Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Presents

War Birds

Aired July 27, 2002 - 20:00   ET



FRANK BUCKLEY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: October 2001, in the air over Afghanistan...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Today, our forces have begun the initial part of military operations in the war against terrorism.

BUCKLEY: The airborne workhorses of Operation Enduring Freedom dominate the skies.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The B-52 is an icon.

BUCKLEY: A heavy bomber that's older than most of its crewmembers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I love the plane and I love flying the plane.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Although the B-52 is 50 years old, it's still an awesome airplane.

BUCKLEY: And one of the world's most famous fighter jets takes on a new role.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I consider it the muscle car of airplanes. It's big and powerful. It's loud. It's also timeless.

BUCKLEY: And makes way for the next generation of Navy fighters. An inside view on the front line war birds of America's war on terror.


AARON BROWN, HOST: Welcome to CNN PRESENTS. I'm Aaron Brown. In the skies over Afghanistan, there has been a marriage of sorts, a marriage between the space age and the Cold War. Fighters and bombers designed decades ago to counter the Soviet Union, now carry satellite and laser-guided weapons. It is an evolution as inevitable as it is impressive.

Though America's warplanes are older than they've ever been, aging, though no less vital, and that's thanks not only to the advancements in technology but also to the dedication of those who keep these flying workhorses relevant. But it's not an easy task as CNN's Frank Buckley found when he put his life in the hands of those who fly and maintain America's airborne might. From the 50-year-old B-52s to the Navy's latest fighter jet, a rare and personal glimpse from the ground and the cockpit of this nation's oldest and newest war birds.


BUCKLEY: War games in the Pacific. The Third Fleet prepares for battle. The crew of the carrier, USS Abraham Lincoln, has become two weeks of exercises to ready her for real warfare in the coming months. A gray ship under gray skies launches wave after wave of grab, grave war birds.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two hundred is at one-mile spin. See, you go to get him.



BUCKLEY: From his perch above the flight deck, the air boss runs the show, making sure every aircraft launches safely and gets back onto the deck without incident.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Launch complete. LC. There's just a couple too many aircraft in the pattern right now. What we're doing here is trying to land the aircraft every 45 seconds. Unfortunately, it got a little foggy and a little hazy. It's making it a little more difficult than normal.

CAPT. DOUGLAS DUPOUY, COMMANDING OFFICER, USS LINCOLN: The exercise we're going under right now is actually the third phase in what is a very typical preparation for a carrier and an air wing and a whole battle group in preparation for deployment. It emphasizes joint warfare, joint operations, joint technology, joint communications so when we do deploy, we can operate with all the forces of the United States military and not just the Navy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two Lionels (ph) are at the initial.

BUCKLEY: Every wave includes a full complement of planes in specified roles -- radar jamming prowlers, in flight refueling jets, the S-3 Viking.

DUPOUY: The S-3 is workhorse in an aircraft. One of the major roles we use it for is a tank.

BUCKLEY: The E-2 Hawkeye, a carrier's eyes in the sky and the fighter jets. They're ready to head into harm's way, following other Naval and Marine aviators who've flown into Afghanistan. The aircraft that went into battle in the first days and weeks of the fighting included jets from the aircraft carriers, USS Enterprise, the Theodore Roosevelt, and the Carl Vinson.

(on-camera): Among that first wave of aircraft into Afghanistan, U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcats. They were launched from aircraft carriers that were already in place in the region. COMMANDER ANTHONY GAIANI, SQUADRON VF 213: There were three strikes led by our carrier on the first night. The other two being led by the Air Force. On each of those, an F-14 was actually the strike leader and I was one of those three strike leads that night.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): Navy commander, Anthony Gaiani, the skipper of Squadron VF 213, was at the tip of the spear on that first night, escorting heavy bombers to their targets.

GAIANI: Our secondary mission was the strike path or the route that the bombers would fly. This clear of MiGs was to kill any MiGs that had not gotten airborne and then, finally, to attack a secondary target on the way back south.

BUCKLEY: The squadron helped the U.S. quickly gain control of the Afghan skies, but it stretched the limits of their training and endurance.

GAIANI: Usually, a mission means one-and-a-half hours airborne. We were airborne seven -- almost seven-and-a-half hours on that first strike in the first night.

