Target: Soviet weapons plant. Mission: Low-altitude bombing. Payload: Nuclear. Problem: Getting back.
- By Marshall Michel
- Air & Space magazine, May 2003
(Page 2 of 5)
The dive-and-roll indicator had two needles, a horizontal one for pitch and a vertical one for direction. When the aircraft reached the calculated release point, about two and a half miles from the target, the needles cued the pilot to climb and guided him to the release point. Les Frazier, an F-100 pilot who flew many LABS missions, describes the sequence this way: “Just prior to the pull-up point, the horizontal needle on the LABS dropped down, and the pilot pulled back on the stick to bring the needle back to level. The horizontal needle led the aircraft into a 4-G climb in two seconds, while the vertical needle showed the course. Keeping both needles centered kept the aircraft lined up, and for several seconds this was the pilot’s entire world—it was about as easy as pushing an oyster into a slot machine. The bomb released automatically with a loud wham that could be heard in the cockpit, and the airplane would oscillate from side to side as the weapon was blown clear.”
In November 1952, SAC had two of its F-84 wings test two different LABS release methods. The first was the basic toss, described above. The advantage of the basic toss was that there was no need to fly over a heavily defended target. But it required a visual landmark close to the target and forced the attacker to follow a fixed course to overfly that landmark.
The second type of release was dubbed the “over the shoulder” maneuver. The attacker flew directly over the target and pulled up into a loop, and as the fighter approached the top of the loop, the LABS automatically released the bomb. After release, the pilot continued the loop as the bomb kept climbing. Well before the bomb reached the apex of its climb, the attacker started back down, rolled upright, and headed back in the opposite direction to escape the blast. The loop over the target made the fighter very vulnerable to close-in defenses, but as long as the target could be seen, the fighter could approach it from any angle, so the method was more flexible tactically than the basic toss.
SAC chose the over-the-shoulder maneuver as the preferred means of delivery, with the toss method an alternative if useable landmarks were available. In January 1953, just three months after the tests began, SAC’s fighters officially became part of the strategic force assigned to strike targets in the Soviet Union. Beginning in August 1953, SAC regularly deployed its nuclear-capable F-84s to Europe, refueling en route, and by 1955 it had built this force to over 550 fighters organized into six wings.
But throughout the early 1950s SAC still considered the Boeing B-47 bomber its primary nuclear weapons delivery aircraft. When it entered operational service, its six jet engines and thin swept wings gave it speed and high-altitude capabilities that enabled it to outrun any fighter in the world. By early 1954, though, it was clear that it was only a matter of time before Soviet surface-to-air missiles and MiGs with heat-seeking air-to-air missiles would shut the B-47 out of the high-altitude environment. The bombers would need new tactics to reach their targets. Fortunately, the B-47 had not only high-altitude performance and speed but also excellent maneuverability.
Lieutenant Colonel Doug Nelson of SAC devised the low-level penetration and toss tactic for the B-47 and reportedly startled the SAC staff when he briefed them on the technique. Nonetheless, in early August 1956, SAC asked Boeing to look into the matter, and Dick Taylor was chosen as the company’s test pilot for the project.
After practicing with barrel rolls, Taylor first tried the half-loop, half-roll of the Cuban Eight in the big jet bomber in October 1956. He remembers, “Forty seconds—that’s the time it took to put the B-47 through the half-loop and half-roll. But it seemed like an eternity. For those 40 seconds, I could see nothing but blue sky from the pilot’s seat. After what seemed like hours, I was certainly relieved to see a horizon again. It proved for the first time that a medium bomber, the B-47, had the stability, power, and maneuverability necessary for the toss-bombing tactic.”
Boeing assured SAC that the maneuver, properly flown within the 3-G structural limit, was safe. The next area of concern was the stress of low-level rough air hammering the B-47; its slim, flexible, 116-foot-span wings were considered especially vulnerable. Air Force test crews began flying low-level missions, but during the last phase of testing one of the bombers crashed soon after takeoff. No evidence linked low-level flying to the crash, and after a brief halt the tests continued.