Mountain Home AFB, Idaho.--With deadpan matter-of-factness, Maj. Robert W. Nicholson, Jr., described his feelings of fleeting mortality as granite cliffs flashed by the porthole of his B-1B.
`I was thinking about staying alive,' said the instructor defensive systems officer describing a Sept. 21 flight during which his crew--members of the 319th Bombardment Wing from Grand Forks AFB, N.D: flew the big bomber on `hard ride.'
Hard ride only recently has been approved for use by operational units after an extensive test program, wing officials said.
Previously, `soft' and `medium' ride were used, which inflicted far less G force on the aircrew but might make the aircraft easier to track, they said.
As the system has proved its reliability, Strategic Air Command has removed restrictions on its use, wing officials said.
Trusting the B-1B's terrain-following radar system to perform feats faster than the eyes and hands of even the best pilots, they sizzled through a range of 5,000- to 10,000-foot mountains at a constant distance of less than 500 feet above the ground.
With solid rock only an instant away at their 630 mph penetration speed, crew members have developed tricks to lessen the tension, Nicholson said. Because only the pilot and co-pilot can see when a precipitous drop is coming, they call out `pushover' before they get to the top of a mountain or ridge, he said.
`It's too drastic if you (the defensive and offensive systems operators in back) don't know what is going on,' Nicholson said.
In fact, low flight involves all four crew members, with the pilot and co-pilot calling out the location of approaching mountains, the offensive systems officer reporting their heights and the DSO suggesting the best way to fly around them, Nicholson said.
Because of the attention-riveting aspects of low flight on hard ride in the B-1B and the lack of room for error, Nicholson said, `there's no way I would (fly) in the aircraft' without complete trust in the system.
While it is easy to find critics of the B-1B in the halls of Congress, Nicholson's obvious enthusiasm was much more representative of the general feeling on the flight line here.
Air and ground crews were just short of euphoric about the performance of the big bomber as they finished the 8th Air Force's nearly month long Mighty Warrior '89 exercise.
For the first time, they tested the ability of large numbers of B-1Bs--attended by big-engined KC-135R Stratotankers--to complete a heavy combat schedule while flying from a bare-bones base and while isolated from much of their SAC home-base support, said Col. Harvard L. Lomax, the wing commander.
To deploy to a fighter base, `as we would to Europe . . . was novel,' said Maj. Jeff Steig, tanker operations officer for the exercise.
Mountain Home is a base for F-111s and EF-111s. After the arrival of an advance party to set up tents, showers and other basics, seven bombers, four tankers and about 400 people were deployed there for 12 days of intensive flying and conventional bombing practice, he said.
After spraying to rid the area of black widow spiders and ants, the camp settled into a routine broken only by a single case of heat exhaustion. Entertainment was provided by busing camp members to university football games and shopping trips to Boise, Idaho; pingpong tournaments `if the wind wasn't bad'; and the chance for many--including aircrews--to watch live B-1B bombing for the first time.
The bomber force completed all 69 planned takeoffs on time and each crew flew eight or nine sorties, said Col. Walter L. Mosher, the wing's deputy commander for maintenance.
Moreover, it was all squeezed into a quarter of the normal training time, said Capt. Jeff Smith, a B-1 aircraft commander.
The schedule, which required a bomber to fly as often as four times in a single day, was met despite damage to four engines, said Lt. Col. John Priecko, commander of the 46th Bombardment Squadron.
Ice formed on air inlets, broke loose and was sucked into the engines, causing damage, Priecko said.
The ice formed after several aircraft descended through layers of rain clouds that began at 25,000 feet, Priecko said. If the B-1s had been at low level, air friction would have kept ice from forming, he said.
Problems arose when the aircraft were descending at low speed, Priecko said. Sensors to detect ice buildup missed some areas, he said, adding that improvements in the de-icing system are in the works.
The supporting tankers flew 58 sorties--missing only one takeoff--pumped 1.2 million pounds of fuel, hauled 1,020 passenagers and provided the logistics train to Grand Forks to quickly provide needed spare parts, Steig said.
`Two years ago, we couldn't have done this,' Priecko said. `We're on a roll.'
Of the bombing sorties, four were scrubbed for possible mechanical problems, two because of thunderstorms in the range area and one because an unauthorized truck drove across the target, a preliminary report said.
Despite these problems, the crews put 76 percent of their bombs on the target at an average distance from the center of 128 feet, Mosher said. This was accomplished even though the B-1's speed has cut the time for a bomb run from six or seven minutes to two or three minutes, he said.
Ten years ago, that distance would have been a winning score; `now, it's average,' Mosher said.
`The only reason it wasn't 100 percent hits was because we were trying out a lot of new techniques,' said Maj. Glenn Pallazza, assistant chief of the offensive systems branch.