BUCKLEY: With its famous swing wing, the fast and intimating Tomcat was designed to replace the F-4 Phantom II. It was built during the Cold War with the experiences of the Vietnam War fresh in mind.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, RETIRED NAVAL AVIATOR: It came into being in the days when we were competing with generations -- newer generations of Russian aircraft.

BUCKLEY: The Navy needed a fighter that could take on the tough, Soviet MiGs.

COL. WALTER BOYNE, USAF (RET.), MILITARY HISTORIAN/AUTHOR: The Russians have developed some very sophisticated missiles, anti- shipping missiles. And they had then, developed airplanes that could carry them.

RICHARD ABOULAFIA, AIRCRAFT INDUSTRY ANALYST, TEAL GROUP: And as a result, they wanted an aircraft that was capable of intercepting any threat or destroying it many miles before it got near the carrier task group.

BUCKLEY: But the Tomcats and the Naval aviators who trained to take on Soviet fighters would not, it turned out, engage their expected adversary.

LT. CMDR. JACK LILES, USN (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: The Tomcat never really got its chance to really prove itself in a -- against a capable fighter in a really well defined dogfight.

BUCKLEY: And as the threat changed, the Tomcats' future was called into question. In 1991, the administration of the elder George Bush and then, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, decided to discontinue the F-14. ABOULAFIA: During the Cold War draw down, the Navy decided to concentrate its resources on one or two types of planes. And the problem began with the F-14 -- was that it was a single mission plane. You could make it do great things as a strike plane, but it was really interceptor. So they wanted to move on to other more multi-role planes such as the Hornet, F/A-18.

BUCKLEY: The Tomcats will phase out gradually. The Navy plans to keep them flying until 2007.

(on-camera): As the Navy phases out the F-14 Tomcat, the aviators who fly them are coming here to California, to Lemoore Naval Air Station where they're being retrained to fly in the Navy's newest generation of the F-18 strike fighter. They're learning how to fly this, the F-18, Super Hornet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody in the Tomcat community knows it's time for the Super Hornet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This aircraft can perform maneuvers at slower air speeds and higher aspect than you can in any other aircraft. You get in a slow speed regime and it will decimate any other aircraft that you put it against.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): The Super Hornet is bigger and faster than the conventional hornet. And its state-of-the-art electronics set it apart from the 60's era technology of the F-14s.

LT. BRANDON HAMMOND, PILOT, VFA 122: Probably the primary difference is the capabilities of the radar, laser-guided bomb...

BUCKLEY: Lt. Brandon Hammond showed me around one of the new Super Hornets.

(on-camera): So for you as a pilot who's flown both the Tomcat and the Super Hornet, are you nostalgic for the Tomcat or do you prefer the Super Hornet?

HAMMOND: Oh, I think you have to be nostalgic for the Tomcat. It's a great jet. It looks good in the brig. I think everybody has pretty much seen one at an air show at one time or another. But this aircraft has got so much going for it. It's got much more capability than the Tomcat ever dreamed of. And it's really a pressure to fly though.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): A pleasure to fly and I'm about out for myself. Pilots from VFA 122, the training squadron of the Super Hornet, have invited me for a backseat ride in their new war bird.




BUCKLEY (voice-over): Lemoore Naval Air Station, central California, where Naval aviators who will fly the next generation of strike aircraft, the Super Hornet, are in training. And I'm about to fly with them.

(on-camera): Let's see if I can remember how to do this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Reach over the fork and pull on it from side to side...

BUCKLEY (voice-over): But this isn't the kind of plane that you can just hop into.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now, try to stand up.

BUCKLEY: The cockpit of a fighter jet can be a dangerous place.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a good fit. Let me get you a helmet.

BUCKLEY (on-camera): OK.

(voice-over): To prepare for flight, you have to go through a full day of training.

(on-camera): All right.

(voice-over): If something were to go seriously wrong, there's only one way out of the jet, straight out the top in a rocket propelled ejection seat.


BUCKLEY: This training is only about a quarter of the thrust of an actual ejection.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And another hook gets commed up to your helmet here.

BUCKLEY: The real thing is much more intense. The force can injure your neck or compress your vertebrae.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just push it together to make it clip. Good! Now, lean forward in the seat and wiggle that butt on back on the seat. Wiggle! Wiggle! Wiggle! Pull! Pull! Pull!

