BONE DRIVER FOR A DAY

The Memphis Belle with instructor pilot, Maj. “Blinkie” Smithie above, JDW below
L to R: B-1, B-2, B-52. Pic by Matt Haskell (check out his Fb page)

This old man is dreaming dreams again…(Joel 2:28), the reminiscing kind, stirred up by last Sunday evening’s impressive formation fly-by of a B-1, B-2, and B-52 at the Super Bowl in Tampa Stadium. I’m not a bomber guy, fighters were my thing, but 21 years ago I had the extraordinary blessing of flying in the left seat of a B-1 in another very special fly-by. With its wings swept back it felt a lot like my beloved old F-100, complete with control stick between the legs, and it rolls just pretty as you please. If I had to fly a bomber, this would be my choice. The following is from Grace in the Growing Season, by JDW.

The Memphis Belle rolled wings level at 1000 feet above the ground over the “Initial Point,” an irregular patch of red Piedmont clay amid the new green of spring, on our run-in line to the target. The late afternoon sun in our eyes reduced visibility to a mile and a half as we stared intently through the windshield, searching for memorized landmarks. The target was nine miles away and we were traversing a mile every twelve seconds, leaving no time to consult a map. Flying into the sun instead of coming out of it violated normal rules of engagement, but this was not a bombing run, nor was it World War II…and this Memphis Belle was not a famous B-17 (now in the USAF Museum in Dayton). It was March 24, 2000, and we were flying an aviator’s memorial salute in a B-1B bomber, affectionately called the “Bone” (that’s B-1 without the hyphen).

Somewhere up ahead a crowd of grateful citizens assembled in a cemetery behind a little country church in western North Carolina. They were there to honor an American hero. Thomas Ferebee, the Enola Gay bombardier who pickled off the atomic bomb on August 6, 1945, ending World War II, was being laid to rest. The tension mounted as the miles streaked by under the drooping nose of the B-1, driven by Major “Blinkie” Smithie of the Georgia Air National Guard in the right seat. We had only one chance to get it right and there had already been a major adjustment. After taking off at the precise time needed to give us a few extra minutes for contingencies, the funeral director relayed a message by cell phone, forwarded to our cockpit enroute, saying our Time-over-Target needed to be moved up 18 minutes. That’s not a problem for a sleek bomber with four powerful engines and wings that can be swept back 65 degrees in flight, making it look and perform much more like a rocket than the original World War II Memphis Belle. Blinkie advanced the throttles and we accelerated like a Harley Davidson.

It was an extraordinary providence that put this writer in that cockpit on such a momentous occasion. By the grace of God and generosity of the Georgia Air National Guard (a story for another day) I was getting an orientation flight in one of America’s best peacekeepers 27 year after I completed my hitch as a USAF fighter pilot. We were less than thirty seconds from the target now and recognition would have to be instantaneous. “Cunni” and “Buckit,” our offensive and defensive systems officers, called out course corrections over the intercom from their battle stations behind us filled with a dazzling array of electronics, all beyond the comprehension of old vets like Thomas Ferebee and me.

Then, out of the haze, a meandering country road materialized with cars parked bumper-to-bumper, right on the nose. We passed low over the mourners at a respectfully slow funeral pace—300 knots—with wings spread like a gliding goose. Blinkie tapped the afterburners, pulled the nose up, banked to the right, and that thoroughly modern Memphis Belle spiraled upward above our departed brother-in-arms as if our supersonic angel were transporting his soul to heaven. Invisible and insignificant though my role was, chills ran down my spine.

It was over, but the world is still a dangerous place and the citizen-soldiers of the Georgia Air National Guard had a critical mission to practice. We swept the wings back again and flew off on a simulated strike sortie. Blinkie and the boys put that beautiful Bone through its paces and I experienced first-hand its amazing capabilities, a mighty comforting memory in the middle of the night in this troubled world.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers…” (Matthew 5:9). I believe He is similarly disposed toward noble peacekeepers.

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