Listen To Three B-52s Discussing Their “Gameplan” For Landing After Black Sea and Astral Knight Missions

HERO34 #61-0034 flying over Poland with Polish Air Force escort. (Image credit: Polish AF).

One of the BUFFs, used radio callsign “LEMAY 35”, that appears to be a tribute to famed SAC Commander Gen. Curtis E. LeMay.

On Sept. 23, 2020, five U.S. B-52H Stratofortress strategic bombers belonging to the 5th Bomb Wing, from Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, deployed to Europe as part of BTF 20-4, flew missions over Eastern Europe: two two-ships, flying as “HERO 31/32” and “HERO 33/34” operated in the Black Sea area; one single-ship, “LEMAY35”, flew to Poland.

The radio callsign of the latter is noteworthy, as it appears to be a tribute to Gen. Curtis Emerson LeMay, Strategic Air Command commander from 1948 to 1957 (the longest tenure of any US military commander in nearly 100 years) and later 5th Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force. LeMay had a clear vision of SAC being so obviously powerful that it would be perceived by any and all enemies to be unbeatable and so deter them from any aggressive action. He was instrumental in SAC’s acquisition of a large fleet of new strategic bombers, establishment of a vast aerial refueling system, the formation of many new units and bases, development of a strategic ballistic missile force, and establishment of a strict command and control system with an unprecedented readiness capability. Under LeMay command, SAC grew from a  to close to 2,000 heavy bombers, and nearly 800 tanker aircraft.

While LEMAY integrated with the assets involved in Astral Knight 2020, the two HERO flights operated in the Ukrainian airspace (closely monitored by several Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance assets flying in the Black Sea area likely interested in recording the reactions of the Russian air defenses to the presence of the B-52s in the area) and caused two Russian Su-27 Flanker to scramble, before returning to RAF Fairford.

On their way back to the UK, HERO33 (#60-0029) and HERO34 (#61-0034), that were also escorted by 2x Polish F-16s and 2x MiG-29s, rejoined with LEMAY35 (#60-0044) and flew as a three-ship towards RAF Faiford. Interestingly, the bombers talked one another on their OPS frequency and discussed the “gameplan” for recovery. Their radio comms, in the clear (not encrypted), were recorded on 321.0 Mhz by @EHEH_Spotter as the formation progressed over Germany, and we can listen them in the following video (the footage is cool, but is not related to this specific mission):

At the beginning of the clip LEMAY 35 is about 4NM behind HERO flight and starts rejoins with the two B-52s flying in the block 270-280, at 300 kts. The trailing BUFF asks the channel of the air-to-air TACAN (30Y) so that it can read the actual distance from the preceding B-52s. The initial plan was to reach Fairford as a three-ship, but, because of the weather, the formation splits and the B-52s perform separate ILS procedures. The leader will fly at 280 knots, the number 2 at 275 KIAS and the number 3 will keep 250 KIAS so that they get 23NM between them.

The following cool video shows the arrival of LEMAY 35:

Astral Knight mission

As mentioned, LEMAY 35 supported Astral Knight 2020. We got to learn a bit more about the exercise thanks to a telephone media briefing that took place as the B-52 operated over Poland, not too far from the Belarus border.

“This year we’re building on the lessons learned from Astral Knight ’19, enhancing our ability to build a resilient, integrated air and missile defense enterprise,” said U.S. Air Forces Maj. Gen. Derek France. “We will be putting our combined airmen and soldiers through a demanding set of scenarios over the course of this week using both live fly and computer-based scenarios.  Our goal at the end of this week is to enhance command and control integration, improve coordination interoperability, land and air capabilities, and successfully overlap operations into an integrated air and missile defense architecture.”

“Astral Knight incorporates a variety of U.S. Air Force and Polish Air Force aircraft, including elements of our current bomber task force in theater as well as Army Patriot missile systems and Polish ground-based missile systems.  Additionally, we will – and most importantly will be integrating our air operations centers, on the U.S. side at Ramstein, and the Polish air operations center in Warsaw to give us a greater combined awareness of the air defense picture.”

Basically, it’s a pre-Article five defensive scenario.

“The scenarios we’ve developed over the course of the week involve a variety of threats,” Gen. France added. “We have forces that are capable of engaging each of those, and when we talk about command and control, which is one of the focus areas of this, it’s about putting the right force to defend against the right threat and the right place at the right time. If we do that, our operators will hit homeruns all day long. But it’s the understanding of how to posture those correctly. And so it is a variety of threats, everything from ballistic missiles to aircraft to cruise missiles to unmanned aerial things. And some of them are live fly, some of them are simulated, and some of them are injects that go into the planning system so that we plan against them.”

“This exercise is also an avenue to enhance our partnerships across the Baltic region between U.S. joint partners and other nations such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, as mentioned, and Sweden as we share common interests in maintaining a Europe that is safe and secure and prosperous.  By training together in the region, we’re able to enhance our flexibility, our interoperability in the interests of strengthening combined response capabilities and demonstrating international resolve.  Our partners fly a variety of different weapons systems, and it’s important and crucial that we expand those capabilities by integrating with one another.”

“The ever-evolving security situation in this theater requires precise focus and dedication, and Astral Knight is one of the key measures that ensures our nations are able to respond to any situation with speed and agility.  Enhancing our readiness through demanding and challenging exercises such as Astral Knight ’20 allows our joint and multinational team to be ready for any challenge we may face in the future.”

“And the bottom line is this: that no nation can confront today’s challenges alone.  But because of the relationships we have built in these AOCs and through this exercise, they become the bedrock for us to undertake Astral Knight and present a ready and capable defense that is able to defend this area.”



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About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.