BUCKLEY: Some pilots have had to eject from a jet in flight have come home an inch or two shorter from the trauma on the spine.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Eject! Eject! Eject!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stand straight up. I'm going to reach back here and I'm going to hook you up.

BUCKLEY: In a fighter jet, your parachute is attached to the ejection seat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you see that smoke coming down there?

BUCKLEY (on-camera): Yes.

(voice-over): And pilots train on virtual reality units to master their parachuting skills.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right, you just hit the deck.

BUCKLEY (on-camera): That's not right.

(voice-over): But it a day's worth of training can't prepare you for the intensity of a ride in this fighter jet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're taking off at 10:00, so we'll walk appropriately...

BUCKLEY: Lieutenant Commander Brian Swane (ph), call sign, Skid, leads the preflight briefing. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everything is briefed ad nauseam. It...

BUCKLEY: Lieutenant Commander Greg Keefly (ph), call sign, Chaser, is a RIO or Radar Intercept Officer. He'll take the back seat with Skid. I'll be the backseater with Lt. Dave Maxwell, call sign, Max.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Missile envelope into the gun envelope.

BUCKLEY: To show off the Super Hornet's air-to-air capabilities, our mission today will include a dogfight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's going to be three, two, one, the fight's on. You can start to see the airfield here.

BUCKLEY: And we'll do a bombing run to experience the air-to- ground function or strike capability of the F-18F.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Range 2 is in and then, we're going to attack the hell out of that triple A five site -- questions?

BUCKLEY (on-camera): I thought we were just going to go out a little bit, flying, and...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's all we're doing.

BUCKLEY: This is how we bank. This is how we...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is how we do things.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're going to love this thing because you're down low. You really have that ground rush and then, all of a sudden, you're popping up and that ground rush is gone. It's just like, man, I'm just sitting and this rocket ship just goes straight up. And now, you're pointed at the ground again and now, you're back down low again. So I think you're going to have fun.

BUCKLEY: This is my g-suit. (voice-over): The g-suit is necessary to keep the blood flowing to your brain when we're pulling G's, the gravitational force that's exerted on our bodies when the jet maneuvers. When the suit feels the g-force, it squeezes your legs to force the blood to your head.

HAMMOND: The parachute risers will actually attack right here. So if you were to go down on a parachute, this is what's keeping you in there. So this is probably the most important part of your gear.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, just check it again to make sure it seals nice and tight.

BUCKLEY (on-camera): And now, I set of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and a bottle of water and a couple of sick bags.




BUCKLEY (voice-over): I'm ready to go. And as called for tradition, I'm given a call sign. In the air, I'll no longer be Frank Buckley. These guys will me Buck. While Max goes through his external checks, Lt. Brandon Hammond gets me situated in the back seat.

HAMMOND: All right, the first thing we'll do is we're going to plug in your g-suit down here to this receptacle, find your oxygen hose, practice putting your mask off or on and then, taking it off and then, just relax, enjoy the ride. It's going to be a lot of fun. It really will.

BUCKLEY: And we move toward the runway for one of the most intense rides a person can experience...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three, two, one, fight's on.

BUCKLEY: ... a dogfight in this new war bird when we come back.




BUCKLEY (voice-over): On the tarmac at Naval Air Station, Lemoore, pilot, Lt. Dave Maxwell steers this Super Hornet fighter jet to the runway. I'm in the back seat about to experience the ride of my life. Within minutes, we're on our way, crossing the white caps of the Sierra Nevada's, Skid and Chaser at our side.

LT. DAVE MAXWELL, PILOT, VFA 122: Bridge 2 is doing good.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger! Outstanding! Go ahead and take a sprint here, referencing three, two, zero, accelerating to a 350 mile- and-a-half beam.

BUCKLEY: There's time for a couple of quick photos, one for the scrapbook, another for the kids.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Spin angles right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Spin angles left.

BUCKLEY: And then, the real fun begins.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three, two, one, fight's on.

MAXWELL: And now, we're getting behind him. We should be able to get a shot here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's kind of like a chess game. You're not just going for the one move. You're planning several moves ahead and trying to set up the end result, which is you shooting him.

MAXWELL: OK, climbing it back up and we'll put it in place.

BUCKLEY: During the dogfight, we go upside down, pull multiple G's. The horizon was nowhere to be found and I felt like I was going to be sick.

