Dec. 1, 1990

In World War II, the concept of strategic airpower hinged on putting one man over a target long enough to operate a device that looked more like a sewing machine than like a weapon. That man was the bombardier, and the device was the Norden bombsight.

More than a dozen schools were set up solely to teach bombardiers. Young men by the tens of thousands mastered the skill. They plied their trade in everything from fighters to the Superfortresses that leveled Japan. Many lost their lives in the process.

Within a decade, new technology would make the bombardier obsolete. Development of the bombardier specialty in the years before World War II followed an up-and-down course. By the summer of 1940, with Europe once again at war, the US had begun to build a massive centralized training program.

The Army Air Corps opened its first bombardier school at Lowry Field, Colo. Early graduates, most of them still enlisted men, were to serve as instructors in a network of new schools. In June 1941, Congress created the grade of aviation cadet for student pilots, navigators, and bombardiers in the new US Army Air Forces. Most student bombardiers would graduate as second lieutenants or flight officers.

Most new bombardiers were trained in the desert southwest section of the US, which offered ample space for bombing ranges. In Texas, schools opened at Big Spring, Childress, Houston, Midland, and San Angelo. Bombardier training grounds sprang up in New Mexico at Carlsbad, Deming, Hobbs, and Roswell. Others could be found at Higley, Ariz., Shreveport, La., and Victorville, Calif.

Heavy Demand for Crews

The cadets underwent abbreviated officer training in preflight centers and went on to flying schools. Early bombardier courses lasted twelve weeks, but training eventually was increased to eighteen weeks and included some basic DR (dead reckoning) navigation. In the longer term, the Army hoped to combine bombardier and navigator training into a single seven-month course. Heavy demand for combat replacement crews, however, made this impractical. As an alternative, many bombardiers went through navigation training when they returned from combat.

Bombardier students learned basic skills on a ground-bound simulator resembling a house painter’s scaffold with a bombsight on top. The self-propelled trainer moved slowly across the floor of a hangar as the bombardier steered it with the knobs of his sight. He aimed at a cardboard target mounted on a small moving box and, as the trainer passed over this “bug,” a solenoid-driven pen dotted the hits on the target.

Actual flight training came in the twin-engine Beech AT-11, a military variant of the commercial Model 18 transport that was fitted with a Plexiglas nose and a bomb bay. It carried ten sand-filled practice bombs (the 100-pound M38A2) with small spotting charges in their tails. Students flew in pairs, one working the bombsight, the other filming the result with a handheld camera aimed through a hole in the floor.

On most missions, the student’s corrections flowed from the bombsight to a pilot direction indicator on the instrument panel. On planes equipped with autopilot, signals went directly to the flight controls and the bombardier actually flew the aircraft on the bomb run. Near graduation, students went into the desert to undergo simulated-combat training. They lived in tents, wore fatigues, and, when they weren’t flying, dug slit trenches and loaded their practice bombs with sand. In some classes, rival flights added to the realism by bombing each other with sacks of flour.

Bombing practice posed some hazards for local residents. Any number of mistakes at the bombsight could send the bombs far from intended targets and bring claims for lost livestock and damaged buildings. On night missions, lighted oil rigs sometimes were mistaken for the illuminated targets.

The cadets who overcame such mistakes and maintained acceptable “circular error” (average distance from the center of the target) graduated and were assigned to flight crews. They took another several months of training in operational bombers and then deployed overseas.

Most of the new graduates were snapped up into the crews flying B-17s and B-24s, then classed as heavy bombers. Against the advice of their British counterparts, US bomb units gave up the security of night bombing for the greater accuracy of day attacks. It proved a costly preference until fighters gained enough range to escort the bomb groups to their targets. Even so, daylight bombing was unquestionably more effective.

First 100-Bomber Raid

By the summer of 1942, B-17s were hitting targets in occupied France and B-24s were disrupting Japanese shipping in the Pacific. That winter, British-based bombers made their first raids into Germany, US Liberators bombed Bangkok from bases in India, and the Ninth Air Force opened attacks on Nazi-held ports in Tunisia. The following spring, the Eighth Air Force mounted its first 100-plane raid on a single German target, Bremen.

Missions settled into a familiar routine. Half an hour from target, the bombardier would switch on his sight and the formation would turn toward the target. Bomb bays opened, and the bombardier fixed his cross hairs on the target. If they drifted to the right or left, he brought them back into line with one knob and turned another until they held steady. With another set of knobs, he synchronized the sight’s tracking speed with the ground speed of the plane. Near the target, corrections became minute, almost undetectable. The plane held course, then gave a gentle lurch as the bombs fell away. The bomb bay doors closed, and the plane swung away from the target for the long flight home.

