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The flying workhorses of the U.S. military

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Lt. Gen. Thomas Keck is a former B-52 pilot and the recently retired commander of the 8th Air Force based at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. The 8th Air Force is one of three, active-duty numbered air forces in Air Combat Command. The 8th Air Force comprises nine wings and two groups, nearly 500 aircraft, more than 53,000 active-duty and civilian personnel, and more than 80 major installations worldwide. He spoke to CNN at the 50th Anniversary celebration of the maiden voyage of the B-52 at the Boeing plant in Wichita, Kansas.

On the history of the 8th Air Force and the first time he saw a B-52

You may recall the mighty eight goes way back in history to the World War II days and Jimmy Doolittle days when precision daylight bombing was first initiated and they started to perfect it towards the end of the war. The mighty eight now has most of the units in the central United States that include the B-2, the B-1 and the B-52.

The first time I saw the B-52, I was in elementary school. And I was at a summer camp at Andrews Air Force Base and they had an air show and we all got to see them. Later, my father became a wing commander when I was in high school and I didn't envision at that time flying B-52's. But I went to the Air Force Academy and graduated from pilot training, and I drew a B-52 assignment. At that time, there were 19 bases with B-52s and now we're down to two (Barksdale, Air Force Base in Louisiana, and Minot, Air Force Base in North Dakota). But going though Castle Air Force Base, we got to a point where they were discussing the future of the systems and they said that the B-52 will be around until 1985. And we kind of got a chuckle about that. We said it'll never last until 1985. I think what's kept the B-52 through these different eras and different families that have gone through them is the fact that it has great growth potential. We've updated the avionics to keep up with the times. And, clearly, with a large payload capacity in long range it is very suitable for adjustment and adaptation to whatever the environment is. So the fact that it can carry large loads great distances and deliver that massive firepower, that's what makes the difference. As you know, massive firepower is what brought (North) Vietnam finally to the negotiating table. It did it again in Desert Storm (in Iraq). It did it in Kosovo and (Operation) Allied Force. And although in the fight on terrorism there won't be any negotiating table, it is delivering that firepower to the enemy.

It's large. It's a crew airplane for sure. When I started, of course, there were six crewmembers. We're down to five now. They took the gunners out a number of years ago. It's a handful. We used to have T-shirts going through training that said "You've gotta be tough to fly the heavies." But you get used to it and the long in the tooth aviators that fly it, it comes second nature to them.

You have to look at the capability of the B-52. And probably the first thing it does is deter. As you know, it has a long history of deterrence in the Cold War. But the fact that people know that a B-52 and B-1 and B-2 for that matter can reach out and touch them if they're out of line or they show aggression to the United States is a deterrent factor. If you're beyond that deterrence and you're in a scenario where it has to be used, the enemy knows that the aircraft can reach out and get to them, (often) with standoff munitions. And it's not only carrying the conventional air launch cruise missile, but it will carry the future standoff weapons as they're developed.

On the roles of the B-1, B-2 and B-52s in Operation Enduring Freedom

As you're aware the B-2 flew the first three nights of the war. As a matter of fact they set records, 44 hour combat sortie, from Whiteman Air Force Base (in Missouri) to Afghanistan and recovering down in Diego Garcia (an island in the Indian Ocean). Obviously, the B-2 (stealth bomber) has the kick down the door capability. The stealthiness to go in and take down the integrated air defense system. The B-1 of has three bomb bays and is able to carry a wide variety of munitions. But it has the speed that the other platforms (bombers) don't have. And then you have the B-52 with again the massive firepower and capability and the adaptability to carry a number of different weapons.

On the long-range of the B-52

Probably the most prominent thing about a B-52 is (its) eight engines. Now, as we as we talk about someday perhaps re-engining the aircraft, we could easily go to four with a thrust that's available today. But start off with 250,000 pounds of fuel, which gives you great range to go that distance, that long-range strike capability out there. Now you have to pay attention. You have to stay with her when you're flying her. But the fact that it is forgiving in most aspects is important to the crewmembers. And when you go on a long duration sortie, a 29-hour sortie, for instance, and you have three air re-fuelings, unloading 500,000, 600,000 pounds of gas, it's a tiring aircraft also. But there is a little bit of room. It's a little deceiving if you've never been inside one. You'd think this large airplane would be pretty roomy inside. Well, in fact, it's just the opposite. It's fairly tight inside. But you can stand up, you can move around as you go through the different positions in the aircraft.

When you go on a sortie that long, it's nice to have a spare pilot, it's nice to have one pilot, one navigator sleeping at some time because when you think about it 29 hours is a day plus and you have to have your rest. Prior to, and as a matter of fact we're doing a lot of physiological work on long-duration sorties. We're looking at diets, we're looking at exercises, we're looking at a number of things to improve the performance of the crew members during those long missions.

On the bombing missions over Afghanistan

They'll take off, probably hit the tanker on the way into the target area, top off the tanks which gives them that loiter time if required. And believe me the leaders like to have all that firepower up there orbiting, waiting to strike targets. So, probably, after level off the first activity is air refueling. There are links now in the aircraft where we can get information on new targets, information on new threats and there's a lot of analysis going on inbound. When you fence in and get close into the country you go through all the combat procedures and checks. And at that time, everyone's kind of on the edge of their seat watching or getting ready for the bomb runs. With five people on interphone, it's very important that the crew coordination be very exact and very precise because with too many people talking it detracts from the proficiency. So, ideally, the less said, the better in those discussions on interphone and it happens very quickly. And everyone is very well trained. They know exactly what is being said. And when they have a question they ask the question. There's time for that. But clearly once you get on that bomb run inbound the discussion is fairly minimal.

Like most aviators, they train all their lives in a system to actually do it. No one hopes for combat, but if combat occurs they get the fulfillment of doing what they're trained for in their careers. They're very motivated, they're very excited that they're able to do what actually the whole world has looked to as solving the terrorism problem. As you know we had an outbreak of patriotism from our 9/11 incidents and the fact that the country got behind them even makes it more special to the aviators.

On the longevity of the B-52

My father flew B-52's. I flew them. My daughters could fly them if they were interested in doing that and their children could fly them. As a matter of fact, I heard someone say that the future aviators of the B-52 aren't born yet. And if we go to 2037 or 2040, that's very possible.

This is a very special day for us, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the B-52. But as I was leaving Barksdale, we had 20 aircraft cranking engines and taxiing out -- that's 160 engines cranking up -- and it's just another training day for the B-52 and the force out there. And as marvelous as the aircraft is, there you have to remember that it's bright young men and women back there that are maintaining and operating and pulling all this together. And that's the true force behind the force.