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Flying from the Black Hole: The B-52 Navigator-Bombardiers of Vietnam

Flying from the Black Hole: The B-52 Navigator-Bombardiers of Vietnam by Robert O. Harder. US Naval Institute Press, 2009.

A B-52 navigator during 1968–71, author Robert Harder wrote Flying from the Black Hole in response the fact that navigators in general and B-52 navigators/bombardiers in particular have received little recognition for the importance of their craft and their contribution to the Vietnam War. With that in mind, he examines the role of B-52s in ending the war by means of the bombing campaigns of December 1972 directed against Hanoi and Haiphong—the so-called 11-day war. Although Harder did not fly during that time, he does describe those missions in sufficient detail to satisfy even the most curious of readers.

The account begins with the first two days of the Hanoi bombing raids but then shifts to the sequence of events that an individual must endure to become a combat B-52 navigator/bombardier. Specifically, the author describes navigator/bombardier training at Mather AFB, California; initial training in the bomber at Castle AFB, California; and assignment to one of Strategic Air Command’s (SAC) operational B-52 bases in the United States.

Harder also pays considerable (perhaps too much) attention to the different types of bombing equipment installed on the B-52, pointing out the difference between the older AN/ASQ-48 bombing and navigation system (on the aircraft’s C and D models) and the more sophisticated AN/ASQ-38 system (on the E through H models). This distinction proved important in the daily lives of SAC flyers in that crews on the C and D models flew “iron bombing” missions from Guam and Thailand bases while crews on the newer models remained in the United States for most of the Vietnam conflict “standing” daily nuclear ground alert.

Additionally, the book offers both an annotated chronological listing of the numerous air campaigns in which B-52s participated from 1965 through October 1972 and a narrative about the aircraft’s three major operating bases—namely, U-Tapao, Thailand; Andersen AFB, Guam; and Kadena AB, Japan. From the late 1960s to early 1970s, aircrews experienced the distinctive lifestyles and flight missions associated with each of these bases at some time during their 179-day temporary duty assignment to Southeast Asia as they unleashed the destructive power of the B-52s.

After providing a mission-by-mission account of the bombers’ participation in Operation Linebacker II—the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong in December 1972—Harder concludes with a survey of the B-52 in military conflicts since Vietnam, including Operation Desert Storm. He describes avionics upgrades, the “retirement” of the D and G models, and the reduction of the number of H models. This final section, which contains a whirlwind of information, quickly informs the reader that a limited number of B-52s are still flying—even after 40 years of service.

I enthusiastically recommend this enjoyable book to all individuals interested in aviation history (especially that of the Vietnam War), B-52 operations, the Air Force in general, and SAC in particular. I found Flying from the Black Hole true to the facts as I knew them and a great read.

Col Joe McCue, USAF, Retired

Leesburg, Virginia

"The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."
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