(on-camera): Still feeling a little queasy.

MAXWELL: No pressure. It's your flight. I do this all the time.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): Max levels out so I won't be sick. The intense g-forces can also make you pass out or experience tunnel vision, which I did.

(on-camera): The next thing is to make the attack on the airfield, right.


BUCKLEY: There is -- all right, well, I'm going to hang in there and get ready to go with you.

MAXWELL: OK. We'll go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One, two, connect...


BUCKLEY (voice-over): The jet warns us that we're very close to the dir, but that's exactly where Max wants to be. This is a pop-up run. We'll fly straight toward a mountain, pop up over the other side and dive down inverted, upside down, onto the target.

In conflicts with no significant fighter force on the other side, these jets carry precision-guided weapons to their targets. This is what American F-18s and F-14 Tomcats did in Afghanistan and Kosovo. This combined strike fighter role will be carried on by the F-18 Super Hornet E and F.

Max used to fly F-14s. Now, he's retraining former Tomcat pilots on the F-18 Super Hornet.

MAXWELL: I think it's kind of like your first love, you know, you'll always remember it on that basis. However, I would choose to stay in this aircraft because this is the aircraft to fly.

BUCKLEY: My orientation flight in the two-seat F model Super Hornet is nearly over as we head back to base.

MAXWELL: What we're going to do is we're just going to come in there and he'll be on the right wing. And we'll just basically roll left and pull along the horizon and go down.

BUCKLEY: One final maneuver...

MAXWELL: OK, you ready? Here we go.

BUCKLEY: ... a hard brake to slow the plane and put us into the pattern for landing.

(on-camera): How many G's on the brake?

MAXWELL: I think we're pulling about six.

BUCKLEY: So that's a vision thing again?

MAXWELL: All right, Buck, you're on the ground again. Glad to be here?

BUCKLEY: Yes, sir.

(voice-over): The bag I'm holding, a point of pride. I didn't have to use it.

(on-camera): The things that we experienced were just insane. You really get a respect for what these pilots are going through. And they're trying to fly this machine, keep their eye on the target and stay alive all at the same time. It's just -- it was overwhelming for me.

(voice-over): But my flight was nothing compared to what these pilots do every day. Four or more dogfights in a mission, dozens of maneuvers.

The trainer pilots of VFA 122 are putting this jet and the men and women who will fly it through the pieces, preparing for the real test in battle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everyone here takes a great amount of pride in the ability of the aircrew flying those aircraft. I have no doubts that they will be the leaders of the battle group there and the strikes.

BUCKLEY: And the first squadron to take the Super Hornet into combat is about to deploy. We'll meet them later in the alley. And next, designed in the Truman administration, still flying in the war on terror. The B-52, an inside view of a mission in this bombing war bird when we come back.



LIN: I'm Carol Lin. Here's what's happening in our CNN NEWS ALERT. The mine rescue in Pennsylvania is still the big story. We go now live to CNN's Jeff Flock for the latest there.

Jeff, you're about to take us on another roller coaster ride, aren't you?

FLOCK: Exactly, Carol. The saga continues here. And of course, that's what it's been throughout the last three days. But we have just learned that -- within the last two minutes, literally -- they have now stopped drilling again. We're getting a report from one of our folks -- one of our pool folks out at the scene -- you know, we're not able to be at the scene, just a couple of pool folks -- just got a call. They have stopped drilling. It was an abrupt stop. He heard the call to "stop now." Why? Two possible reasons -- one, they broke through. I think that's unlikely based on the amount of the time that they had started up drilling again. The other possibility, something's broken. It's another possibility that, you know, there's some other thing that we don't know.

I want to show you, though, what's in place above that. That is the cylinder. That is the air lock. That is in place now. So the pressurization has taken place. We don't know if there's been any problem with that, but that big, long cylinder is now above the hole. We're hoping to get the freshest pictures with that actually in place. When we do, we'll bring those to you as well, Carol. But that's the latest here from Somerset -- back to you.

LIN: All right, thank you very much, Jeff Flock, live. More news as it happens, but right now, back to "CNN PRESENTS."


BUCKLEY (voice-over): 6:00 a.m. on a spring morning at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're racing today, Air Warrior Two Exercise. Five, four, three, two, one, attack, zero, six...

BUCKLEY: Airmen from the 20th Bomb Squadron gather in the briefing room. Their mission...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Proper check in of the package...

