Cold War Era

BUFF driver explains how it was flying the B-52 on a low level training sortie

In 1980s, with the enhancement of the Russian air defense systems, the only way to perform an effective B-52 strike against Soviets was penetrating the target area avoiding the radar detection by performing a low level flight

After it became operational in 1955, the B-52 remained the main long-range heavy bomber of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) Strategic Air Command (SAC) during the Cold War.

In 1980s, with the enhancement of the Russian air defense systems, the only way to perform an effective strike against Soviets was penetrating the target area avoiding the radar detection by performing a low level flight.

An interesting description of how a training sortie of this demanding mission was performed, has been released by Mike Mastromichalis, an experienced BUFF driver, to Walter J. Boyne for his book Boeing B-52 A Documentary History. According to Mastromichalis, the flight plan was prepared the day before the mission by the BUFF six crew members, in the course of a five hours briefing during which the fuel log and other take off data were set (typical for a low level training mission were a 160,000 pound fuel load and no weapons). Then after the mission planning the crew rested 12 hours before flying.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. B-52H Stratofortress 2nd BW, 20th BS, LA/60-0008 “Lucky Lady IV”. Barksdale AFB, LA

The take off took place from one of the SAC air bases, such as Robins Air Force Base (AFB) in Georgia, in the morning of the following day and after the B-52 had reached an altitude of about 31,000 feet and cruise air speed, the first training activity, in the form of an air refueling with a KC-135A took place. Typically the tanker orbited at an altitude of 30,000 feet, so the BUFF aircrew had to descend below the Stratotanker, closing in to one mile range and then starting a climb to close in to refueling position, under the tanker.

As Mastromichalis explained the air to air refueling with a B-52 is not an easy task. In fact the pilot has to maintain the aircraft stable allowing the boom operator to put the end of the boom in B-52’s refueling receptacle, placed aft of the cockpit. If any deviation from the refueling envelope takes place the boom will retract and disconnect avoiding its breakage. Due to the fact that a standard B-52 air to air refueling procedure lasts about 25 minutes, with the boom engaged for 17 ½ minutes a high level of concentration is required to safely execute this dangerous maneuver.

Prior to the low level flight, the crew trained in celestial navigation for one and a half hour. During this event the navigator used a sextant to ‘shoot the sun’ and plot the aircraft position: relying on time, heading and airspeed the navigator was able to bring the aircraft to the next waypoint even if all the sophisticated onboard navigation equipments were lost.

A KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft boom operator refuels a B-52 Stratofortress

Then started the low level run that, as told by Mastromichalis, was flown in one of the defined low level routes set aside for SAC’s use, such as the #41/42 which entered at Montgomery, Alabama and ended in Georgia. After having descended from high altitude to 400 feet from the ground, the crew spent the first 15 minutes testing the terrain avoidance radar to determine its reliability and once checked out, the crew could follow the electronically generated trace that depicted the terrain in front of them. After an hour and a half of tiring low level flight, the aircrew started the bomb run. Thanks to a USAF ground site, the bomb dropping capability could be determined.

During the bomb run the six men onboard the B-52 were very busy: while the Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) faced several threats from the ground such as simulated anti aircraft fire and surface-to-air missile (SAM) attacks, the radar navigator prepared to deliver the simulated bombs.

After having dropped the bombs, the Stratofortress could return to the base, where before landing the crew training in instrument approaches. Then, after the landing the crew could took part to the Maintenance debriefing, before ending a very tiring day.

Boeing B-52 A Documentary History is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Senior Airman Chris Putnam U.S. Air Force

Artwork courtesy of

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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