Squadron officers said the most embarrassing part of the exercise was an experiment to see how well crews could bomb by sight. Poor scores lowered the average and showed the crews' attempts to judge the release point by sight was the worst bombing method available.
A factor in increasing accuracy is that the radar used for bombing is so sensitive that it can spot the corner posts in chainlink fences, said Capt. Kevin Heard, an OSO. Such small checkpoints can be used as reference points for precisely locating targets, he said.
While a B-52 can hit a hangar-sized target, the phased-array radar on the B-1 can accurately bomb something as small as a trash bin, Heard said. The sensitivity results from the radar creating an artificial antenna a third of a mile long, he said.
Moreover, it is a sensitivity that the eye--stunned by movements of 1,000 feet per second--cannot match, Heard said.
The bombing improved as the exercise progressed, and the last bomb dropped on a Sept. 21 mission to an airfield in `East Slavia'--actually Tolicha Airfield on one of the bombing ranges north of Nellis AFB, Nev: hit within nine feet of the target.
The bomb was dropped by Capt. Jerry Murphy, an instructor OSO who was assigned to the planning staff but wheeled his way onto a mission. After studying tapes of the other drops, he thought he saw a way to improve.
Murphy is vague with outsiders about the exact process that gave him such extraordinary accuracy.
The OSO said he used different offsets as aiming points than the other OSOs did. Squadron mates said he cranked a little `Kentucky windage' into the computer.' The result was a bomb dropped within a desk's length of where it was aimed.
`I think we've started breaking the code' that will allow them to routinely bomb with such precision, Murphy said.
Originally, B-1 crews started with B-52 Stratofortresses and FB-111 bombing data, Priecko said. Now, practitioners such as Murphy are learning the strengths and special capabilities of the B-2, he said.
The precision is so good, B-1 units `may pick up the role of destroying (single) buildings' instead of the area bombing done by heavy bombers in the past, Nicholson said.
`We're writing the book on (B-1) tactics,' said Capt. John Ballentine, operations officer for Mighty Warrior.
In addition, tactics developed for the B-1 may be used by crews of the Air Force's newest bomber, the B-2A, said Brig. Gen. Patrick P. Caruana, newly appointed commander of the 42nd Air Division at Grand Forks.
Having flown the B-2 simulator, Caruana said it is a high-performance aircraft and will deliver its weapons essentially the same way the B-1 does.
To hit their targets, B-1s first must get through enemy defenses.
Prior to Mighty Warrior, various B-1 crews skirmished with Navy F-14 Tomcats, Canadian F/A-18 Hornets and the Air Force's F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons, Ballentine said. Afterward, they went over the missions while face to face with the fighter pilots they flew against, he said.
As a result, B-1 pilots are little worried by interceptors, Ballentine said. The radar signature of the B-1 is so slight and the defensive avionics good enough that radar missiles cannot lock on, he said.
While the B-1's defensive electronics have been the main criticism of the B-1 and they will never perform as hoped, they do function well enough to let the aircraft survive existing air defenses, Capt. Daniel P. Grenier said.
The ECM system on the aircraft now can sort threats by priority and react against them automatically. The system also knows when it is dangerous to use ECM, he said.
The philosophy of deception and camouflage is to ensure that the aircraft is never spotted, so that it does not have to overpower defenses, Grenier said.
Gallentine said his confidence in the ECM has doubled, and in his experience it invariably has forced pursuit aircraft to abandon their radar missiles and switch to infrared missiles or guns.
Flares can lure the heat-seeking missiles away from the bomber.
Moreover, with friendly fighter support to keep the defenders busy, the B-1 becomes even harder to attack, Gernier said. With the bomber flying four or five miles ahead of the escort, any defender turning behind the B-1 would itself become a target, he said.
`It proved the value of mutual support to us,' Grenier said.
As for the big land-and ship-based surveillance radars, the B-1 crews again said they were not worried.
They are vulnerable only at high altitudes where they sometimes fly to conserve fuel en route to distant targets, a squardron pilot said.
However, to attack the B-1s at such altitudes would require one-way missions, because even long-range fighters such as the MiG-29 Fulcrums would use up all their fuel just reaching the bombers before they descended to low altitude and disappeared into the background, he said.
After flying in recent months against U.S. shipboard and land surveillance radars, crews think that with surprise, 95 percent of an attacking B-1 force can get through existing defenses undetected, Nicholson said.
`Offensively, we're better than we thought,' Priecko agreed. The only radar that was effective in spotting the B-1 was the computer-enhanced variety aboard Aegis cruisers, he said.
During recent exercises with Air National Guard F-4 Phantom IIs escorting B-1s, the formation's position was revealed by the fighters' heavy smoke trail against a white cloud layer, Nicholson said. Other than this one visual sighting, the bombers got through U.S. defenses, he said.