BUCKLEY: ... a training flight in a B-52. The crewmembers tell me we'll come as close to a real world mission over Afghanistan as the ones some of them have already flown. And we're about to go along for the ride.

The crews will coordinate today with Army soldiers in a training exercise called Air Warrior.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, that's the majority of your target area. You're going to contact in order, Jackknife to Wolf...

BUCKLEY: This Air Force major will pilot one of the aircraft.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I love the plane. I love flying the plane. The Air Force really did a lot of work in bringing in some of the weapons that we're using now and made us a really viable platform for operations in Afghanistan and other places where we are directly supporting ground troops.

BUCKLEY (on-camera): As big as the B-52 is, most of it is used to store fuel, ammunitions and electronic gear, navigation gear. That leaves very little room for the crew to maneuver. This is the flight deck area where the pilot sits. The pilot sitting in the left seat. The co-pilot sitting in the right seat. Behind me, the rest of the flight deck.

From this side of the cockpit, it's easier to get the sense of just how crowded this space is for the crew. There are some comforts, however. Here, for example, there's a bunk that crewmembers can use to grab a nap during the particularly long missions that they sometimes engage in. Here, there's an oven where crewmembers can heat up food. And just beyond that, there is this small toilet facility with a privacy curtain that they can pull if they want to. And toward the back of the flight deck is the area that's used by the electronic warfare officer. It's been covered up by crewmembers because that's a classified space. We can't show you all of the dials. And down here is another space for additional crewmembers. They work right back there. It's the space for the navigator and the radar navigator. The navigator is responsible for getting this ship to the target. The radar navigator is responsible for launching the weapons.

(voice-over): Colonel Anthony Amondi (ph) is the vice commander of the Second Bomb Wing. He just returned from a tour in the B-52 over Afghanistan.

COLONEL ANTHONY AMONDI (ph), SECOND BOMB WING: The idea of having B-52s and B-1s, just bombers in general, orbiting in Afghanistan -- we're sending a message to the enemy. The message is that we have the resolve. We're here for the long haul and if you get out of line, we're going to swhack you. And that's what we're doing right now.

BUCKLEY: The aircraft moves toward the runway to begin a six- hour mission.

AMONDI (ph): As far as getting this monstrous airplane airborne full of weapons, that's when this here plane really performs. We set the thrust gate to 100 percent power. We push up all eight throttles. This thing starts a rocking and a rolling. You've got 12 external bombs, a full load of internal bombs and you using almost all of the runway. And you heed back and the baby goes airborne. And believe me, every time, it's a good feeling this thing comes off the ground because as old as it is, it's still doing great.

BUCKLEY: The B-52 only gradually gains altitude. Once we do, the crew turns its attention to the mission. As the plane approaches the target site, the radar navigator coordinates the strikes. He calls the targets DMPIs (ph), Air Force talk for Designated Meeting Points of Impact. The first simulated target is a military runway.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can see it says "full sim." It's simulating that we have weapons onboard.

BUCKLEY: The B-52 can carry more types of weapons than any bomber, including up to 12 joint directive attack munitions or JDAM. The target coordinates are given by soldiers on the ground, using global positioning to get precise numbers. But as sophisticated as these weapons are, a smart bomb is only as smart as the numbers programmed into it. Coordinates are repeated back to make sure there are no mistakes, to put the bombs in the right place because once they're launched, there's no calling them back.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Somewhere in Afghanistan -- or on the way to Afghanistan, we will receive instructions over our radio or over our satellite communication system as to which targets we're executing.

BUCKLEY: The electronic warfare officer or EDUB (ph), meanwhile, keeps his eyes on potential threats to the aircraft.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Make them think we're somewhere else sometimes. Now, I (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to make sure we don't get shot down. It's really that simple.

BOYNE: His is really a fencing job. He goes in and he reads what the enemy is doing. He offsets what the enemy is doing. The enemy will offset what he's doing and it's back and forth.

BUCKLEY: And while a B-52 may be an old aircraft, the electronics the EDUB (ph) has to work with are new; most of it is still top secret. Even the reflection in his glasses is considered classified.

