Thursday, January 5, 2017
18 Ton Ballerinas
Wait...wait...now! Easy, easy, common you beautiful thing...that’s right now keep the nose up. “How are we doing Wilkins?...over”
“Looks good Skip. The rest of the squadron is turning in unison. I never thought I see a squad of B-24s doing an aerial ballet. It looks real good from here and everything is nominal Skip...over.”
Okay rolling back to the port...nice and easy.
“Squadron...simulate a jink to the starboard on three, two, one, mark.”
Pull hard... rudder opposite keeping that nose up... come on don’t fail me now. God damn you’re doing a thing of beauty here.
“Tail to Skipper... Watch Flying Wedge Skip she’s close to stalling out...over.”
“Copy...over.” Lieutenant Storm, get your speed up! You still have your trim flaps full.”
Jesus, who would have thought that I would have to help these guys fly as well as keep my bird in the air.
“Good call Tail...over.”
“How are the other squadrons doing Owens?..over”
“Remarkably well Skipper. It looks like number three has worked it out and their last maneuver was a thing of beauty...over”
“Good to hear....over.”
Owens had a ringside seat for some pretty amazing flying. We’ll let him tell the tale.
“When we first started it was awful. I mean bombers aren’t built to dodge and weave and especially when surrounded by other bombers. I mean everyone but LeMay knew it was possible, but no one was sure it could be done on a squadron level without putting other squadrons in danger.
12 B-24s dropping out of formation and making a tight turn in unison and then reforming with the rest of the bomber stream was quite a sight to behold. Yet, they were pulling it off. You really had to think in three dimensions to make it work and they had figured it out ...in theory. We had yet to try it in combat. In fact, the whole 15th Air Force had yet to drop a bomb or see a Soviet fighter much less those missiles they shot at you."
The whole concept boiled down to the fact that those missiles were going so fast that a well-timed turn or change in altitude could make them miss. Well timed is the key. Make the maneuver too soon and the damn things adjusted. Make it too late, and well, it’s too late. The real challenge was timing and spacing.
The really new concept was that the maneuver involved the whole bomber stream. There was nothing new about turning in unison. Every time a squadron turned for home, they banked and turned together. They had that move down pat. It was everyone’s favorite part of every mission besides landing. The bomber stream followed as they got to the point where they had dropped their bombs.
They had all watched in envy as the fighters blithely jinked this way or that, and faked out the missiles. Very few fighters were shot down by either air to air or ground to air missiles anymore.
Even a single bomber could just barely out maneuver one of Stalin’s Fire ground to air missiles if they did not have to worry about colliding with their neighbors. The air to air missiles were another matter and they would have to rely on the fighters to keep the launching platforms at arm’s length.
This new emphasis on squadron maneuvers might not have much effect on the actual hit rate of the missiles but it would have a huge effect on moral. The missiles seemed to always lock in on the lead bombers. Even if the whole squadron could not get out of the way of the missile, at least now the flight leaders had a fighting chance. The predictions were that the hit rate would go down only a small amount but that the damage would be more evenly spread out and not just the flight and squadron leaders.
Spreading out the damage was not emphasized or even spoken openly about. The goal was to lower the hit rate overall but everyone knew that it would have the effect of spreading out the danger more evenly. The missiles were focused so intently on their initial targets that it was easy to tell which squadron and even which plane it was locked on to and they very rarely deviated and chose another target. Knowing you’re the target of the missile meant two things for the plane in the crosshairs. One was a distinct advantage. The second was terrifying. Terrifying to know the missile was locked on to your plane and attempting to blow you and your crew to pieces.
The rule was that whatever squad started a turn first was given priority and until they had complete their evasive maneuver no adjoining squadron could leave the formation. If you left the bomber stream too soon you would be subject to charges. If you maneuvered too late you might get hit.
Any thinking person could see that this would not make much difference in the overall hit rate but is would boost the morale of the crews and at this point in the war that was critical. Twilling knew his men and how much they could take. This tiny gesture could just give him another month or so before it became apparent once again that they were not winning.
SAC was already at that point. The 15th would step in and take over for a while. He and his brand new but old, shiny B-24s were polished up and ready for action and they would give SAC a breather...a respite from the inevitable. Basically the bombers of the 15th were just more targets for the Reds to shoot at. They would be no more successful than the B-29s at reversing the oil production rate. They could and would slow it down and that was good enough in the eyes of the Joint Chiefs.
That was good enough to justify their possible deaths. Sacrifices had to be made and they were.