Tactical Ships Surface

Maverick has nothing on this insane Air Force flyby of a carrier

Imagine you work the tower or deck of an aircraft carrier. How about a B-52 BUFF flying below the deck, just over the waves?
Logan Nye Avatar
buff flyby

Imagine you work the tower or deck of an aircraft carrier. Pretty exciting, huh? Sorry about all the hearing loss. Now, what are the most exciting things you can imagine flying by? An F-18 flying high off in the distance? Pretty standard. An F-14 buzzing right by the tower? Very 1986 of you. How about a B-52 BUFF flying below the deck, just over the waves?

You either have a very active imagination or already know about the 1990 Air Force flyby of an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.

(If you thought of dragons, you must be a fellow fan of the Temeraire series! The Napoleonic Wars but with dragons and dragon carriers.)

The epic 1990 Air Force flyby

In 1990, the Navy played some war games with the Navy. Details of the flyby are a bit scarce, but the photos are great.

The typical story goes that B-52s called the crew of the USS Ranger and requested to do a flyby. As AviationGeekClub members pointed out, though, some of the tail numbers in the photos match USS Independence, not the Ranger.

Regardless, two Guam-based B-52s headed for the fleet called the carrier and asked permission to do a flyby, excite the sailors a bit, help them appreciate their Air Force brethren. The sailors, who rarely got to see anything so large fly, said they would love to see the bombers.

B-52s said great, and then they called back to say they were just 5 miles away. The Ranger crew responded that they couldn’t see them.

And so the B-52s told the Ranger crew to look down.

And there, flying below the level of the deck, so close to the water that they caused water to spray up, were the two B-52s.

The Cold War B-52 skillset

In case you didn’t know, flying that low in a massive bomber is dangerous. A small mistake or mistimed bump and the plane would crash into the waves.

But B-52 pilots had to practice low-flying missions quite often by the end of the Cold War. Designers originally prepared the B-52 for high-altitude nuclear bombing missions. But as surface-to-air missiles and high-altitude fighters like the MiG-25 got better, it became impossible for high-altitude bombers to survive after they were detected.

So the B-52 went low, instead. Pilots learned to fly the “Big Ugly Fat F*ckers” under the radar to get past Soviet air defenses in order to launch missiles or drop their bombs. That required coming in tight to the land, treetops, or water as they flew to the target.

That made flying over the waves near a carrier challenging, but well within the pilots’ wheelhouse.

The carrier crew

The carrier crew was, obviously, impressed by the flyby, and the ship’s crew asked if the B-52s could fly by again. The planes obliged, and sailors got a ton of photos of the planes just above the deck line.