B-58 Flying Stories

Flight To Okinawa

by Phil Rowe
Our flight, from central Indiana to Guam, was fourteen and a half hours long and required two aerial refuelings. The second leg, to Okinawa, was under four, but included hair-raising adventures I'd rather not experience again.

On the 27th of July, 1964 we departed Bunker Hill Air Force Base, just north of Indianapolis, in our B-58 supersonic delta-winged bomber. Destinations : Anderson Air Base on the Pacific island of Guam and Kadena Air Base on Okinawa.

Our purpose, for going half way around the world, was to make our aircraft available to mechanics and weapons specialists who might, in the event of war, have to service and turn around our bomber for a second strike mission.

During the height of the "Cold War", the Strategic Air Command (SAC) might have to send its bombers anywhere in the world. Forward support bases not only held fuel and spare parts, they had highly skilled aircraft mechanics and munitions specialists, who could assist arriving planes and flight crews. In order that these experts might hone their skills, and actually practice with real airplanes, SAC occasionally deployed bombers to a number of forward bases.

The long hop from America's heartland to the tiny Pacific island of Guam was my first adventure over the vastness of that enormous body of water. Two KC-135 aerial tankers met us along the way. The first refueled us just off the California coast. The second topped our tanks west of Hawaii.

Though we had slightly sore derrieres by the time we arrived at Guam, the flight was routine and pretty uneventful. We remained seated at all times, each in his own individual cockpit, one behind the other. Up front sat the pilot, our aircraft commander. In the second station the navigator worked with the finest equipment of the day, and in the back seat I flew, surrounded by electronic countermeasures equipment and a fuel monitoring panel.

The B-58 was not designed for crew comfort on extended flights. There was no room to stand up or stretch our legs, so any flight over eight hours was a little uncomfortable. And, of course, we had no toilet facilities. Neither could we see or reach one another. All communication was by the interphone system.

In my backseat domain, I had several repeater flight instruments, which helped keep me informed of what was going on. I could see what was happening with our fuel, where it was and how much we consumed every hour. I also had gauges which told me our airspeed and Mach number, as well as our altitude. Another presented the position of the elevon control surfaces, the combined ailerons and elevators. And I could tell at a glance where our center-of- gravity was, if the computer was telling the truth.

I mention all this technical stuff because there are certain things one needs to understand about such a high performance airplane. The B-58 was not a forgiving bird. It demanded full attention. Adherence to strict procedures and keeping the fuel system in proper configuration was critical. So too was not overstressing the airplane by pulling excessive g-forces. That was so important that restraints on elevon travel, up and down, were imposed by an automatic control mechanism.

Only very well-qualified pilots, navigators and defensive systems operators (DSO's) could effectively handle the plane. The pilot and his DSO worked as a close-knit team to monitor and manage the complex systems. That airplane, which flew from 200 knots at liftoff to over 1200 knots at high altitude, was a real challenge.

We remained on Guam just a day before heading west to Okinawa, the large island south of Japan. But, it was at Guam that we got a new pilot, the Commander of our Air Division, a one-star general officer. He made me most uncomfortable, even for just the short four-hour hop.

It wasn't the rank difference, with me only a major and my driver a general. No, it was that I knew the general was very inexperienced in the B-58, just how inexperienced was to be discovered only after we started engines.

One of the important pre-flight checks, always made before roaring off into the blue, was assessing the performance of the flight control system. That G-limiting mechanism, designed to prevent over-stressing the airframe in different flight domains, required a complex checkout. Part of the system was automatic and part manually controlled. Checking out each part involved doing several control and instrument checks in a prescribed manner. It was my job to read the checklist to the pilot and verify the response of the systems.

My concern grew quickly when I discovered that I not only had to read the checklist items to our new pilot, I had to explain what to do and tell him what responses were normal. In some cases, I even had to tell him where control switches and handles were in his front cockpit. It was not very reassuring, especially when we were about to leap off over hundreds of miles of water around a known typhoon in our flight path.