The missions last for hours and even with its massive fuel capacities, the B-52 has to refuel in flight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're heading down track about zero, six, five. We're slowing down. Yes, air fueling, track heading. Do you see anything off your right shoulder there?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So we're working together. The radar navigators, essentially, getting me to the tanker until we're at a point where I have the tanker beat. Then once we get in there, now, I'm just trying to get my game face on because it's time for me to earn my pay.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, the doors are open. Ready to rock n' roll. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger.

BUCKLEY: This was as tense as it got during our flight. We were in one of two giant aircraft flying just a few feet away from each other.

BOYNE: It's extremely dangerous and it's a tribute to the people doing it that there haven't been more accidents.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The biggest problem that we can have is under running the tanker. And that's why we're checking our air speeds as we close on the tanker.

BRIG. GEN. GEORGE HARRISON, USAF (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: And he literally flies up behind the KC-135 and stabilizes in a position about, oh, 15 feet behind and below the KC-135 or the KC-10. The KC-10 boom operator maneuvers the boom and he can fly the boom or the control stick down to the B-52 and inserts it into the refueling receptacle. And then, you start transferring fuel.

With the B-52, the B-52 carries so much fuel. That's probably a 20 or a 30-minute close formation flying operation at a very heavy tear of air flying.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It certainly takes some practice. It's the team. It's a lot of hands-on, put the airplane where you want it kind of flying.

BUCKLEY: With the added fuel aboard and the missions accomplished, it's time to head home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'd like to extend a dogleg to finals. The secret to flying is (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BUCKLEY: Cleared to land in a massive aircraft, it is so big that special features had to be added to help bring this bird down. The wingspan is so wide that the wings themselves have their own landing gears near the tips.

And to account for crosswinds, an ingenious system was put in place. Normally, a pilot will tip a wing into the crosswind to move straight toward the runway, but the B-52's wide wingspan forced designers to come up with something revolutionary at the time.

HARRISON: The B-52 has a thing called crosswind gear on it. Since you turn into the wind as you approach a runway and fly almost sideways, you can crank the landing gear so that the landing gear is lined with the runway. So when you touch this down, it gradually cranks that out.

BUCKLEY: The gear turns to keep the wheels straight toward the runway, while the rest of the fuselage of the plane heads into the wind.

LT. COL. "POWDER", 20TH BOMB SQUADRON, BARKSDALE AFB: The wheels are going straight down the runway, however, the airplane can be up to 20 degrees off the runway heading, which is substantial. You really don't want to go that far. Typically, the farthest I've ever been has been 10 degrees off runway heading and that's still weird because the pilots are basically -- instead of looking out the front windscreen, they're now looking out the sides.

BUCKLEY: And this, they tell me, is how it went, how they flew the more than 400 sorties over Afghanistan in the first three months of the war.

"POWDER": For the first 80 days of the war, we dropped close to three million pounds of weapons on Afghanistan on the back decks. We'll shift the engines down and we'll do go to debriefing. At the debriefing, we'll talk about which targets we left with, which targets we actually hit, which targets we actually destroyed. All of that and get a quick bite to eat, right into crew rest and then, come back in about 24 hours later and start the cycle all over again. BUCKLEY: Coming up...

ANNOUNCER: And the B-52, America's biggest and newest jet bomber...

BUCKLEY: ... a birthday celebration for America's oldest bomber.




BUCKLEY (voice-over): As the Navy prepares its newest fighter jet for combat; the Air Force celebrates a major milestone for its oldest war bird. Veteran crewmembers, engineers and Boeing company employees gather in Wichita, Kansas to honor the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the B-52.

On hand is General Guy Townsend, one of the original test pilots, who flew the airplane on its maiden voyage in 1952.

GENERAL GUY TOWNSEND, B-52 TEST PILOT: As far as being a pleasant airplane to fly, you know, just pure fun, it's not real high on the list. But the -- you took the airplane and (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

HARRISON: Pretty is as pretty does. And it does.

ANNOUNCER: At Castle Air Force Base, California, the B-52, America's biggest and newest jet bomber goes into squadron service with the Strategic Air Command.

BUCKLEY: The stratofortress, as it was called, was America's counter to the Soviet threat. This fast and heavy jet could carry the bomb all the way to Soviet soil.

ANNOUNCER: Threatening devastating counterattack to any oppressor, the mightiest bomber in history.

BUCKLEY: During the hottest moments of the Cold War, bomber crews were on 24-hour alert. In Vietnam, the B-52 shifted from nuclear bomber to carpet bomber.

