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A Warm Day in February: B-1B Time-to-Climb World Records

by William J. Moran, Jr., Colonel, USAF (Ret.), Granite State 53rd Flight

In February 1992, shortly after Desert Storm, we received word from the Pentagon that the Air Force Chief of Staff wanted to set aviation world records. We believed the B-1B could set or break records and gain some esteem to offset the fact that our weapon system was grounded for Desert Storm, due to engine problems and the lack of conventional weapons release software.

The squadron presented plans for a record-setting around the world non-stop flight.  With Mach .9 speed at aft wing sweep, we would smash the existing B-52 record.   Our only possible limiting factor would be engine oil, but General Electric affirmed that we would have sufficient oil for the flight.  The word back from the Pentagon was negative because “it was too risky”.

Undeterred, the squadron put together a proposal to set time-to-climb records. Rockwell, manufacturer of the B-1B, gave us flight profiles.  The Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), the governing body for aviation world records, establishes the records by gross weight. We would perform in three weight categories: below 220,000 pounds, 220,000-330,000 pounds, and above 330,000 pounds.  We would climb to four altitudes of 3,000 meters, 6,000 meters, 9,000 meters and 12,000 meters, with a representative from the National Aeronautic Association (NAA) on board.  The NAA is the USA representative to the FAI.

Our wing commander set a meeting to get the approval of the 8th Air Force Commander.  We prepared a briefing and took it to Barksdale AFB, LA, home of the 8th Air Force.  Our wing commander, the senior enlisted maintenance chief, a squadron pilot who had previously been a part of KC-135R time-to-climb record flights, and I walked into the general’s briefing room and joined a large number of 8th AF staff members.  The conference table was surrounded by colonels with the commander,  Lt. Gen. Martin Ryan, at the head.

The pilot presented the briefing, and the first question was, were we doing this in February at Grand Forks AFB, ND, because of the cold.  I said no, Rockwell planned the profiles for a standard day (59 degrees, sea level; Grand Forks elevation is 845 feet).  We knew a cold North Dakota February day would help us exceed the predicted standard day performance. 

The next question came from the 8th AF Chief of Safety.  He said, “I assume this will all be flown in the middle of the aircraft’s performance envelope.”   I waited for a moment and said emphatically, “NO, like the captain briefed, we will have one tenth of a G left when we go through the prescribed altitude.” Dead silence… had I just blown the world record attempt? 

Several more moments of quiet, and then the general said, “Well, does anyone else on my staff have any more questions?”  Quiet once again and then he said to our wing commander, “Good luck, General McIlvoy.” 

One-tenth of a G meant we would have very little positive energy left going through the record altitude; our airspeed and angle of attack would be just below the stability limit of the aircraft.   The B-1B is longitudinally unstable and requires strict adherence to the angle of attack limits. We would fly all 12 record attempts right to the edge!  This would be nothing short of a maximum effort to shatter eight existing world records and set four new records.

We flew all 12 profiles in the simulator, and everything seemed to go according to plan.  We needed a waiver to extend the amount of time we were in afterburner.  A message was sent to 1st Combat Evaluation Group and they approved. We were off and running for Saturday, February 28.  

That morning I awoke to a higher-than-normal temperature; average for the day should be about 22 degrees, but it was already warmer than that.    The temperature that day would skyrocket to 58 degrees, the warmest February temperature in Grand Forks, ND, history.  It was a good thing Rockwell had planned for standard day…it was a standard day.

Aircraft 86-121, with “Maiden America” nose art, was chosen as the primary aircraft.  On the back of the maiden’s leather jacket, the words “12 Time-to-Climb World Records” were already inscribed.  86-121 performs well in the spotlight.  The B-1 that flew the 2021 Super Bowl flyby with a B-52 and a B-2 was 86-121.

I would fly on the first four record attempts. The basic weight of the aircraft was 185,000 pounds, so we had approximately 35,000 pounds of fuel. Takeoff maximum afterburner fuel flow was 65,000 pounds per engine per hour (we have four engines).  Yes, at that rate we would burn all of our fuel in about eight minutes. The takeoff was normal except we were off the ground in 1,200 feet and if the copilot had not retracted gear, slats and flaps on liftoff we might have over-speeded the flaps. The profile called for us to pull the wings back to 25 degrees and accelerate to 360 knots indicated airspeed and then pull the stick back to 50 degrees pitch. It was quite the sensation to be at 50 degrees nose-up in a big bomber, but I had no time to enjoy it. We went through 3,000 meters, or 10,000 feet, and the NAA representative in the defensive system officer seat hacked his stop watch: 1 minute and 13 seconds, shattering the old record set by the KC-135R. That’s one in the books. The recovery procedure was to roll 90-120 degrees and let the nose of the aircraft fall to the horizon while still at maximum afterburner. Our target was to rollout at 300 knots in level flight and pull the engines back to cruise setting.

