Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

A B-52 Bomber Mid-Winter's Night Dream

My crew and I had been flying a very grueling and tiring combat B-52 bomber flying schedule at U-Tapao Air Base, Thailand, striking targets in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Late in January 1968 when TET ’68 was starting, my crew was assigned a single ship night ferry flight from U-Tapao to Guam.

We flew south from U-Tapao, over the Gulf of Thailand, around the southern tip of Vietnam, then east over the South China Sea toward the Philippines. We climbed to 40,000 feet altitude.

The gunner was making no noises on interphone. The electronic warfare officer was silent, asleep in his seat. The radar navigator was asleep in his seat collapsed over the bombsight. The copilot was sacked out asleep on the upper deck. The navigator (that would be me) was monitoring his instruments and navigational heading to the high fix start descent point southwest of Guam. The nav and pilot were lightly chatting about what a beautiful peaceful night it was.

After we crossed the Philippines the pilot invited the nav up to the pilot's compartment to sit in the vacant copilot’s seat to observe the passing star lit night. The nav at first declined but then acquiesced when the pilot insisted.

The B-52 ASQ-48 bombing navigation system has a long-range navigation function using the pilot’s data indicator (PDI) as a heading reference.

Before I left my seat I checked the PDI to be sure to point to the high fix southwest of Guam. I planned to navigate from the copilot’s seat by watching the PDI centered. I climbed upstairs passing the sleeping electronic warfare officer and sprawled out copilot. I climbed into the copilot’s seat and noted the PDI centered on the high fix. I sat in the copilot seat looking at the stars in the sky, the instrument panel, and lightly chatting with the pilot, with the PDI centered.

Then I fell asleep.

When I woke up, I noted the PDI pegged 90 degrees right while we were in the middle of the Philippine Sea. The pilot’s head was slumped on his chest. I wasn’t strapped in the copilot’s seat and I didn’t know how to fly the airplane, so I reached out my left hand and tapped the pilot’s shoulder. He jerked awake and grabbed the yoke to try to pull the B-52 back to altitude, as we were about 4000 feet below our assigned 40000 feet altitude. As we pulled up, the crew started waking up asking, “What’s going on?” I told the pilot to turn right 90 degrees to the PDI and climbed back downstairs to the nav position.

In my ejection seat at my nav position, I plotted our aircraft position and found that we were sixty nautical miles north of course; that we had traveled 94 miles in an arc to the north for a duration of 12 minutes, with everyone asleep, steadily drifting off heading and losing altitude.

Throughout the flight and on the ground nobody never said nothing. And I never flew in the copilot’s seat again for the next 300 missions.

Kenneth Boone Sampson, Captain, USAF, Retired, Miami, Florida
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