MCCAIN: I will forget many things about the Vietnam War, but I will never forget the Christmas offensive where the B-52s were sent over North Vietnam in Hanoi for the first time in the Vietnam War. They had a devastating effect on the North Vietnamese. They took out their air defenses. They took out their airfields.

BUCKLEY: The bomber also played a major role in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.

BOYNE: The Republican Guard, in particular, was subjected to B- 52 attacks. It was extremely effective. It would drop these endless droves of bombs and the ground troops had surrendered.

MCCAIN: The B-52s struck terror in the hearts of every adversary that they've come into conflict with.

BUCKLEY: And at some point during its 50 years, the big old B-52 earned a nickname.

(on-camera): This particular B-52 was nicknamed Mud Buff by its crew chief. But in fact, all B-52s are known as BUFFs. The acronym standing for something different depending on who you talk to, but the polite version is Big, Ugly, Fat, Fellow.

(voice-over): What has kept the BUFF flying for so long is a combination of factors. First, the original design, which marks several watersheds in aerodynamics that live on in today's jets.

ABOULAFIA: It was one of the first sheer, large jet powered aircraft that had eight engines and could go intercontinentally with a large bomb load. That in itself was a form of an innovation.

BUCKLEY: And if there were awards for longevity, the BUFF would be in the running, especially, since the Air Force plans to keep the aircraft in its fleet until 2037.

ABOULAFIA: To put this into relative time terms, this is as if the soft war Camels (ph) of World War I were still fighting in Vietnam. It's remarkable that a plane should be so forward looking as to steal the irrelevant for the next 20, 30 years even.

BUCKLEY: The obvious key to the plane's long life is maintenance. The only model currently flying is the final one designed, the H model, the last of which came off the assembly line in 1962. But the planes are regularly overhauled. Their systems continually updated.

HARRISON: I don't think a B-52 pilot who flew the BUFF in 1958 would recognize the cockpit of the airplane except the basic engine instruments. So the avionics have changed considerably. A lot of infrared gear, a lot of radar upgrades, a lot of electronic countermeasures upgrades.

BUCKLEY: And with these upgrades, the Air Force says it's cheaper to keep the B-52 flying than it is to buy new bombers. The amount spent on annual maintenance on the entire fleet, more than 90 aircraft, would only be enough to buy one new B-1 bomber.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: For the land of the free and the home of the brave.

BUCKLEY: And among the folks gathered at this celebration, there's talk of an even greater update of the B-52, replacing its original eight engines with four larger, more powerful, state-of-the- art jets.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you thought the first 50 years were impressive, you ain't seen nothing yet.


DON KARONDA, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL AERONAUTIC ASSOCIATION: Most people, again, would never have thought that we would see a bomber, front line piece of equipment, survive 50 years and still be planning for another 40 years of life. It boggles my mind.

BUCKLEY: Coming up, an aircraft carrier readies for battle and the flight deck kicks into high gear...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every jet you see on this flight deck is going to be replaced by this one some day.

BUCKLEY: ... as the Navy deploys its newest war bird.




BUCKLEY (voice-over): As the USS Abraham Lincoln continues to send aircraft off the deck in war game exercises, there's a new war bird in the mix and Squadron VFA 115 is the first to fly it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right now, we're at the end of our end deployment training cycles. We've done all of the qualifications that are required for the officers, pilots and crew to be totally trained both in the battle group, all the ships and in the air wing.

BUCKLEY: Squadron commander, Eric DeVita, call sign, Devo, suits up for a flight with wingman, Lt. Steve Dean (ph), a rookie pilot, call sign, Two Dogs. These men are part of the first squadron to deploy the Navy's newest strike fighter. The squadron's pilots were also the first to make the transition from Hornet to Super Hornet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No trepidation with the new plane whatsoever. Now, there is always risk with a brand new airplane, but this airplane has been proven for many years now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Coming right out of flight school, when I got selected to fly the Super Hornet, it was -- they were picking very few people out of the training command, newly winged aviators to do it. So it was -- you know, it was an honor. I was lucky to get the opportunity. And I've been training at (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ever since and to be part of the first deployment is -- it's really special because there's only one first deployment of the Super Hornet. And this jet is going to be the future of the Navy. Every jet you see on this flight deck is going to be replaced by this one some day.

