By Frederick A. Johnsen
What do B-52 crew members do for fun when they’re not flying the biggest strategic bomber in the world? Five of the seven crew members who flew the giant B-52 to Oshkosh this year are also general aviation pilots.
Pilot Maj. Keith Vandagriff first came to Oshkosh for AirVenture in 2000 when he was 15. “I couldn’t even drive,” he said. So he came with his grandfather, a high-time general aviation pilot. “I knew I wanted to be a pilot,” Keith added. When he’s not flying the B-52, Keith flies a Beech Baron 58TC he shares with another B-52 pilot from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. He figures he has 2,500 hours of military flight time and 600 to 700 hours in general aviation aircraft.
Capt. Austin “Kilo” Lohman flies a Mooney M20E when he’s not performing the duties of a B-52 weapon systems officer. Kilo’s B-52 time is around 2,000 hours, while his general aviation time is between 150 and 200 hours. “I always wanted to fly,” he said. His introduction to general aviation type aircraft came during early military training at Pueblo, Colorado, in Diamond DA20 aircraft. Later, when he was stationed with his B-52 crew in Guam, Kilo completed his private pilot certificate in rented Cessna 172s. Long cross-country training flights were completed over the Pacific, to Tinian, Saipan, and Rota, he said.
Kilo is clear about his time at AirVenture thus far: “This is my first experience with Oshkosh. I will beg, borrow, and steal to get back here!”
Capt. Doug Lewandowski, the B-52’s electronic warfare officer, figures he has 2,000 B-52 hours and 100 general aviation hours on the books. He started learning to fly right out of high school, before joining the Air Force. But life intervened, and he is still completing the tasks required to get his private pilot certificate. He notes that he has flown a lot of different aircraft, and even gained a little seat time in the B-52 during long missions.
Capt. Barry “Broadway” Rowe III is a B-52 pilot. In the Air Force Reserve, he is master of the B-52. On his own time, he flies CRJ regional jets for ExpressJet out of Dallas, Texas, and leases a Cirrus SR20 to bolster his general aviation bona fides. Broadway is a fan of the changing nature of AirVenture. “If I came here [for] 20 years, it would be different every time.”
Broadway points out that the 343rd Bomb Squadron is based near the Shreveport EAA chapter, which is also the 343rd. The two organizations share interests, and he has a special dual patch on which both entities are represented.
Another crew member, Capt. Will Hacker, a B-52 instructor pilot, unwinds with a classic 1964 Mooney M20. He said coming to Oshkosh for AirVenture has been a thrill.
All of this enthusiasm for general aviation aircraft comes from a crew that landed a bomber with outrigger wheels spanning 148 feet on a runway only 150 feet wide. Keith said he made one low pass to get the right sight picture on the Wittman Regional Airport runway, then came in for a landing. Having runway in front of the B-52 saves wear and tear on the brakes, he explained. The drag chute takes some of the work of stopping the bomber away from the brakes, but safety procedures require that the bomber be able to land with brakes alone, just in case the chute fails.
Doug notes that the number of general aviation pilots who were part of this year’s B-52 crew is par for the course. “There’s a lot of general aviation guys in the BUFF community,” he explained. (BUFF is an age-old acronym for the B-52 that translates into “big ugly fat fellow,” although some folks substitute another word for “fellow.”) He said aviators from all four bomb squadrons at Barksdale signed up to come to Oshkosh.
Photo: From left to right, Maj. Keith Vandagriff, Capt. Doug Lewandowski, Capt. Will Hacker, Capt. Barry “Broadway” Rowe III, and Capt. Austin “Kilo” Lohman stood with the huge B-52 Stratofortress they flew to AirVenture 2017. (Photo by Frederick A. Johnsen)