Ellsworth to celebrate 25th anniversary of B-1B

  • Published
  • By Paul J. Marcello
  • 28th Bomb Wing Historian
The 28th Bomb Wing received its first B-1B Lancer, affectionately known as the BONE, in January 1987. The wing will soon celebrate the 25th anniversary of the one time low-altitude penetrating strategic bomber at Ellsworth Air Force Base. Over the course of its 25 years of service with the 28th Bomb Wing, the mission and aircraft have changed to a large degree.

The B-1B has its roots in the 1970s, when it became clear that winning the Cold War required stepping up the technology involved. Originally, Rockwell International won the bid to build four prototype aircrafts. The Air Force wanted a fast jet that could cruise efficiently at subsonic speeds and at speeds as high as Mach 2.2, with the additional capability of low altitude, near sonic penetration capability. The result was the B-1A, which made its maiden flight in December 1974. Unfortunately, President Jimmy Carter cancelled the program June 30, 1977.

President Ronald Reagan revived the program on Oct. 2, 1981, and called for 100 B-1Bs to comprise a fleet of supersonic strategic bombers. Plans called for some speed to be sacrificed for stealth, with the end result being a jet that could still carry a larger bomb load than the B-52 while still having the capability to achieve speeds greater than Mach One.

The 28th BW received its first Lancer, 85-0073, Wings of Freedom on Jan. 21, 1987. General John T. Chain Jr., Strategic Air Command Commander, delivered the first jet on that cold day nearly 25 years ago. After landing, he spoke to the gathered people and offered words that seem prophetic today.

"Too often, people think of SAC bombers...only as carriers of nuclear weapons," he said. "We have to change that perception. The B-52 and B-1 have enormous capability to contribute to this nation's conventional capability...Their firepower is awesome. They could strike a terrorist-type target anywhere in the world flying nonstop from the United States and return by wing air refueling."

The BONE handily fulfilled its role of strategic bomber in the 1980s and 1990s, and right out of the gate, it began breaking records. In September 1987, a 37th Bomb Squadron crew broke 18 speed, distance, and payload records on a closed course. Meanwhile, 28 Bomb Wing B-1Bs began participating in global exercises like Giant Warrior 89-3 in Guam as soon as 1988. As the years went on, the BONE kept on breaking records. In 1992, Colonel Jeffrey Smith, future 28th Bomb Wing Commander, broke three time-to-climb world records while assigned to the 46th Bomb Squadron at Grand Forks Air Force Base, ND. In August 1993, two 28 Bomb Wing BONEs made the first B-1B circumnavigation of the globe.

The B-1B transitioned over to a full-time conventional mission, and had its combat debut in 1998 during Operation Desert Fox. The 28 Bomb Wing's 77th Bomb Squadron, now the 77th Weapons Squadron at Dyess Air Force Base, TX, flew bombing missions in support of Operation Allied Force in the Balkans in 1999. Today, B-1Bs have been constantly at work dropping bombs in support of the Global War on Terror, participating in Operation Southern Watch in 2003, and seeing it cleanly transition over to Operation Iraqi Freedom, all the while supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

General Chain's prophetic words came true on March 27, 2011. On that day, for the first time in history, B-1B Lancer aircrews executed a global strike from the United States. The 28th Bomb Wing aircrews launched from their home station of Ellsworth Air Force Base, SD to strike targets in Libya in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn.

Even as the Air Force plans to develop the next generation bomber, the BONE continues to surprise supporters and critics alike. As the aircraft enters its next 25 years of service with the wing, it can only continue to improve as the backbone of the American bomber force.