RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire has regularly seen United States Air Force (USAF) long-range bombers deployed to support ongoing multinational exercises in Europe, namely BALTOPS (Baltic Operations) and Saber Strike, over the last couple of years. Duncan Monk reports on the 2016 exercise and its participants.

Touching down on RAF Fairford’s 3,046m long runway on June 2, two behemoth Boeing B-52H Stratofortress aircraft (callsign MYTEE 51 & 52) from the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota arrived and heralded the start of a third consecutive year of bomber deployments to the sprawling Gloucestershire base. They were joined the next day by a third B-52H from the same unit under the callsign MYTEE 51.

This year’s Saber Strike sees approximately 10,000 personnel from 13 countries participating in the long running multinational exercise led by United States Army Europe. Taking place across multiple locations from May 30 through June 22, it is one of a series of separate exercises running concurrently this month in Eastern Europe.

Saber Strike 16 features the integration of United States close-air support with allied and collaborate nation ground forces as well as a demonstration of United States ability to deploy forces and equipment by air. United States Air Force Global Strike Command is providing B-52H aircraft that are participating in air operations training throughout Saber Strike and BALTOPS 16 in the Baltic Sea as United States Air Force Col. Kieran Denehan, 5th Expeditionary Operations Group commander explained –

“During this short-term deployment, the strategic bombers are scheduled to conduct training flights with ground and naval forces around the region and participate in multinational exercises. The bombers will integrate into several exercise and real-world activities, including air intercept training, mining operations, inert ordnance drops and close-air support.

The ability to integrate strategic bomber forces in a variety of missions is key to ensuring the United States is able to honor our security commitments. This deployment to RAF Fairford is about participating in long-standing exercises and conducting necessary training within the region.”

As a Geographically Separated Unit (GSU), RAF Fairford operates under the care of the 420th Air Base Group (ABG) who come under the control of the 501st Combat Support Wing based at RAF Alconbury in Huntingdon. Although the base is operated day-to-day on a ‘care and maintenance’ basis, it is a strategic asset capable of receiving large numbers of aircraft and has the facilities to cope with the influx of personnel. The current exercises will see approximately 250 airmen and women from the Air Force Global Strike Command and United States Air Force in Europe and Africa deploy to the base. Designated a standby airfield, Fairford is capable of reactivation within 24-48 hours and sees regular visits from Lockheed Dragon U-2S aircraft staging through the base while heading to and from the United States – three of the ultra-high altitude reconnaissance jets passed through during this current B-52H deployment.

Frank Dailey, the 420th Air Base Squadron site director at RAF Fairford explained the benefit of using the base with the B-52 –

“With the second longest flight line in the United Kingdom, we have an airfield that can accommodate a B-52 with no stress on the pavement. Out of our 55 wide-body parking spots, 43 have the ability for on-the-spot hydrant refueling, which allows for quicker sortie turnarounds.”

During the media day on Saturday June 10 – held by the 5th Expeditionary Operations Group – at RAF Fairford, two B-52Hs launched at 1530 to carry out mine dropping exercises in the vicinity of Bornholm, Denmark. An impressive streamed launch saw ICER 01 (serial 60-0044/MT) and ICER 02 (serial 60-0007) depart from Fairford’s runway 09 leaving their iconic smoke trails in the gloomy Gloucestershire sky.

For this mission each aircraft was armed with six 500 lb inert dummy mines secured within the jet’s internal bomb bay. These are fitted with tail kits and have all the characteristics of a real mine albeit filled with concrete.

“Dropping mines is something the B-52 is quite capable of executing, but we don’t get the chance to carry it out too often” said Col. Kieran Denehan.

The mission aim was to hit their allocated sea targets whilst the US Navy assessed their splash points to see how well a bomber can lay a minefield if it were ever called upon with live munitions. A similar exercise would be carried out overland as part of Exercise Saber Strike utilising Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) on the ground.

The B-52 is over 60 years old, but still a very capable aircraft, incredibly well maintained and can carry out a variety of missions over huge distances, as the sorties carried out during the duration of the exercise demonstrate.

