Friday, January 14, 2011

B-52 Stratofortress from a Survival Equipment Tech's POV

Back in the last half of the 1970s, I was a Survival Equipment Technician, a Parachute Rigger, and a Fabric /  Rubbergear Specialist. I packed emergency chutes, B-52 drag chutes (stored just behind and below the rear rudder tail section), any chutes that arrived on base temporarily and needed a repack, and Pararescue (PJs) chute repacks, which they jumped regularly. Emergency chutes are only used in emergencies and then examined, documented and disposed of. 

In flight
I also had to pack about three or four B-52 drag chutes per day, 48' split ribbon nylon, at 228 pounds each, the buckle alone that connects the chute to the plane was 25 pounds of metal surrounding by a rubber border. I've seen it stated that it was 32' but the ones I packed were 48' and heavy as hell, after scooping up snow, then having to be emptied outside of my shop where they were dopped off in wet piles, drug in, hung, dried in the tower, then all fluffy and staticy, stretched, unknotted (usually using a rubber mallet), straightened out, folded, packed into the bag inside the metal packing container, jumped up and down on repeatedly until the damn thing finally fit into the bag, sealed off and carried to the storage room for pickup. I finally got to here I could pick up two and carrying them inches off the floor, out of the packing room and into the pickup room.

I've blogged about this before, but I've found some better photos of what I'm talking about.

And its support aircraft, the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker:

In the last half of the 70s, I had to spend way more time than I wanted on these two aircraft. B-52, mostly in the cockpit. KC-135, in the cockpit and many windows along both sides of the cargo bay. Summer's were fine, but winters were freezing until the ground unit got things heated up.

I worked on BUFs (Big Ugly F*ckers) B-52s, both while it was downloaded (no ordinance on board) and uploaded with nukes, in the highly secured Alert Facility area. The Alert Facility always had the best video games and food on the base, pampering the Pilots who certainly deserved it and slept in trailers right next to their grounded aircraft, within feet of it in fact.

 Looking from inside, bottom of the plane to the ground where you climb up into the aircraft

Ladder going up the "tube" (we called it the tube anyway), past the lower two ejection seat area to the cockpit area. Behind the cockpit of the B-52 is the tunnel, full of electronics all around. At the back is a kind of cave with two seats and below two more seats.

 Looking backward from the A/C's the "tube" going down.

I only dealt with the A/C and Co-Pilots seats.

Here you can see the red streamers, there were seven of them. You really wanted those to be checked and into place, other wise, you could potentially fire off the ejection seat. No fun, plus, if I survived, they'd probably make me repack the chute that I probably repacked within 120 days anyway. They told us stories about a seat being fired off in the hanger, crushing the worker up there until the rocket ran out of fuel, then dropping back a long ways to the hard concrete floor. Yes, the guy was dead.

Its possible they told us this just to scare the hell out of us; if so, it worked, I always checked those streamers. I never forgot. There were also stories of ejections of workers who didn't check the streamers, accidentally fired off the seat, and was positioned incorrectly, thus removing body parts on the way out of the ejection portal.

I probably saw that cockpit in ways no Aircraft Commander, or Co-Pilot ever saw, or thought to see them. At times, I would be lying completely upside down in the ejection seats trying to work on the windows, on the thermal nuclear radiation flash barrier curtains, made out of a materiel that back in the 70s was $150 a square foot.

Here (above) you can actually see the flash barrier curtain in its stowed away position (shown: A/C seat, left side of aircraft from viewing forward position).

Here you can see, middle left, the little gray cone shape handle used to pull the curtain shut, coming up from the bottom of the dash, sometimes a real bear to work on with dysfunctional.

We had to secure all windows, allowing not even a speck of light to show through, accomplished by day, using sunlight, by night using a flood lamp on a long pole. Someone would stand outside and flash the windows, while we (being a two man security team) sat inside, sometimes the warm cockpit, looking for any specs of light after having completely light sealed all the windows. If it showed a pinhole of light, we could "red ball" the plane, even taking it off full alert status; something no one wanted and always caused a lot of noise.

As well as working on the barrier curtains, we also packed parachutes.

Example of the chute packed and inserted into the seat of the Co-Pilot.
Shot of the 48' ribbon drag chute deployed
I believe this chute was also used on the Space Shuttle landings
That's all I had to say. I spent years working on these planes and greatly enjoyed it for the most part. The only part I found difficult was that I found it hard supporting an organization who's job it was, possibly, to melt entire cities if need be. I found in complaining to my boss one day, to feel better in realizing my job directly, was to save lives, not end them. I don't have any real issue in killing in war, if I'm dealing with those attacking me, but if its indiscriminate, as in bombing, I do have issues.

What was so stupid about this, or ironic, was that I was originally assigned to a TAC base (Tactical Air Command) and would have been dealing with fighters, not bombers. I foolishly swapped with a guy and ended up with SAC. That caused a great deal of laughter among my new coworkers when I first arrived at my main base. Especially so, because I had been assigned to a base at the tip of Florida and ended up at Spokane, Washington, where the winters were, shall we say, a bit brisk, when on the flightline, during alerts, in the early AM morning hours, with a more than brisk wind blowing.

Sometimes you just have to look back and laugh.Of course, its easier to do from years down the road and in a warm room.

These excellent photos were from


  1. I am a former B-52 gunner in G and H models. I also spent time at Fairchild but for survival school. Thanks for posting the pictures and stories!