Everything You Need To Know About The Recent B-52’s 24-HR Mission Across The Med And Red Sea Regions

B-52 24-hour mission
Two Israeli Air Force F-15s escort a U.S. Air Force B-52H during a 24-hour presence patrol. (Photo: Israeli Air Force)

The BUFF took off from RAF Fairford, where it is deployed as part of Bomber Task Force Europe, and integrated with Typhoons, F-15s and F/A-18s during a long-range presence patrol.

As we reported already, four B-52H strategic bombers of the U.S. Air Force deployed to RAF Fairford on February 10, 2022 for another rotation of the Bomber Task Force (BTF) Europe. The Stratofortresses, belonging to the 5th Bomb Wing from Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, arrived as the military build-up in Europe and tensions with Russia are rapidly raising, but the USAFE-AFAFRICA command pointed out that the BTF 22-2 is a “long-planned” mission and not a consequence of the current situation around Ukraine.

A few days later, on Febr. 14, a B-52 performed a long-range mission to the CENTCOM area and back, logging about 23 hours and 30 minutes of flight.

Needless to say, the flight got a lot of attention online by aviation enthusiasts from all around the world on flight tracking websites. The flight departed as a two-ship shortly after midnight, with callsigns CHIEF11 (B-52H 61-0039) and CHIEF12 (B-52H 61-0018), and headed for the Atlantic Ocean, skirting the Spanish and Portuguese airspaces before crossing the Gibraltar Strait.

After crossing the Strait, about four hours into the flight, the two B-52 bombers started orbiting while waiting for the rendezvous with three KC-135 tankers, flying with callsigns LAGR965, LAGR966 and LAGR967. The five-aircraft formation performed the air-to-air refueling while flying alongside the border of the Barcelona FIR (Flight Information Region) towards the Balearic Islands. Upon reaching the island, the bombers turned south-east towards Italy.

Shortly after the refueling, however, CHIEF12 experienced unspecified problems as it was about to enter the Marseille FIR near Menorca and aborted the mission as a safety measure. The Stratofortress started flying the return leg towards the Gibraltar Strait, but later took a shortcut and flew over Spain on its way back to Fairford. The bomber, which was already flying lower than its usual cruise altitude, later transmitted a Pan Pan Pan emergency call, reportedly for engine problems.

CHIEF11 continued alone on its mission, flying towards Crete and Cyprus.

While in the area, the B-52 integrated with Typhoon FGR4 fighter jets of the Royal Air Force from the detachment at RAF Akrotiri. One of the Typhoons was trackable with the callsign RFR9711 (ZK346), most probably accompanied by a second Typhoon as flight history shows that it later flew towards Iraq with a Voyager KC2 tanker (RRR9831/ZZ338).

Both the tanker and the two Typhoons briefly joined the B-52, as CHIEF11 was heard on radio confirming to Nicosia control that it was currently flying in a four-ship formation and RFR9711 confirmed they were in formation with the bomber. Interestingly, the Stratofortress flew within 100 km from the Russian bases of Tartus and Latakia in Syria, before turning south towards Egypt.

By the way, two other Typhoons were trackable in the same area near Cyprus, one of them being RRR09692 (ZK342) while the other was not transmitting its callsign (ZK682). However, they did not join the formation as they were returning to RAF Coningsby with stops in Souda Bay and Grosseto Air Base.

A U.S. Air Force KC-10 Extender, deployed to Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, refuels a B-52H Stratofortress above the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility during a presence patrol mission, Feb. 14, 2022. The B-52 can deliver large payloads of precision nuclear or conventional ordnance over extreme distances and provides the ability to rapidly project military power around the globe. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Daniel Hernandez)

CHIEF11 continued the flight over the Red Sea before turning east over Saudi Arabia over Jeddah. While it was there, as confirmed in a U.S. Air Force press statement on DVIDS, the bomber was refueled by a KC-10 tanker and joined by two U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornets for the first presence patrol of 2022 in the CENTCOM area of responsibility.

“Today’s B-52-led demonstration of joint, coalition, and partner nation combat airpower was a powerful projection of our combined strength across the Middle East,” said Lt. Gen. Greg Guillot, 9th Air Force (AFCENT) commander. “By originating outside the CENTCOM AOR, the mission also exemplified the U.S. Air Force’s ability to deliver combat airpower seamlessly across multiple combatant commands.”

While the press statement only mentioned unspecified regional partners, the Ministry of Defense in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia published the photos of four F-15SA escorting the B-52H. Interestingly, the Eagles are flying with a very heavy air-to-air loadout which includes two external fuel tanks, four AIM-9L/M Sidewinder IR-guided missiles and eight AIM-120 AMRAAM radar-guided missiles.

Following the successful completion of the patrol, the B-52 begun tracing back its route. While flying near Israel, the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fellow) was joined by two IDF F-15s and a camera ship. The two fighters were possibly on Quick Reaction Alert duties, as photos show them armed with live Python 4/5, AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles like during a similar flight last year (which, by the way, saw exactly the same bomber flying over Israel).

The flight continued uneventfully until the bomber landed back at RAF Fairford after almost 24 hours of flight. While the U.S. Air Force officially stated that this mission’s objective was the Middle East, many viewed it as a deterrence mission or show of force for the current Ukrainian crisis and expected the B-52 to fly over the Black Sea, joining the RC-135s, RQ-4s and the other Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance assets that are crowding that area every day.

Another interesting aspect of the mission was related to the aircraft itself, as the B-52H 61-0039 is one of the 46 nuclear-capable Stratofortresses, as can be noticed from the fins installed as external identifiers under the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) treaty. The so-called shark fins can be found in their original position only on the combat coded jets, allowing to check by satellite how many bombers are combat ready, as required by the treaty. Because of this, many rumored about the presence of nuclear weapons on the aircraft as it flew mainly over the sea, however this is highly unlikely.

About Stefano D'Urso
Stefano D'Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he's also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.