Exit Strategy

Target: Soviet weapons plant. Mission: Low-altitude bombing. Payload: Nuclear. Problem: Getting back.

Air & Space Magazine

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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.”

Air Force fighter pilots watching the slow ADs practicing their LABS deliveries were fascinated. “I was the range officer one day watching F-100s practice LABS, coming about 450 knots on the deck,” F-100 pilot Mark Berent remembers. “Then this Navy AD Skyraider guy comes putt-putting along at—what, 150 knots? Then, over the bull’s eye, he pulled up and in a flash was going straight up, putt-putt, release, roll and dive away—all in seconds, it seemed. But he seemed much closer to the bomb than the F-100s.”

Dick Howard, a Navy AD pilot, learned first-hand that his aircraft would have had a hard time escaping from the blast of its nuclear bomb: “In 1959, my air group was allowed to do a training drop of a real, live, honest–to-goodness Mark 7 nuclear bomb that had exceeded its shelf life. The nuclear material was removed from the warhead, but everything else was operational, including the radar fuse, which was set for a 1,100-foot air burst. I was chosen for the mission. I took off, found the target, then pulled into the loft. The weapon released as planned. As I came over the top of the idiot loop, I looked back over my left shoulder to see what I could. The bomb detonated as promised at 1,100 feet, but it was not more than 1,100 feet from my aircraft! If it had been a nuclear explosion, I would have been in the fireball and wouldn’t have had a chance.”

For years, U.S. Air Force and Navy tactical crews practiced LABS maneuvers day and night, often in marginal weather, and people died in training. Most of the pilots felt that if they ever had to go to war and use the LABS, it would be on a one-way ride. Navy aviator Tom Beard summed it up this way: “We thought we were on suicide missions. Perhaps we all were—even the Air Force. Crazy days!”

The spectacular LABS toss and over-the-shoulder maneuvers were phased out as Soviet defenses improved. During the time it was employed, the LABS was used by a wide variety of Air Force and Navy fighter-bombers and by Germany-based British Canberra strike squadrons, which formed part of the British Nuclear Strike Force. But the LABS deliveries conducted by the B-47s are the ones best remembered. That great soaring half Cuban Eight was—and remains—the most spectacular maneuver ever performed by a large bomber.

Sidebar: How It Worked

A basic toss maneuver (left) lobbed the weapon a considerable distance from the release point, and therefore the pilot needed an offset visual reference from which to time the start of the climb and the release. The “over the shoulder” method (right) used the target itself as the visual reference, so the attacker could approach from any direction to avoid defenses. The Strategic Air Command chose the “over the shoulder” maneuver as its preferred means of delivering nuclear weapons.

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