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Tuesday, April 20, 1999 Published at 09:18 GMT 10:18 UK

World: Americas

In the belly of a B-52

A B-52 long-range bomber takes off from RAF Fairford

By Correspondent Richard Lister

The experience of flying a B-52 mission to the Adriatic is, said one pilot, like being locked in the boot of a car for 10 hours and forced to do maths problems, while every so often, someone urinates in the corner.

Richard Lister experiences 'combat conditions on a highly efficient war machine'
The language he used was slightly different, but you get the idea. These aircraft are dark and cramped and the food and toilet facilities for the crew are meagre to say the least.

It is perhaps appropriate though, that delivering a payload capable of such tremendous destruction is neither easy nor comfortable.

[ image: An air-launched cruise missile is loaded on a B-52]
An air-launched cruise missile is loaded on a B-52
Each of the B-52s deployed in Britain can carry eight cruise missiles that can be launched up to 1,100 kilometres from the target and guided in by satellite. The missiles themselves are more than six metres of sheer menace, and almost two thirds of their weight consists of high explosives.

The vast, sinister profile of the B-52, with its eight engines and ability to carry a huge payload, is a powerful psychological weapon too. The US Air Force readily admits that deploying these aircraft sends a signal to the target nation that this is serious and that the scale of the attacks to come will not be small.

'Claustrophobe's nightmare'

[ image: The B-52 can carry 70,000 pounds of weapons]
The B-52 can carry 70,000 pounds of weapons
Entry to a B-52 is via a small hatch in the belly of the aircraft and up a creaking ladder into the, dark, musty interior. Climbing on board, you are reminded of the other crews who have squeezed through this hatch for earlier missions: in Vietnam in the late 1960s, and over Iraq.

Inside is a claustrophobe's nightmare. The only windows are in the cockpit and the short, narrow corridor which takes you there is not tall enough to stand up in. It is lined with row upon row of dials, switches and gauges, some of which are as old as the aircraft itself and are now scratched and worn.

Others are newer additions, reflecting the instrument upgrades that the B-52s have had over the years to keep them flying with the most up to date technology available.

[ image: The controls of the B-52 feature old and new technology]
The controls of the B-52 feature old and new technology
The American crew, five men and a woman ( Pico, Wilbur, Puddy, Beaker, Gyro and Elmo) strap themselves into parachute harnesses and ejector seats and plug into the communication system.

The engines are warmed and the missiles in particular must be monitored closely to ensure that their engines and navigation gear are faultless. They after all, are the reason that we are all here.

Once in the air, it takes about 10 hours to get to and from the launch area off the Balkan coast. The crew banter among themselves, and it struck me that their conversations would not have been all that different during the World War II, when their fathers or grandfathers may have gone on similar bombing raids over Europe.

As we get closer to the launch point, the tension rises and the banter stops.

Detached destruction

This is where the navigator and the bombardier take over, from their seats downstairs, facing a bank of screens. The bomb bay doors are opened and the navigator counts down from five. The bombardier pushes a series of buttons and with a shudder which you can feel throughout the plane, the first of the missiles is released, and the status screen blinks "missile away".

It is a strangely detached process, reminding you almost of a giant, dangerous, computer game. We can neither see the missiles launched, nor where they are going, and will have to wait until the day's television news to see the results of the night's work.

Once the bomb bay is emptied, there are high fives and sighs of relief. The B-52 turns for home towards the emerging dawn. Once back in Fairford, it will be prepared to do the same thing, all over again.

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