours while orbiting near the
North Pole. They were armed with thermonuclear weapons (H-bombs)
and were prepared to set course for their targets in the Soviet Union
on receipt of appropriate commands. About one third of the bomber
fleet were airborne at any given time. Another one third were
standing Alert, with crews close by, prepared to become airborne within 20
minutes to likewise head for the USSR.
If you've been on a B-52,
or studied my posted pictures, you will be struck - as were all the
visitors that I have taken aboard - with how tiny are the crew areas.
A giant airplane with barely anyplace to stand or move around.
There is no lavatory - just a crude porta- potty device. On the
"G" models, there is no galley - not even a hot plate - for
meals. Eating involves brown bagging it. The only place to
lie down is on the small floor aisleway on the upper deck. All
six seats are ejection seats - hard, uncomfortable. The crew wore
parachutes which served as their seat cushions. Sitting on them
for an hour would be intolerable. For 24 hours - unimaginable.
Sack time over Greenland
Crews took off with literally the burden of the world resting on their
shoulders. Should the order come, they would change course to
begin a bombing run to end all bombing runs. If they got through, they
would rain death and destruction on the population below such as had
never been seen or dreamed of. If they completed their missions
and managed to escape back towards North America, its existence would
be very problematic. They would have been both eye-witness to,
and participants in, the destruction of mankind on Planet Earth.
The mutual destruction theory would ensure their home bases would be
likely targets. Their homes and families would be likely victims
of the nuclear holocaust.
It takes strong men to shoulder that sort of responsibility and to face
that sort of reality. Men who were highly trained, highly
skilled, and highly dedicated. Men who could be entrusted with
that kind of responsibility. And, who lived in the physical
hardships just described, while receiving paltry compensation for their
efforts. Dedicated men.
I enter into the airplane, often by myself, and sit there looking
around, and contemplate those realities, and that history. It is
quiet. It is dark. Sometimes it is hot, sometimes cold. Believe me, I can see those
ghosts. I can hear them. Like the ballplayers coming out of
the cornfield, they are there. They are with me. This is no
simple machine. Its history and prior life seep from every nook and cranny.....
Later in her life, our airplane was converted into a conventional
bomber, dropping iron bombs in the Viet Nam War. She would
shuttle from Guam to Thailand and back again, on long combat
missions. These were not "what-if" nuclear missions, but actual
combat sorties where you rain death and destruction from the sky, while
the enemy defenses try to kill you and shoot you down. 26 B-52s
were lost just that way, from enemy fighters or SAM missiles or AAA
fire. Their crews were either killed, became missing, or were
captured, with some dying in captivity.
A complete listing of all these losses, including crew names and status, can be found on this website - Click here.
Takeoff from Andersen AFB - Guam
The crews on these missions faced not some theoretical
Armageddon, but the real and daily reality of not coming home.
The threat and the fears shared by all those in combat, whether they be
Spad pilots in WW I or the B-17 and B-29 bomber crews in WW II - with
over 30,000 UK based air crew alone, becoming KIA. Something to
think about when you strap yourself into the seat, and something I
think about as I quietly look around the now silent interior. A holy place.
I climb into the pilot's seat and feel like a
trespasser. "Talk to me" I ask of the quiet airplane. I
know she's alive, but alas she cannot talk. Whose seat is this
that I am sitting in?
Well, after our reunion, I found out. A Ghost did, in fact, come
out of the cornfield and his name was Jim. Jim Gabriel. All
these years, and I had been wondering, and now I knew. I was
sitting in Jim's seat.
Here's da 'Man back home again
Jim and I have since become good friends, and have now visited several
times. He lets me sit in "his seat" when he is not here - he
lives in Texas. I keep it warm for him. No longer am I a trespasser. And no longer do I wonder. It's circumstances like these that keep me coming back to these old flying machines - again and again.
Midnight Express, it turns out, had a notable combat record in
Southeast Asia. Operation Linebacker II was initiated when the
North Vietnamese walked out of the Paris Peace Talks. Eleven days
in December 1972 that bombed Hanoi and Haiphong and resulted in their
quick return to negotiations. 2584 participated in
that first day of the bombings. Turns out the old girl has quite a
history - a history she has been keeping from me. But, slowly,
it's coming out.
Actual combat mission - enroute Viet Nam
When we held our 2012 Reunion, I
got to meet ALL the Ghosts from that mission.
Here they are on Guam preparing to depart - December 1972.
And here they are in front of the airplane in September 2012 - 40 years
later. We posed them in exactly the same positions as in the
historic original photo.
Those two pictures send shivers up my spine. and yours?
They represent everything I do.
If you feel like I do - Click Here.
L-R Jim Gabriel - A/C; Walt Wegesser - C/P; Alan Kerby - RN; Carl Carnethon - NAV;
Bob Gee - EWO; Ray Culver - Tail Gunner