`We surprised a lot of fighter people,' said a senior pilot. `They can't find us and can't catch us.
The enemy gets one pass and then the B-1 is gone, Priecko said. The bomber is a big plane with lots of gas that allows it to outrun interceptors for hours, he said.
A critical part of Mighty Warrior was to test how few spare parts a large B-1 detachment could deploy with and still keep its aircraft flying.
After experimenting with smaller deployments of up to five B-1s, Mosher--the 319th BMW's deputy commander for maintenance--and his team were able to predict their needs fairly well.
About 60 percernt of the repairs were made the same day. The rate went up to 80 percent after one day and to 90 percent after two days, Mosher said. The longer delays resulted when parts had to be flown from Grand Forks, he said.
Of 250 types of items brought with them, including commonly used gaskets, screws and bolts, only 70 were used, said SSgt. Peter Bohannon, NCO in charge of the wing's war-readiness section. Of 130 parts requested, more than 100 were on hand, he said.
There have been some surprises in maintaining the B-1, Mosher said. Engine nozzles wear out faster than expected because of the high turbulence encountered flying low-level missions in the mountains, he said.
This was not a specific Mighty Warrior problem, Mosher said.
But high tire use was attributable to the exercise because Mountain Home's asphalt runways used them up at a faster rate than concrete runways, said Steig, whose transports hauled in spare parts.
Overall, the 15 percent attrition rate of missions scrubbed at the last minute because of maintenance problems just did not occur, said Capt. Alan Byerly, a maintenance officer.
In addition to canceling no missions, the detachment had less than 13 percent of its aircraft requiring repair at any time, Mosher said.
`What's shocking all of us is the reliability,' he said.
They simple didn't have any major problems, said A1C Stephen Neal, a defensive avionics, navigation, communications systems specialist. No planes were grounded because of the much-maligned electronic countermeasures system, he said.
The biggest challenge came in the form of an unexpected technical order that grounded five of seven planes for 48 hours until inspections and repairs were made, Mosher said. During that time, the two remaining B-1s were flown up to four times a day by different crews, and no missions were scrubbed, he said.
Mosher and other maintenance officials talked about some of the problems that plagued the B-1 in the past.
Terrain-following software: The computer software problems essentially have been licked and aircrews are routinely flying their aircraft between 300 and 500 feet, even in the mountains.
The B-1s routinely are starting to use a new version of the software (designated 4.5), which almost eliminates unexpected `fly ups,' Mosher said. (At any hint of malfunction during low-level flight, the B-1 is designed to automatically climb to an altitude above the highest terrain.)
Smith, who has about 60 flying hours with the new software, said enough imperfections have been removed from the software that he has had no fly ups that he did not initiate.
After wringing the system out `like never before' during Mighty Warrior, aircrews are so confident that they plan to begin terrain-following night flights in October, Ballentine said.
Restriction remain only on flying over heavy snowpacks and sand, materials that give readings different from other surfaces, Smith said.
Defensive electronics: The best plan is to never get in a position where ECM has to be used to foil an enemy air- or ground-launched missile, Nicholson said.
When the system is on, it does not emit signals that would give away the B-1's position until they are needed, Nicholson said. When jamming is used, it emits only in a certain direction, he said.
Moreover, when ECM emits jamming signals that could reveal its position, it does so only for a short time and then shuts down, Nicholson said.
While improvements in the defensive system continue, `we have what we need' to survive today's threat, Nicholson said. `But it's a chess game, (and) we have to stay a step ahead.'
Stall-inhibiting system: SIS II has been improved so the B-1 can fly at low levels carrying more weight, Ballentine said. That means more fuel and an increased strike range for the bomber, he said.
It allows pilots `to press closer to the margins of the (flight) envelope than before' without getting into trouble, Smith said.
Overall, Mighty Warrior '89, for the B-1B and its aircrews, is both an end and a beginning.
It is an end in that the original crews--carefully selected from among top bomber, transport and training pilots--are completing their tours and being transferred.
They are being replaced by less rigorously selected aircrews, including the first second lieutenant to serve as B-1 co-pilot.
While the new crews are younger, they are more than a match in aggressiveness and enthusiasm for those they replace, Heard said. Moreover, since they are `growing up in the system,' they have fewer bad habits to overcome and adjustments to make, he said.
Mighty Warrior is a beginning in that the B-1 can begin taking its place as a qualified bombing craft that routinely can drive on targets at 200 feet altitude and more than 600 mph.
The B-1B's performance in Mighty Warrior and in the months before is the `best evidence for the skeptical,' Lomax said.
Mighty Warrior has put an end to the old joke that SAC bombers can fly anywhere in the world, but can only land at home.