Target: Soviet weapons plant. Mission: Low-altitude bombing. Payload: Nuclear. Problem: Getting back.
- By Marshall Michel
- Air & Space magazine, May 2003
(Page 4 of 5)
In the end, it became a moot point. While LABS training was suspended, new nuclear weapons were coming into the inventory that did not need to be tossed. And the new B-52s were better suited to low-level flying than the B-47s. These developments, combined with the accidents, led to LABS being dropped from the B-47 repertoire.
In mid-1957, while the B-47s were still fully involved with LABS, SAC turned all of its fighter-bombers and their nuclear mission over to the Tactical Air Command. TAC crews sat nuclear “Victor alert” around the world and continued training to use the over-the-shoulder maneuver, which the pilots dubbed “the idiot loop.” The nuclear-capable F-84s were replaced by more advanced fighters, mainly the North American F-100s, which became the mainstays of the Air Force tactical nuclear attack fleet. By this time, the term “LABS” began to be applied loosely to virtually all low-level nuclear loft deliveries, not just those that used the mechanical LABS instruments.
While the F-100 performed considerably better than the F-84, the LABS on the aircraft was somewhat quirky. F-100 pilot Les Turner recalls how difficult it was to adjust: “The LABS gyro was in a place were it was impossible to see, so the pilot had to use a small mirror to set in the proper numbers for his mission,” he says. “The best was a common dental mirror…and when a dentist or technician left the room with a pilot in the chair they had to take their mirrors with them or the mirrors would disappear. I still have my dental mirror and no, you cannot borrow it,” he adds with a grin.
The system’s location was not the only quirk. The F-100 introduced a link between the LABS and the fighter’s autopilot to give an automatic pull-up, called “auto LABS,” a feature that was not particularly popular. F-100 pilot Andy Stallings remembers, “I was having trouble performing the LABS maneuver well. Little things had a large effect on where the bomb would hit—you could pull too slow, or too fast, or, if you could, overshoot or undershoot 4 Gs and so on. Our weapons officer suggested I try ‘auto LABS’ to see what the maneuver looked like when it was properly performed. In ‘auto LABS,’ the autopilot had to be turned on at low level, and the F-100 autopilot was notoriously unreliable. The possibility of getting a nose-down command from a malfunctioning autopilot at 100 feet doing 500 knots made most pilots avoid engaging it, but I was young and indestructible. I tried it; it worked and worked well. But once I got the picture of what the delivery should look like, I didn’t use the autopilot.”
The 1950s also marked a period of competition between the U.S. Air Force and the Navy over the nuclear mission. The large Navy bombers—the Lockheed P2V Neptune, the North American AJ-1 Savage, and the Douglas A3D Skywarrior—were too big to do the LABS maneuver, but smaller Navy jet attack aircraft had the power to fly LABS maneuvers similar to the ones Air Force fighter-bombers used.
One early Navy nuclear delivery aircraft stood out in sharp contrast to the Air Force’s aircraft: the propeller-driven Douglas AD Skyraider. At about the same time the Air Force began to develop a way for its fighters to deliver atomic weapons, the Navy began to plan nuclear deliveries using the Skyraider, mainly because of its extremely long range. The ADs’ targets were as much as 2,000 miles away, and in the test program ADs flew as long as 13 and a half hours to see how the flights affected the pilots. As a result, the nuclear Skyraiders were modified with relief tubes and extra seat cushions, and the pilots carried a supply of aspirin for headaches caused by wearing their helmets for such a long time.
Pilots took their training for the nuclear missions seriously, and fliers assigned to the slow-flying “Able Dogs” called their training missions “Sandblowers” because the ADs flew so low that when they crossed the coast they kicked up sand. AD pilot Ralph Davis says, “The carrier flight deck was 85 feet high. We’d drop down after we took off and not climb back to that height again until we returned to land.” W.R. Wilson, who flew ADs off carriers in the Pacific, recalls, “We practiced penetrating coastal defenses from 200 to 300 miles at sea on a routine basis. Some of the more spectacular missions were when we launched near typhoons in the belief that the trusty AD could penetrate such storms, attack the target area, escape the blast, and return to the ship. To everyone’s amazement, we actually [flew through storms and returned] several times during training exercises in the 1950s.”
In addition to the standard free-fall bombs, the ADs carried a weapon called the Bureau of Ordnance Aircraft Rocket (BOAR), which was a Mark 7 nuclear bomb with a rocket motor attached. It was made for the AD to loft with the LABS system, but it was not popular with the pilots. Skyraider pilot Tom Beard called the BOAR “a real killer. To deliver it, we would pull up to about a 45-degree climb until the rocket fired, then we would go into about a 135-degree roll and pull through to supposedly escape from the ensuing fireball. I always wondered if they figured that right. In the maneuver we were at about 1,400 feet inverted, and at night or in low visibility it was easy to split-S into the ground.”