Mission Planning

by Phil Rowe

Some who have read my Web Page stories have asked about the process of mission planning, those activities that took place before flight. I'll respond, gladly, but limit it to the mission planning for B-58's in the 1960's, for that is representative of the process and reflects the close coordination between crewmembers.

The B-58 flight crew consisted of three officers, each of who occupied a separate cockpit in the airplane. They sat in tandem, one behind the other. The pilot, also known as the aircraft commander (AC) sat up front. That's only logical, I guess, since he had to see where we were going. Behind him was the radar-navigator, who also served as the bombardier. And bringing up the rear, in the aft seat, was the defensive systems officer (DSO).

That fellow was a "Jack of All Trades," so to speak. His primary duty was defense of the bomber, using his electronic countermeasures gear and a 20mm tail gun remotely controlled by a radar system. But the DSO was also a de facto communications officer, handling the several radios. And he was a flight engineer, responsible for aircraft performance calculations and inflight monitoring. And finally, he was a sort of co-pilot, working with the AC very closely, even to the point of reading the checklists and verifying pilot responses as various stages of the flight. Fuel and aircraft weight and balance were of great concern to the DSO.

Mission planning, for a typical training flight of eight hours or so, began with the posting of the weekly flight schedule for the B-58 organization. The Bombardment Wing was comprised of three Bombardment Squadrons. Schedules were typically posted on Thursdays for the following week. On that schedule would normally appear the day and time of the flights, listed by crew numbers. Our crew was number S-14.

The schedule also listed the takeoff time, aerial refueling time, and citations about route elements to be flown and targets to be "hit". For a typical daytime flight, with an 8:00 A.M. takeoff, our crew might be scheduled to first fly a navigation practice leg. That would terminate at the aerial refueling control point (ARCP), where we were to meet our tanker. After refueling we might be sent to fly either (but seldom both) a low level route culminating in a simulated bomb drop at a radar bomb scoring (RBS) site, or a high altitude supersonic route also culminating in an RBS bomb run.

A day before the scheduled flight, the crew reported to the squadron mission planning room, a large area with several conference-size tables, dozens of chairs and shelves holding aeronautical charts and a variety of worksheets and forms, as well as a collection of plotters, straight edges and aids to chart drawing. The whole day would be spent there.

Each crewmember drew his own charts. Sometimes several would be needed, small scale Jet Navigation charts (JN's) for the high altitude portions of the route and larger scale more detailed charts for the low level portions. The route of flight would be drawn on each chart, annotated at various points to indicate the activities planned. Weather forecast data would be used to predict winds expected at various points along the route, enabling the navigator to calculate groundspeeds and time of arrival at various points.

Since some mission activities were time-dependent, such as rendezvous with the tanker, bomb release times at the various RBS sites, and the very important scheduled take-off time, minor route adjustments were made to ensure proper timing throughout the mission.

While the radar-navigator moved on to his target study activities, after the general route was defined, the other crewmembers also did their own special tasks. The pilot prepared his flight clearance forms, defining the route of flight in terms used by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Every segment of the planned route, from the take-off and climbout path to each route waypoint and the let-down and approach to be used before landing had to be listed. That flight clearance form would be reviewed by several individuals and agencies before we took off.

The DSO spent the remainder of his mission planning hours in two primary activities. He calculated the fuel usage expected throughout the flight, from start engines to taxi and take-off to the climbout to initial cruise altitute to aerial refueling. Then he'd plan for the fuel to be received from the tanker, as well as making calculations of what flight time and activity options might remain if the tanker did not show. Secondarily, the DSO marked his own route charts with reminders of electronic warfare or gunnery actions planned. And then the DSO marked his charts with the radio communications reminders needed at various points enroute, noting important frequencies and call signs to be used.

Much of the DSO's time was also spent predicting aircraft performance information that he and his pilot needed to know. He calculated the position of the elevons (combined elevators and ailerons of the B-58) at various mission route points, for this information would confirm the aircraft center-of-gravity position should fuel or CG instruments fail in flight (which they were known to do). Since each aircraft and its attached fuel/bomb pod was slightly different, the DSO had to check with the maintenance people to ascertain the specifics of weight and balance data, fuel load and whether or not ammunition or chaff and flares were loaded. All expendables, like these, could alter the calculations.

Finally, at the end of a long day of detailed mission planning, the crew reviewed their planning with the AC and then met with squadron leaders (typically the Operations Officer or Commander) to brief them on the details of the upcoming mission.

That was part of the overall supervision and review process that Strategic Air Command (SAC) was known for. Crews were monitored and controlled by supervisors at multiple levels, primarily to ensure that they were competent, following approved procedures and knew in detail every aspect of the missions to be flown. They practiced and practiced in training flights what they would have to do in actual combat.

So, dear reader, you now have a little idea of what SAC bomber crews did even before they went out to fly. Mission planning was an important part of the process.