Share This Article

Flying from the Black Hole: The B-52 Navigator-Bombardiers of Vietnam

by Robert O. Harder, Naval Institute Press, 2009

The Vietnam War held two special forms of terror. For an American, it was not knowing who among the population was truly friendly and who was a Viet Cong out to kill him. For the Viet Cong, it was the indiscriminate mass death represented by 252 500-pound and 72 750-pound bombs falling into his 3-by-1-kilometer “kill box” out of a Boeing B-52D Stratofortress. Often overlooked in the latter case was that while the pilot flew the B-52 the 3,000 miles from Guam to drop that fearsome payload, it was the navigator-bombardier team who ensured that the bombs would fall where the mission required. As an 18th-century warship was commanded by the captain but dependent on the ship’s master to get it where it was needed, so the B-52 was commanded by its pilot but dependent on the navigator and radar navigator (RN). These two worked in the “Black Hole” within the plane’s belly, often aided by celestial data from the electronic warfare officer (EWO) stationed topside.

In Flying from the Black Hole, Robert O. Harder gives the first comprehensive account of the navigator-bombardier’s war, which climaxed in December 1972 with Operation Linebacker II, in which the B-52s revived their long-neglected strategic role by bombing North Vietnamese cities. Rather than focus on the pilots dodging SAMs and MiGs, Harder tells the tale from his enclosed perspective: the screens and charts within a foul-smelling little compartment with no view of the outside world, from which he directed the bombs to their target.

As the first of its kind, Harder takes pains to cover the “big picture” with a history of navigation culminating in the state of the art he worked with, as well as the development of the still-operational B-52 and the Strategic Air Command doctrine, developed by General Curtis E. LeMay, that underwent some real-world adjusting for application to Vietnam. From there he gives the reader the “little picture” of his world in the Black Hole, which apart from its claustrophobic conditions, differed from other stations within the plane by ejecting its crewmen downward, rather than skyward—making the prospect of trouble at low altitude especially terrifying for its “inmates.”

To other officers, including fellow crewmen, Harder writes, “only brain-dead lunatics with cast-iron digestion could or would put up with the Stratofortress Black Hole.” But he adds that the RN and navigator took “perverse pride” in that reputation, knowing that, “if there was anything that hindered the Black Hole’s ability to successfully bomb the assigned target, then it simply didn’t work for anybody.”

Combining his technical savvy with a brand of humor that is distinctively Air Force, Harder gives the layman a good primer on the navigator’s role before showing how he and his colleagues put it to wartime practice. As such, Flying from the Black Hole earns a place in any Vietnam or U.S. Air Force scholar’s library.


Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here