During the Jun. 2-3, 1995 Coronet Bat mission, the B-1s flew the entire route at 0.92 Mach using 100% Military Power, a day-and-a-half of continuous maximum non-afterburner performance.
Curtis LeMay first flew KC-135A 55-3126 to Buenos Aires in November 1957 to demonstrate the operational capability of American airpower in the face of Soviet ICBM potential. For most observers, however, Operation Long Legs was a publicity flight. Some 15 years later, Americans had become jaded by multiple moon-walking missions, the quagmire in Vietnam, and the self-destruction of a president. There was little public interest in notable aviation accomplishments. Military fliers, however, understood the practical applications of record-setting flights and pursued them without expectation of public accolades. In March 1980, for example, two B-52Hs from K I Sawyer AFB, MI, flew around the world non-stop, loitering over the Gulf of Arabia to monitor Soviet naval developments there. Hardly a grandstanding stunt, the flight showed that even without basing rights in a newly anti-American Iran, the United States could still keep tabs on the Soviet presence in the oil rich Straits of Hormuz. Strategic airpower trumped local weakness.
As explained by Robert S Hopkins III in his book The Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, during Operation Desert Storm, SAC’s newest bomber, the B-1 B Lancer sat idle as it remained on Single Integrated Operations Plane (SIOP) alert and suffered from engine problems. With the end of the Cold War and the rise in conventional regional conflicts, it was essential to demonstrate that the B-1 had the same global combat reach with conventional weapons as the B-52. What better way than to repeat the success of a globe-circling mission, replete with practice weapon drops at target ranges on three continents.
During the Jun. 2-3, 1995 Coronet Bat mission, two 9th BS, 7th BW B-1Bs (Bat 01 85-0047 Hellion, and Bat 02 85-0082 Global Power) under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Doug Raaberg and Captain Chris Stewart, respectively, flew non-stop from Dyess AFB, TX, to the Pachino Range at Sicily, then onward to the Tori Shima Range south of Japan, and finally to the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) in the United States before landing again at Dyess AFB 36 hours, 13 minutes after takeoff. The B-1s flew the entire route at 0.92 Mach using 100% Military Power, a day-and-a-half of continuous maximum non-afterburner performance. To do so required six aerial refuelings, with each airplane receiving on average 200,000lb (90,718kg) of fuel during each refueling. Coordinating six different refueling tracks involving 25 tankers from 12 different active duty, ANG, and AFRES units around the world was critical, as failure to ‘get the gas’ meant the end of the mission (or worse). The first two refuelings also included an airborne spare B-1, complicating tanker sequencing and fuel onloads. The second air refueling over the Western Mediterranean Sea demonstrated the many challenges of any multi-aircraft refueling, made even more difficult by the operational and timing demands of the round-the-world mission.
Each B-1B planned to arrive at GOLFO, the Air Refueling Initial Point (ARIP), with a minimum of 83,000lb (37,648kg) of fuel. Should the receiver be unable to complete the air refueling, there were three designated divert bases, with each listed by initial magnetic heading (MH), distance in nautical miles, time en route at 0.72M, and the amount of fuel required to reach the divert airfield. Mission timing was critical in order to set the speed record. The B-1s could not slow down to meet planned ARIP times, nor could they orbit at the ARIP to wait for their tankers. Moreover, the B-1s would fly from the ARIP to the tanker at 570 KIAS, far faster than the normal speed of 310 KIAS, complicating the tanker turn range/offset calculations. During the second air refueling, each B-1B was scheduled to receive a total of 170,000lb (77,111kg) of fuel from multiple KC-135Rs. The airborne spare, Bat 03, had the greatest challenge as it took on 102,000lb (46,266kg) during its first contact, making it quite heavy and sluggish during the two subsequent contacts. The B-1 crews were unaugmented, which meant a basic crew of two pilots and an offensive and defensive systems operator, so fatigue became a critical issue as the mission progressed, especially for the final refueling above Alaska.
Over the course of the 36-hour mission, the B-1s took on some 2.5 million pounds (1.13 million kilograms) of fuel, hit all of their designated targets (within 15ft/4.6m at Pachino) and set three world records in the C1.Q (330,000-440,000lb or 149,685-199,581kg) Class. At every refueling, the tankers were on time, ready to offload to the B-1s with no delay. As one of the B-1 pilots noted, `The tanker units just couldn’t have done any better and they were an extremely important part of our success.’ Aside from setting these records, the mission provided the B-1 unit and crews the opportunity to learn significant lessons in airspace management, tanker coordination, diplomatic clearances, fuel planning, weapons employment, and foreign range procedures.
Most importantly, Coronet Bat offered two crucial lessons. First, the mission’s success by means of advanced global communications made it appear straightforward, even simple, despite being highly complex and vulnerable to even minor interruptions. This demonstrates just how lucky earlier round-the-world flights — beginning with the aptly named Lucky Lady ll in 1949 — were to be successful. Second, the lessons of Coronet Bat were soon applied to 509th BW B-2 global airpower projection missions. Indeed, as the B-2 prepared for non-stop combat missions from Whiteman AFB, MO, to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 509th BW commander was Brigadier General Raaberg, whose personal experience as Bat 01 pilot and mission commander contributed directly to the success of those and future B-2 missions. Through it all, KC-135s and KC-10s made it look easy.
The Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker is published by Crecy and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force