The B-52 is a Great Beast of a Plane

America’s Workhorse in Vietnam Takes to the Skies in Ch. 1 of Midair

Excerpted from Midair by Craig K. Collins (Lyons Press)
Available here in hardback, paperback, ebook and audiobook.

Read Midair: Foreword | Read Midair: Chapter Two | Read Midair: Chapter Twenty-Eight

he B-52 is a great beast of a plane. It was designed by men with the end of the world on their minds — conceived amid the fallout of Alamogordo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. It was built for destruction — a destroyer of nations packed with a nuclear arsenal — always aloft, always alert. It lumbered to life in the fifties, ascended to the skies, and flew headlong into the dark maw of the Cold War.

Midair (Lyons Press) is a true account of one of the most remarkable tales of survival in the history of aviation — a midair collision at 30,000 feet by two bomb-laden B-52s over a category 5 super typhoon above the South China Sea during the outset of the Vietnam War.

Roughly the size of a 747 with twice the number of engines, the B-52 has a slender fuselage and long wings with tips that droop nearly to the tarmac when the plane is loaded with weapons and fuel. It has an angular shark fin of a tail that rises four stories and slices ominously through the air. Within its fuselage and wings are vast reservoirs holding the equivalent of three residential swimming pools of jet fuel. It accommodates a flight crew of six, plus an entire backup team, who can fly in shifts. It can be refueled in midair. Should the end of the world be nigh, the plane and its crew can circle the skies continuously for days, weeks,or even months.

My first encounter with a B-52 came at Mather Air Force Base near Sacramento. I was five years old in the summer of 1966, riding on the back of my uncle Don Harten’s Honda 500 motorcycle. We roared across the black tarmac that was already sending up shimmering waves of heat beneath the early morning sun. I clutched my uncle’s shirt, and the engine rumbled beneath me. I leaned to the right and blinked with watering eyes into the hot wind that blew tears back across the sides of my face.

In the distance was an entire fleet of B-52s, parked wingtip to wingtip, nose to tail — football fields full of weapons of war, bristling beneath a scorching California sun.

Listen to first three chapters of Midair free here.

With a twist of his wrist, my uncle gave the motorcycle one last full throttle as we approached his plane. We then coasted before racing past the B-52’s nose, banking hard left and circling counterclockwise around the jet. My uncle rolled to a stop under the shade of the plane’s wings, turned off the engine, stomped the kickstand into place, and dismounted. He lifted me beneath the armpits and swung me to the ground. Though the motorcycle’s engine no longer roared, it sat smoldering and hissing inches from my arm. I walked in awe, staring upward at the plane, which stood some ten feet above me, as though I were looking at the ceiling of some soaring cathedral.

Capt. Don Harten posing in front of his bomb-laden F-105, dubbed the Pink Pussycat, at Takhli AFB, Thailand, 1968. “He was a top-gun pilot before there were top-gun pilots. He was Tom Cruise before there was Tom Cruise.”

My uncle was a top-gun pilot before there were top-gun pilots. He was Tom Cruise before there was a Tom Cruise. In addition to his motorcycle, he drove a red MG convertible with silver-spoked wheels. I recall him on leave, roaring up to our house in the MG with his dark, wavy hair and aviator sunglasses. The entire neighborhood would step onto their porches and walk to their lawns to catch a glimpse. He was Hollywood handsome and a magnet for beautiful women. At five feet nine, he was the perfect size for a plane jockey. His vision was 20–15. He had the strength of a wrestler, the reflexes of an athlete, and the timing of a musician. His ego was as large as the planes he flew. He once told me, years hence, with matter-of-fact sincerity that he was the best fighter pilot in the world. I reflexively laughed. His eyes seethed. I then thought about it. Maybe there was some Russian MiG pilot who was better. Maybe another hotshot American. Maybe not. Regardless, there was a time when my uncle could make an authentic claim to be king of the sky.

Lt. Don Harten, second from left, poses with his six-man bomber crew in front of their B-52, Parker’s Pride, at Mather AFB, Sacramento, California, April 18, 1966. From left: Capt. Pete Nichols, Lt. Don Harten, Capt. Chuck Andermann, Capt. Bernie Dowes, Lt. Jim Erbes, Capt. Charlie McCarthy. (Official USAF photo)

We walked toward the front of the plane. I pounded my fist into the rubber wheel that looked small from a distance but was taller than I was. My uncle pointed out bomb bay doors and the two Hound Dog missiles attached beneath the wing on either side of the fuselage. The front third of the plane was emblazoned with ten-foot-high block lettering that spelled u.s. air force, beneath which was the number “034” and the insignia “Parker’s Pride,” for one Col. Van Parker, Commander of the Strategic Air Command’s 320th Bombardment Wing, for which my uncle flew. Bomb silhouettes were painted beneath the official markings, signifying the number of missions the plane and its crew had completed over North Vietnam. My uncle explained that in addition to its missiles, the plane could carry a full capacity of twenty-four bombs on its wings and twenty-seven in its bomb bay.

Lt. Don Harten’s B-52 bombing a Viet Cong stronghold in North Vietnam, 1966. (Official USAF photo.)

As a child, I had always possessed an intense interest in large machines. Every time I saw a locomotive chugging across the Nevada desert pulling a one-mile length of freight cars, I would yell and point with glee. But to see and touch an actual leviathan of the sky and to really know someone who had commanded it in flight — well, that was an almost mythical experience.

After about fifteen minutes of inspecting the plane from just about every angle, my uncle led me back to his motorcycle and lifted me onto the rear of the seat. He straddled the bike in front of me, checked to see that I was holding his shirt tight, and accelerated with a roar across the tarmac. We rumbled across the wide-open blacktop, slowed to salute the checkpoint guard, swerved onto a nearby residential street, and then sped north, racing beneath a cool canopy of elm trees.

Read Midair: Foreword | Read Midair: Chapter Two | Read Midair: Chapter Twenty-Eight

Author Craig K. Collins, right, and his uncle Maj. Don Harten, a retired combat pilot who’s remarkable survival story and experiences in Vietnam are told in the book Midair. Collins is the author of two books of literary non-fiction: Thunder in the Mountains (Lyons Press, 2014) and Midair (Lyons Press, 2016). He is currently finishing the manuscript of his first novel due out in 2021. (Photo: Sacramento Bee)

Craig K. Collins is a San Diego-based writer and the author of Thunder in the Mountains (Lyons Press, 2014) and Midair (Lyons Press, 2016). He has a novel due out in 2021.

Available in hardback, paperback, ebook and audiobook.

Copyright © 2016 by Craig K. Collins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote passages in a review.

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Craig K. Collins

Author of Midair (Lyons Press, 2016) and Thunder in the Mountains (Lyons Press, 2014). At work on a novel, as well as a book of historical non-fiction.