Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

The B-52 Bomber Wheel Well Door

It was April 1967. We had launched from the island of Guam in the Pacific Ocean on a B-52 bombing mission to a target in Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia. Guam has a very moist, wet climate and moisture gets into the bomb release shackles. Sometimes this moisture freezes into ice in the cold air at our cruising altitude of 31,000 feet. This ice sometimes locks up the shackle so the bomb will not release at high altitude. But when the B-52 descends to a warmer, lower altitude on approach to our landing base, the ice melts, the shackle releases and the bomb falls on or through the bomb bay doors. A good way to blow up a B-52 and/or the runway we are trying to land on.

One time when we were rolling out from a landing, I peered through the bombing optics periscope and saw a bomb fall through the bomb bay doors and bounce on the runway from a B-52 landing behind me. The B-52 behind me ran over the bomb with the rear wheel trucks. Luckily the bomb didn’t detonate.

We were the second B-52 bomber flight recovering into U-Tapao Air Base, Thailand, after hitting our target with 108 bombs. We had a warning light indication of a bomb hanger in the bomb bay. Sometimes we would get a false warning light indication. It was the navigator’s job to check the bomb bay in flight to be sure if we did, or did not, have hung up bombs.

If there were in fact bombs hung up in the bomb bay we would try to drop them out over an emergency designated drop zone. We made a normal descent toward U-Tapao, leveled off at 10,000 feet altitude and depressurized. I left my ejection seat, departed the forward compartment, and entered the alternator deck with no helmet or parachute. The crawlway past the wheel well to the bomb bay is just 10 inches wide with old fabric rope type handholds every six feet. The crawlway lights were very dim. Off interphone, I crawled along the crawlway to the bomb bay and observed that there were no hung up bombs. I then turned around and exited the bomb bay into the wheel well. In the wheel well I noticed an interphone station just adjacent to that big, huge right front tire.

I plugged my headset into the interphone station and called, “Pilot, Nav. There are no bombs in the bomb bay.” The pilot thought that I was in the forward compartment and put the landing gear lever down.

Just below me the landing gear door popped open with a loud bang and I found myself staring down at the blindingly bright, sunlit Gulf of Thailand! I was holding on to the old fabric rope grip with no parachute.

Next thing that happened was that the pilot realized that I was not in the forward compartment and popped the gear lever back up. The gear door accordingly slammed back shut with a bang and it was dark again.

I crawled back across the alternator deck to the forward compartment and reported to the pilot that I was back in my ejection seat. Nothing more was ever said.

I checked the bomb bay in flight several times in later years but never plugged into the wheel well interphone again. I’ll always remember that blaring, glaring, flash of light off the Gulf of Thailand a long way down.

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