Lt Col. Michael Maginness, the 23rd Expeditionary Bomb Squadron commander is very enthusiastic about his squadron and the aircraft’s ability to be used in a multitude of scenarios, which makes it a perfect aircraft for large-scale exercises –

“In the air-to-ground role we can employ several different weapons from unguided bombs up to 2,000 lbs to laser guided munitions and GPS guided JDAM’s, We’re using targeting pods on just about every mission we fly, and we’ve used electronic countermeasure equipment allowing us to evaluate the defensive systems on the aircraft.”

During the current deployment, the aircraft will typically fly missions between 6 and 10 hours in duration, but the mighty ‘BUFF’ as they are lovingly known, can stay airborne for much longer periods. Only last month, two B-52Hs from the 2nd BW at Barksdale Air Force Base set a new record by staying airborne for 35 hours while covering 14,000 miles during Exercise Eager Lion with the Jordanian Armed Forces during.

When asked about the limitations of the aircraft with regard to engine oils and lubricants during flight Major Fredo Devita, the 5th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron Commander gave an insight –

“The aircraft will fly forever. Only recently, I flew an 18-hour mission down to Chile and back and the aircraft never missed a beat. We took an extra pilot and Weapons System Operator to share the load, but the crews will break long before the aircraft will.”

Typically, a B-52 is crewed by five officers; the pilot and co-pilot sit side by side with the Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) sat behind them facing aft. The Radar Navigator (bombardier) and Navigator sit on the deck directly below. Each position is fitted with an ejection seat and, in the event of an emergency, the three aircrew on the the top deck are ejected upwards while the two navigator positions eject down through the bottom of the aircraft.

The 5th Bomb Wing B-52H’s from Minot AFB are no stranger to RAF Fairford, three aircraft deployed for last year’s Exercise BALTOPS with aircraft from both the 23rd Bomb Squadron ‘Bombers Barons’ (61-0040/MT) and 69th Bomb Squadron ‘Knighthawks’ (60-0018/MT & 60-0047/MT)

This year the ‘Bomber Barons’ operates all three of the B-52Hs taking part in this latest edition of the exercise. The Squadron started out as 18th Aero Squadron in 1917 at Camp Kelly, Texas but were soon redesignated 23d Aero Squadron Repair just six days later. They deployed in 1918 to England during the First World War and were initially based at Thetford Aerodrome from July 25, 1918 before moving to Duxford on the September 22 and then on to Codford Aerodrome near Salisbury Plain on the November 5 of that year. The unit made its move to France six days later while detachments to Hucknall, Torkard and Salisbury were conducted during their short UK stay. The squadron was demobbed shortly after Armistice with Germany and reborn in 1921 spending the remainder of the twenties and thirties in Hawaii, notably flying various Keystone bomber aircraft. It was during this time that the Mauna Loa Volcano erupted and six Keystone aircraft used precision bombing to drop twenty 600 lb bombs in the path of the lava flow and saved the city of Hilo – the act of which is depicted on the squadron patch for eternity.

From the engineers to aircrew and senior officers it is clear to see the respect, professionalism and dedication installed throughout the deployed 5th Expeditionary Operations Group from Minot. Led by the enthusiastic, highly decorated and respected Colonel Denehan – a B-52 senior Navigator – the 5th are clearly a well disciplined team with a great passion for what they do while remaining mission ready to undertake any sortie that they may be called upon to undertake – whether for exercise or a real time threat. A point to note is that at the end of this deployment, Col Denehan will undertake his last B-52 flight as he flies one of the eight-engine jets home to Minot AFB and will move on to a post within the US Air Force Global Strike Command Headquarters at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana.

The aircraft deployed to RAF Fairford in order of arrival are:

  • B-52H Stratofortress 60-0044/MT – 5th Bomb Wing / 23rd Bomb Squadron
  • B-52H Stratofortress 60-0037/MT – 5th Bomb Wing / 23rd Bomb Squadron
  • B-52H Stratofortress 60-0007/MT – 5th Bomb Wing / 23rd Bomb Squadron

AeroResource would like to thank Col. K Denehan, Major Fredo Devita, Lt Col. Michael Manginess, the 5th Expeditionary Operations Group Public Affairs team and all the crews and engineers for their hospitality, help and interaction during the media day.