Top Stories

War Birds

The flying workhorses of the U.S. military

Saturday, 6 a.m.
Sunday, 6 a.m.
All times ET

Captured: Inside the Army's Secret School
Sunday, 8 p.m., 11 p.m.
All times ET







Walter Boyne is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and pilot who has flown various aircraft, including the B-47 and B-52 bombers. Boyne is also the former director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington and founder of Air & Space magazine. He is arguably the most prolific author of books and novels on military history and aircraft. Among them, books about the B-52, B-17, B-24, B-1 and B-2, the history of the U.S. Air Force and "Beyond the Horizons: The Lockheed Story." Boyne is also a regular contributor to various aircraft magazines. CNN spoke to him at his home in Virginia.

On the first days of Operation Enduring Freedom

What was really surprising about the attack on Afghanistan when it opened up was the synergy between 50-year-old weapons and space. The B-52, for example, came in, was able to use weapons that depended upon space navigation to get (to their targets). The B-1 in a similar way. And you just stop to think that when all of these aircraft, even the B-52 were first conceived, this kind of close employment against this kind of target was unthinkable.

You would never have thought about an isolated Afghanistan outpost as being the subject of an attack by these three big bombers. And yet, with modern equipment and with the latest scientific things that they have that enable them to use GPS (Global Positioning Systems), they were able to take out targets that otherwise would have been impossible to find.

One of the great things is the fact that we're at last really getting some joint operations. Joint operations were a big factor during World War II, and they never quite worked. In Korea they didn't quite work, in Vietnam they didn't quite work. We had the various route packages divided up so that the Navy could use some, and (the Air Force) could use the others. Here, as in the Persian Gulf War, the cooperation between the services is much better and you see such things as tankers have to be divided among the various services, and were so necessary in this operation because of the great distances involved. So I think that if anything we could really salute the people who worked jointly in this operation.

On the role of fighter and attack aircraft over Afghanistan

Even against Afghanistan you have to have combat air patrols because you never know when they'll get an airplane off and it'll be a significant threat. They could get one of their fighters off. And they had to be capped, they had to be suppressed. So the first role of the fighters is always is to get air supremacy. We used to talk about air superiority and air superiority no longer works. You want air supremacy. You want to be able to operate with absolute impunity over enemy territory. So the fighter jets do that at first. Then they are also multi-roled and so they're able then to do some suppression of enemy air defense. Take out their radars. And, if necessary, bomb the targets that are otherwise allocated to the heavy bombers.

They had, certainly a semi-integrated air defense system. It wasn't anything like that in Bosnia or anything like that in Iraq. But the potential for even one lost nowadays is just staggering. If we would lose it'd be to for example to an Afghanistan missile, the repercussions would be enormous. Not only politically, but in terms of morale and everything else. So it was you had to you had to treat them as a fully qualified enemy and go in and take them out and fortunately that's what we were able to do.

On the B-52 bomber

There are a number of things that keep the B-52 relevant. One is the superb crew training. The crews are such professionals. People don't understand that these people are all like PhD's with very a scientific bent, and they extract the maximum from their airplane. It isn't that they simply get in and fly a mission and they shepherd it from one point to another. They fly the airplane in such a way that they get the very most possible out of it. And one of the reasons that they can do this is that they've had a whole new series of weapons provided to them.

B-52 has a five-man crew. And they have an aircraft commander, a man who sits in the left seat and is like a captain of a ship. He's responsible for it from the time it's assigned to him until he finishes the mission. He is aided by a pilot who is always almost equally competent, probably junior working up to become an aircraft commander. They have a radar operator who's essentially a radar observer and a bombardier. He handles the bombardiering. They have a navigator, who is essential. And even though we have modern inertial guidance and celestial observations are a thing of the past and we the GPS and so on, he's still essential. And then, perhaps most crucial of all, you have the electronic countermeasures (ECM) officer. And his is really a fencing job. He goes in and he reads what the enemy's doing. He offsets what the enemy's doing. The enemy will offset what he's doing. And it's back and forth. It takes a very very dedicated and intelligent type of person to do it. The average aircraft commander from another crew could walk into a room and see five people and he would pick out who was the aircraft commander, who's the pilot, who is the navigator, who is ECM, and who was the radar navigator. There's just personalities involved.

The B-52 is an interesting airplane to fly. And it really depends upon where you're coming from. I suspect an F-15 pilot coming into a B-52 would feel quite put upon. But for the bomber pilots who came out of B-36's and B-50's and even B-47's, the B-52 was a great airplane to fly. It was truck-like. It's not a fighter. And there's no sense in pretending that it is. It's awkward on the ground, awkward appearing. When you apply the power -- and especially the old models before they got this so called Cadillac, the B-52 H -- there's a lot of shaking rattling and rolling. As you rumbled down the runway you're actually steering the aircraft with the brakes. But pretty soon before it begins to takeoff you actually begin to fly on the wings. The wings begin to fly before the rest of the airplane does. And at the end of the runway, it lifts off in the air. Once the gear comes up you've got the flaps retracted, it's a very, very nice airplane to fly. Very, very docile. You're not going to do any slow rolls and a turn, anything like that.

