The Scream of a B-52

There is one thing that guarantees my enjoyment of any given vacation, and that thing is an abundance of military sights. It doesn’t matter what these sights are- WWII installations in the English countryside, submarines dry-docked in Halifax, or RAF Hawks flying about on training missions- any and all military sights thrill me.

And by some strange coincidence, most of my vacations and even day-trips tend to involve some sort of military excitement. It is strange and certainly unintended, but I usually see something of great interest wherever I go.

In the late summer of 2012, my family went on a camping trip which took us, among other destinations, to northern New York State. We stayed there for one night only, as we were on our way back home, and there was not a great deal to see in the immediate vicinity of the campground, so we planned on simply spending the evening in relaxation around the campfire.

But our campground happened to border the US Army’s Fort Drum training base, and Wheeler Sack Army Airfield was within several miles. We were just getting out the marshmallows for S’mores when we began to hear some rather unusual banging noises, which echoed throughout the trees of the campground and were quite eerie. Having been to a firing range several months earlier, I immediately recognized these sounds as gunshots. Instead of being alarmed, I was entertained, and felt quite excited to be staying the night beside a currently-used army training base!

My family continued our evening around the campfire, until about 8:30 when we heard yet another peculiar noise. This noise was from overhead and was an unearthly whine which seemed to get closer and closer; as it did, it was accompanied by a roar. I become very excited whenever I hear the sound of an aircraft, and so I rushed to the edge of our campsite where there was a gap in the trees.

Although the light was poor and the sky cloudy, I soon saw the source of the noise and just as quickly recognized the unmistakeable silhouette of a B-52 Stratofortress! If you are familiar with modern military aircraft or the Vietnam War, then you will know that the B-52 is legendary- feared in Vietnam, ever ready to strike in the Cold War, and now still projected to be used for another 30 years although it has been in service for nearly sixty! B-52s are fantastic strategic bombers, carrying a payload of 70,000 pounds while cruising efficiently at subsonic speeds.

B-52 Stratofortress

The first B-52 was followed by another, both making a low pass over the campground. I don’t know what the other occupants of the campground must have been thinking as my brother and I literally ran around the campground in search of gaps in the foliage- to them, we must have looked quite odd! But Canada has nothing like a B-52 in its aviation arsenal, and so seeing such a prolific and legendary aircraft not just on the ground but in action, was an incredible and unique experience.

B-52 at Dusk

As the night grew darker and darker and the B-52s made pass after pass, we began to hear louder bangs from the direction of Fort Drum. These had a deep, reverberating quality, and sounded much more like artillery or explosions than small-arms fire. Although we cannot know for sure, we believe that we were hearing and seeing a simulated bombing run, complete with explosions on the ground and bombers in the sky, meant for training troops at the base. Whatever it was, it was unbelievable and was one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of my life.

But as the night went on, punctuated by the high-pitched whine of the B-52s’ turbojet engines, my initial enthusiasm began to take on more thoughtful tones. I began to imagine Vietnam, and what it would be like to hear that terrifying whine as a villager or a Vietnamese soldier, knowing what was to inevitably follow. Even for me, someone who has only lived in relative prosperity and relative peace, those B-52s had an ominous and unfeeling quality which was hard to ignore. And as excited and thrilled as I was, I could not help but feel a shade of apprehension, knowing what these planes can do.

Overall, this memory is one of the best I have, and I still get excited thinking about the sound and the sight of that pair of B-52s. And that particular camping trip yielded many exciting memories also involving past and present military subjects- which will likely become the subjects of future posts!

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