BUCKLEY: As these pilots enter the exercises, the commanders of the air wing are determining how best to employ their new bird into the war plan.

CAPT. KEVIN C. ALBRIGHT, COMMANDER, AIR WING 14: There's a couple of attributes that the airplane, I think, brings to this. The Super Hornet's increased range and increased weapons carry will be able to, hopefully, allow the service more targets per sortie than we are at right now with the F-18C.

LILES: Well, some of the shortcomings with the F-18 were twofold. One, that we've always had trouble with the gas on the -- in the Hornet. And we always made fun of the Hornet right out of its box because it just didn't have the legs that a Tomcat had and many of the other carrier-based aircraft. The Super Hornet addressed some of those issues and there is a little more fuel capacity and a little more that's gone into thinking about how to use that aircraft in the carrier cycle system.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: See the two rhinos overhead are going to do the break, Manny.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, sir, wide open. They're number one.

BUCKLEY: The size and weight difference of the Super Hornet presents a few challenges for the air boss and his crew on the USS Lincoln.

(on-camera): We all call it a Super Hornet. You guys call it a rhino up here. Why do you call it a rhino?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The name rhino came about for operational reasons. We could easily, accidentally, cut off the transmission of Super Hornet and only hear the word, Hornet, and confuse the two airplanes. A B, right now, about to land, is a rhino. The rhino weighs 8,000 pounds more than the Hornet on landing. If you land a rhino on a Hornet setting, in that case, you have a heavy, fast aircraft landing on it. So the rest of your setting, you set too soft. So by using the word "rhino," you're not going to mistake the two aircraft. The rhino is a great airplane.

Fixed wing, recovery complete, LC, Shocks and Chains, spot six.

BUCKLEY: When an aircraft lands, maintenance crews take over to prep it for the next flight. It's almost like your car. The older it is, the more maintenance hours it needs to keep it going.

LT. JOEL TESSIER, SQUADRON VFA 115: In terms of maintenance hours, this is definitely the lowest man hours per flight hour.

BUCKLEY: New technology on this jet makes it easier to keep maintenance logs and clear up any discrepancies immediately after a flight.

TESSIER: This is a standard PCM-CIA card that's used for downloading data, flight data, out of the airplane for maintenance. The pilot brings this card down and gives it to the guys at the desk here. And they put it right into the computer and download all the data for that flight.

BUCKLEY: With maintenance hours and the need to replace aging aircraft in mind, the Navy is looking to expand the role of the Super Hornet to take the place of other planes in its fleet.

DUPOUY: It certainly is replacing two aircraft in the F-18C and F-14 in the strike role. It's -- it will be a tanker. And it is tanker onboard the ship and it's actually an exceptional tanker -- to carry more gas, go farther, go faster than the S-3. So in that role, it is truly exceptional.

BUCKLEY: Another possibility on the drawing table is to outfit a Super Hornet with the radar jamming equipment currently on the EA-6B Prowler, an aircraft that entered service in 1971. The re-outfitted Super Hornet would be nicknamed the Growler, to replace the aging Prowler.

ABOULAFIA: The Super Hornet, the Hornet EF, is an extremely cost-effective aircraft. That is to say, it does everything fairly well. That, of course, means that it's less capable of doing specific missions than the aircraft it replaces. But nevertheless, it's a very good, all around multi-role plane. And because it's the latest and greatest in modern architecture of design, you can upgrade it fair more readily than you could, say, the F-14 or the A-6.

DUPOUY: I think as the world situation changes, the missions in the Navy will change and the missions of aircraft will change. We'll have to adapt and come up with different solutions to satisfy those missions.

BUCKLEY: The Third Fleet continues its war exercises into the night. Soon, they'll deploy with real bombs and face the possibility of real battle. And the pilots of VFA 115 will test the metal of the Super Hornet in combat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are going to be challenged to the tilt. Those guys will be seen as sort of the mentors to the rest of the community for quite a while. And they'll learn a lot and it will be tough, but they'll be prouder when they get back and especially, if they get back with all those aircraft and aircrews.


BROWN: The pilots of Squadron VFA 115, which you just met, headed out this week aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. They will be the first to deploy the Navy's new F-18 Super Hornet. And that's this edition of CNN PRESENTS. I'm Aaron Brown. We'll see you next week.