Earl J. McGill’s JET AGE MAN: SAC B-47 AND B-52 OPERATIONS IN THE COLD WAR.
Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
I grew up in the Midwest during the Cold War and the heydays of the B-47 Stratojet and the B-52 Stratofortress jet bombers described here from the viewpoint of a U.S. Air Force pilot who flew both. I also remember how B-52s were used during the Vietnam War to drop “iron bombs.”
I had always been interested in aircraft as symbols of engineering and technological advancement; the airplanes described here are certainly indicative of that.
But that's not the purpose of this book. Anyone approaching this book and hoping for aeronautical engineering details will be somewhat disappointed.
The author does provide a great deal of declassified detail on what it was like to fly these unforgiving beasts in situations where skirting the edge of the flight envelope was the norm not the exception. The B-47, for example, may have behaved in many ways like a fighter jet, but woe betide the pilot and the crew that banked or rolled too sharply especially at lower altitudes or near stalling speeds.
One looks back at these times and wonder how so many dangerous flying conditions were tolerated. The answer is simple: it was the Cold War. No one really knew how many nuclear weapon delivery vehicles (mostly aircraft initially) might be able to get through on an actual mission. Constant pressure was on the Air Force and the Strategic Air Command (SAC) to keep as many nuclear armed aircraft either in the air or ready to take off at a moment's notice. Not only was this constant readiness to wage war expensive, it took a huge toll on aircraft, crews, and their families.
All this “readiness” was viewed as a necessary ingredient to deterrence. The idea was that the Soviets would never launch a first strike if they thought a significant portion of the U.S. bomber fleet would get through to deliver their deadly payloads.
Another thing this book details is the frequency of fatal accidents experienced by pilots and crews. A lengthy appendix is provided containing now-public information about these accidents and why they are thought to have occurred.
Also included in the book is an acerbic look at the use of the 8-engine B-52s in the Vietnam War. The B-52 was originally flown as a difficult-to-hit high altitude bomber for delivering thermonuclear weapons on target from bases in the U.S.. When Soviet defenses advanced its role was changed to low level bombing in order to minimize radar detection. This introduced a whole range of training, performance, and maintenance issues.
In Vietnam its role was switched back to high-altitude bombing of non-urban difficult-to-locate targets. The author's contempt for the politicians and brass that approved such minimally effective strategies is unrestrained.
One comes away from this book much better informed about an exceedingly dangerous time in world history. One cannot help but be impressed with the strength and fortitude of those who knew that, if they ever had been called on to deliver their H-bombs, and if they then survived long enough to return home, there most likely would be no home to return to.
Review copyright © 2017 by Dennis D. McDonald