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Bomber Airmen pay 80th anniversary tribute to volcano response

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Joshua Smoot
  • 36th Wing Public Affairs
Two B-52 Stratofortress aircrews assigned to the 23rd Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, currently here as part of the U.S. Pacific Command's continuous bomber presence, conducted a bomber Airmen heritage flyover of the Mauna Loa volcano and training mission in Hawaii Dec. 28-30, 2015.

The flyby was part of the 80th anniversary of the 23rd Bombardment Squadron using bombs to divert lava flow from the Mauna Loa volcano that threatened the town of Hilo, Hawaii, in 1935.

“One of the great things about this mission is that it illustrates the vast heritage our squadron has,” said Capt. Craig Quinnett, 23rd EBS aircraft commander. “It’s awesome to be a part of a squadron with so much history and to participate in a mission commemorating it.”

On Dec. 21, 1935, an eruption of the 13,679 foot volcano threatened the town of Hilo. Six days after it erupted, a new vent opened on the volcano’s north flank began spewing lava. At first, Dr. Thomas A. Jaggar, a Hawaiian Volcano Observatory volcanologist, concluded that the threat to Hilo was limited. Days later, the situation dramatically changed. The ponded lava broke through the natural levees of stone and began rapidly flowing directly toward the city.

Jaggar’s earlier work suggested that mule teams could take dynamite to the flows and attempt to collapse lava tubes and divert the lava. However, another volcanologist, Guido Giacometti, suggested using U.S. Army Air Corps bombers to deliver precision explosions more rapidly. Since time was of the essence, a call was placed without delay.Then – Lt. Col. George S. Patton planned the military operation in support of Jagger’s concept.

The U.S. Army Air Corps approved the mission almost immediately, according to an article on the U.S. Geological Survey’s website. On December 26, six Keystone B-3A bombers from the 23rd BS, and four LB-6 light bombers from the 72nd BS were deployed out of Luke Field, Hawaii to Hilo. Immediately that afternoon, Jaggar briefed the newly arrived aircrew at Hilo on the methods he had in mind to disrupt the flow and flew over the volcano to assess the flows and select the right points for bombing.

On the morning of Dec. 27, the first five bombers, carrying two 300 pound practice bombs to use practice runs and sighting, departed on the urgent bombing mission. A second flight of five aircraft was planned for the afternoon, each carrying two 600 pound Mark I demolition bombs. The fuses were set to 0.1 second to ensure the right timing for the lava tube collapse and disruption of the flows. In all, twenty 600 pound bombs were dropped onto the lava tubes.

On each of the two missions, a flight of three U.S. Army Keystone B-3As bomber aircraft from the 23rd BS flew in a staggered V-formation while two Keystone LB-6A light bombers from the 72nd BS trailed in line-a-step formation as they made their approach to the designated targets. Due to their full bomb loads, the pilots could only fly 4,000 feet above the volcano.

Five of the bombs struck directly into the molten lava flows, with the explosions showering lava in all directions, according to the article. However, these craters were observed to immediately fill back in. The other fifteen bombs impacted along the channel margins.

The impact of this mission still resonates with the aircrew of today, 80 years later.

While missions like this one don’t occur often, aircrews train for close air support missions often. In spirit of this mission, a training flight was conducted out of Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, to Hawaii, taking approximately 12 hours. Flights of this duration are nothing new for B-52 aircrews, who have flown sorties of up to 36 hours.

The Air Force has been conducting CBP operations in the PACOM area of responsibility for over a decade, from Air Force bases in the continental United States and Guam. Aircraft conducting CBP missions include the B-52 Stratofortress and the B-2 Spirit aircraft. In coordination with U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Global Strike Command and Air Combat Command, Pacific Air Forces develops and executes CBP missions supporting U.S. Pacific Command’s Theater Campaign Plan objectives.

“Out here, we are pretty well versed in a long duration flight,” Quinnett said. “Ten hours isn’t a long time for us to be up in the air.”

During the tribute flight, crew members proudly sported their squadron patch, which displays bombs falling into a volcano.