We then conducted air refueling to get above 220,000 pounds so we did not have to shut down the engines after landing and refuel on the ground. That was the quickest rejoin anyone had seen – – we joined with our home-based tanker on a high downwind just west of the base. Back on the runway we waited for the gross weight to burn down to 219,990 pounds and we were off again.

This was the copilot’s turn to fly the record. Again, we were off the ground in no time, but this profile called for us to sweep the wings to 55 degrees aft and accelerate to 450 knots at 4,000 feet. At that point the copilot pulled the aircraft up to 50 degrees pitch, but now we had a problem. The aircraft has two main tanks, each holding 10,000 pounds of fuel. The remaining 15,000 pounds were in the forward and aft tanks. A ballast tank isolation line kept the aircraft center of gravity within limits, transferring between forward and aft tank fuel. For this part of the flight both forward and aft tanks were transferring into the mains, but very slowly, as I saw the mains approaching 4,700 pounds each.  That number would turn on the fuel-low caution light. I overrode the automatic system and opened the fill valves for the mains and turned on the transfer pumps in the forward and aft tanks. I watched and watched nervously as the mains sat at just above the caution light quantity of 4,700 pounds. I was not sure what I would have done had the caution light come on – –  abort and call off the flight or just continue to monitor. I expect I would have let the mains go a bit below 4,700 pounds, but not by much. I watched until we went through 6,000 meters, or 20,000 feet, in 1 minute 42 seconds. We were climbing at over a football field length a second as we set another world record.

We again refueled on downwind and were back on the ground for another attempt. Other than the forward and aft tanks not feeding the mains as quickly as we would have liked, the day was going as planned except that the warm temperature robbed us of even shorter times to climb. The profile procedure for 30,000 feet was to climb at 55 wing and 450 knots to 18,000 feet, then pull to 50 degrees pitch attitude, again bleeding off all our energy. The fuel system acted as it did on the previous climb, with the mains staying just above an amount that kept the low fuel caution light out. Through 9,000 meters or 30,000 feet our time was 2 minutes and 11 seconds, another shattered record. But as I rolled to 90 degrees of bank, engine two started to compressor-stall. I had the copilot shut down the engine and we recovered uneventfully. Because the second aircrew was flying their records at just above 220,000 pounds, their flight profiles were just like ours, so the wing commander directed them to fly our 12,000 meter or 40,000 foot record attempt. Our engine compressor-stalled because the inlet guide vane was ever so slightly out of tolerance, a minor problem fixed easily.

The day continued as planned and I was pleased with the way the remaining sorties went, though exhausted. The day weighed heavily on me as the squadron commander, watching my guys go to the edge with the final gross weight profile. I knew our profiles were working, I just wished for a typically colder North Dakota day.  After the second heavyweight record was set at 335,000 pounds, a tire blew on landing. I could not believe what I saw next. 

The big engine nacelle is just outboard of the landing gear truck. The maintenance crew, with engines running, moved under the nacelle and jacked up the left main gear truck and change the tire in NASCAR pit crew fashion. Off they went again, but this record run had a descent profile to supersonic speed and then a climb to 40,000 feet bleeding off all the energy. With binoculars I watched the afterburners flying south. I counted the minutes as the wing commander stood by me. This heavyweight higher altitude run was going longer and longer. Finally, no longer seeing the afterburners, we waited and wondered about the results. 

Then we learned that the crew could not get the aircraft to 12,000 meters because the atmosphere was just so far off from normal; yes, the warmest February day in North Dakota history. Next morning’s Fargo paper said the supersonic boom frightened children – –  so much for positive news. Several days later the NAA representative came back to Grand Forks and because it was a much colder day,  we established the 12th record. In total, we smashed eight world records and established four new ones at the heavier weight category.

The B-1B missed the war in 1992 but it was a hit on the airshow circuit that summer.  With its aft wing sweep and thundering four afterburning engines, the noise, the thrust; its presence can be felt on your chest.  My crews and the aircraft were a crowd pleaser.  My guys did well and that is one of the reasons we received the Air Force Outstanding Unit of the Year Award.  For the next 15 years, the B-1B was the most desired weapon system in combat because of its speed, loiter time, and ability to carry a big load of smart weapons.

RECORD TIMES 219,999 POUNDS AND BELOW

Altitude in MetersOld Record KC-135R (min)Rockwell Estimate (min)Actual B-1B (min)
3,0002.21.41.22
6,0003.761.71.7
9,0005.762.52.18
12,0007.495.45.03

RECORD TIMES 220,000 – 332,990 POUNDS

Altitude in MetersOld Record KC-135R (min)Rockwell Estimate (min)Actual B-1B (min)
3,0002.81.41.32
6,0003.651.81.92
9,0007.232.62.38
12,00010.256.06.12

RECORD TIMES 330,000 POUNDS AND ABOVE

Altitude in MetersOld Record KC-135R (min)Rockwell Estimate (min)Actual B-1B (min)
3,000No old records at this weight1.92.0
6,000No old records at this weight2.62.65
9,000No old records at this weight4.53.8
12,000No old records at this weight10.59.7