It's designed for a long mission. Now, it's not the most comfortable airplane in the world. The seats are hard and there's not a lot of room to move around in. But on the other hand, it is comforting in the sense that it's so reliable. You look up and see all those gauges and you know that you've got an airplane that's going to get you there and get you back.

On the history of the B-52

The need for the bomber was the Soviet threat. The Soviet Union had a first-strike policy. They would have implemented the first strike against the United States. And this is not an allegation, this was in their doctrine. This is what they wrote about. They would have taken out the United States had they been able to. And they couldn't do that because the United States consistently maintained a position in which it would not attack first. But even if it didn't attack first, it would have such a tremendous second strike that it would devastate the Soviet Union. And the Soviet Union recognized that, and that's why they did not attack.

The B-52 came about because the B-47, which was an excellent airplane and revolutionary airplane, was short on range. And it also didn't have the bomb carrying capability of the B-52. In those days the nuclear weapons were quite heavy. We had 10,000-pound weapons. So you needed a bigger bomb bay capacity.

A lot was learned from the B-47 that was translated into the B-52. The B-52 became a potent symbol of the United States when it went on airborne alert. The airplane would be in the air, nuclear-armed, ready to attack the Soviet Union literally on a minute's notice. After the Cuban missile crisis, (Soviet Premier) Kruschev wrote in his memoirs that all during the time that he was thinking about it he could not stop thinking about the B-52s that were orbiting just outside his country. They could have gone in and he knew that they would have made their targets. And so it was necessary as a defensive weapon, as a deterrent.

It's really a shame in a way that the standard American impression of the B-52 is "Doctor Strangelove." The standard oppression should be of a bunch of people who were really working very hard in (an environment where) 24-hour days were common, of families who were taken to the extreme emotional (stresses). One thing about these B-52 missions that was never before in warfare: When the B-52's crews took off on a unit simulated combat mission -- which could have been a real mission, they never knew until they got airborne -- the thought was they would fly the mission, they would drop their bombs and they'd get back. But they had no idea if their families would be there. Never happened before in history that the family could have gone and the crews could have survived. So it was emotionally a tremendous, tremendous drain.

On the original design of the B-52

There's a wonderful, apocryphal story that the B-52 came as a stroke of blinding light to five or six of the top Boeing engineers in the Van Cleve Hotel in Dayton. And, in a way it's true, but it wasn't exactly blinding. They had been doing a lot of work on a lot of prototypes, one of which was the B-55 prototype, which was a turbo-prop airplane. It had swept wings, which is really another forerunner of the B-52.

But they had six great people from Boeing in the room and they also had the line back to their colleagues back in Seattle and they called on them. So within a matter of a weekend they put together a 33-page proposal for the B-52. Now that sounds a little bit remarkable. And when you think that today an airplane like the B-52 would require perhaps a carload, or several container loads of paperwork to get it done, it becomes even more outstanding. And Ed Wells, a great senior engineer, a man who was very influential in the B-17, the B-29, actually got balsa wood and carved a beautiful model of the B-52 prototype which is still in the Boeing archives.

On the development of the F-14 Tomcat

The Russians had developed some very sophisticated anti-shipping missiles. And they had developed the airplanes that could carry them. So the Navy needed a fleet defense fighter. They needed somebody that could get out well in advance of the fleet and take out any incoming aircraft and missiles miles and miles away from the fleet. And that was the mission of the Tomcat.

The Tom Cat nickname came about because of Adm. Thomas Moore -- who was the chairman of the joint chiefs -- and Rear Adm. Thomas Connelly. They named it Tomcat in their honor. But it was a fleet defense fighter and it had a very sophisticated missile system. The Phoenix missile system is still perhaps one of the most advanced in the world. It could pick up enemy aircraft and missiles as much as a 100 miles out. And had the huge radar which could guide them to it.

On military minds

People often make jokes about military intelligence and so forth, and in films, particularly, military people are often portrayed as essentially stupid. But you have to think now, we're operating in Afghanistan and we have superb facilities, the superb equipment, the precision-guided munitions, the satellites that we use, the GPS -- and all of that came from within the military framework. And it took young men and women who had ideas, operating at the various research labs, that took those ideas and brought t them to fruition. It took leaders who had the brains to say okay we can use these things in 15 or 20 years and they would structure their budgets to acquire them. So none of this stuff came about by accident. It came about because there's a lot of bright people working and they're still working. There are people working right now on things that will dazzle the population in 2040 just as we're being dazzled by what we see in Afghanistan.

So I just sort of like to tip my hat to the people that work anonymously in the weapons labs and elsewhere in the aircraft labs and work with their counterparts in the industry to produce weapons that really save Americans when America needs saving.