As a little warning of what lay ahead, our take-off roll was delayed briefly by a heavy rain shower, which obscured the far end of the runway. The storm was barely off to one side before our intrepid pilot pushed the throttles into full afterburner and we roared out over the vast Pacific.

Our sister ship was supposed to join-up with us on the climb-out, but our eager general did not want to slow down enough for its pilot to catch up. The plan called for us to fly together in loose formation from Guam to Okinawa, but soon we were way out ahead and widening the gap. The general was thrilled with the power and speed of our sleek bird. Slowing down was the last thing he wanted to do. Soon we were alone, way ahead of our companion.

Circumnavigating that typhoon proved to be fairly simple, but it did add a couple hundred miles to our flight and reduced fuel reserves markedly. We had no flying gas station to help us this time and no margin for error.

By the time we reached the south end of the island of Okinawa, we were down to minimal fuel with barely 30 minutes remaining before the engines would quit. B-58's do not fly well with the engines stopped. In fact, our flight controls required engine-driven hydraulics. Without it we could not control the plane, or even make a landing.

We descended and checked in by radio with the tower at Kadena Air base. I read the Before Landing checklist to the pilot as we configured the airplane for landing. We made a long straight-in approach from the west. Fuel was low, but we had enough remaining for one missed approach. I hoped we wouldn't need it.

About five miles from touchdown, we received a call from the tower at nearby Naha Air Base, a U.S. Navy airfield just a few miles to the south. The tower operator told us that they sure would like to see a B-58 fly by. They heard about our coming to the area and hoped to see what America's first supersonic bomber looked like.

The general couldn't resist such an invitation. He called Kedena tower and advised them that we were breaking out of traffic for a detour and fly-by at Naha. The tower did not know of our low fuel state, but I did. We were close to having to depend upon the small emergency supply in our Reserve tank.

"We're pretty low on fuel, general," I cautioned.

"No sweat," he replied. "This will take just a minute or two."

I hurriedly started reading the checklist items to re-configure us from pre-landing to low-altitude, slow-speed cruise. It wasn't easy keeping ahead of what the general was doing. In fact, I couldn't.

Before I realized it, we were making a low fly-by over the Naha runway. And the next thing I knew, the general pushed all four throttles into full afterburner. He was going to show them how hot the B-58 was. We were about to make a screaming low- altitude pass and then a near vertical climb, as we zoomed by their control tower. That would show 'em.

I warned, "General, we're too low on fuel. Damn-it slow down or you'll tear off the landing gear doors! Gear up, general ... NOW."

The general was oblivious to our impending peril. Not until the intercom automatic voice warning system interrupted did the general pay attention.

"FUEL MANIFOLD PRESSURE LOW," declared the taped woman's voice, "RESERVE TANK NOT FULL". We were but minutes away from starving the engines. We were about to run about of gas.

"Damn it, general," I yelled, "Pull the throttles back, level off and get this bird on the ground. We're going to flame out."

It seemed like an eternity, but in seconds the general gradually levelled us off and started to turn back toward Kadena. The throttles were no longer in afterburner, but our fuel state was precarious. The small reserve tank was depleting and all other tanks were empty. We had barely ten minutes of fuel remaining, and B-58's do not fly without engine power. I hastened to help get the bird configured, once more, for landing.

"You've gotta make it on this approach, general. We don't have fuel for a go around," I warned. General or no general, I yelled at him.

He made a beautiful landing, didn't bounce at all. It was the lightest I'd ever seen a B-58 touch down. Light not because of his landing skill; but because we were out of gas.

We continued our landing roll-out and then turned off the runway toward the parking ramp. Suddenly, everything got quiet. The engines quit before we got to our parking place. That was cutting it pretty close. Had the general not put us down on the first try, we would have crashed for sure.

You will excuse me, dear reader, if I admit that flying with generals is something I now avoid at all cost.