As the size of the formations grew, however, the bombardier’s job changed. When flying in a tight formation of several hundred bombers, no single plane could make an individual bomb run without bumping into another. Bombardiers in the lead aircraft of each squadron made course corrections for the whole formation. Those in other planes used their sights mainly to determine release points. Late in the war, the lead ships carried bombing-through-overcast radar known as “Mickey” sets. Other bombardiers did little more than watch for the lead plane to drop its bombs and then release their own.

Barely four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, bombardiers carried out their most spectacular mission. Lt. Col. James Doolittle led the strike on the Japanese homeland with B-25s launched from an aircraft carrier. Capt. C. Ross Greening, armament officer on the mission, developed a simple but effective bombsight for the low-level raid. It amounted to a metal sighting bar that could be set on a calibrated scale at a predetermined dropping angle. The bombardier simply waited until the target fell in line with the bar and dropped his bombs.

Later, the nose sections of more than 1,000 B-25s and some A-26s were fitted with 75-mm howitzers. With no bombsights to operate, bombardiers spent their time loading fifteen-pound shells into the gun and dodging its twenty-one-inch recoil. Late in the war, a small number of B-25s carried winged torpedoes. The bombardier aimed them with a Norden sight, and the wings detached just before the missiles reached the water. Martin B-26s delivered more conventional torpedoes. Skip bombing was another imaginative technique. Bombs dropped from low altitude hit the ground or the water while still in the horizontal position and bounced onto the target.

Flying in the “Droop Snoot”

A few bombardiers even found themselves in the nose sections of P-38s. As the Luftwaffe lost strength in Europe and there was less need for fighter escort, some P-38s were diverted to bomber duty. A few P-38Js and Ls were fitted with transparent nose compartments that housed Norden sights or bombing radars. A lead bombardier in one of these “Droop Snoots” did the aiming for the whole formation.

Still, it was in the strategic bombing department that the sheer weight of American airpower was most telling. In March 1945, the AAF mounted its biggest raid on a single target; more than 1,000 bombers dumped 4,738 tons of bombs on Essen. The same month, a 1,000-plane formation hit Berlin–the heaviest daylight raid of the war. Such attacks continued until May 7, when Germany surrendered.

The worst destruction was yet to come. In the Pacific, B-29s of the Twentieth Air Force varied the high-level daylight bombing routine by attacking Tokyo at night in a series of low-level incendiary raids. The bombs created fire storms that swept through light frame buildings like hurricanes.

Then, on August 6,1945, Maj. Thomas Ferebee, bombardier on the B-29 Enola Gay, toggled off a new kind of bomb over Hiroshima that had more force than all the munitions delivered to that date. Three days later, the B-29 Bock’s Car flew over Nagasaki, and bombardier Kermit Beahan released the world’s second atomic bomb.

Strategic bombing had taken on a whole new character. The B-29 dwarfed the old heavies. Radar, able to penetrate fog and darkness, was making optical sighting obsolete. The atomic bomb had given a single aircraft many times the destructive power of the old 1,000-plane formation. The days of the traditional bombardier were numbered. More than 40,000 had been trained for the war. With the postwar draw down, only a handful stayed on.

Some of the old knob twisters were to have one last hurrah, however. Less than five years after V.J Day, in June 1950, North Korean Communist troops attacked South Korea, and the United States joined UN efforts to drive them back. A large number of veteran World War II bombardiers were recalled to active duty.

Rip van Winkles of the Air

These “retreads” stepped into a new world. The Air Force had become a separate service. Army pinks and greens had given way to the plain blue suit. Bombardier wings had been replaced by an all-purpose observer insignia, and, most startling of all, some of the airplanes didn’t even have propellers.

There were only a few of the old birds left, including the Douglas B-26, which had been developed in World War II as the A-26. The recalled bombardiers assigned to the B-26 were classified as bombardier-navigators, even if they had had no navigation training. They used simplified Mk. 9 sights acquired from Britain. Though B-29s from Japan bombed major targets with radar, the Douglas Invaders hit truck convoys and trains from in-country bases.

When the Korean truce came in 1953, most of the recalled bombardiers went home for a second time. Of those who remained, some took additional navigation training to qualify for the new minimum-crew jets. Those who didn’t were grounded. Many took off their new observer wings and pinned on the bombardier insignia they had worn during World War II.

The new aircraft observer used electronic gadgets not only to find his way to the target but also to drop his bombs and defend his aircraft. He flew in everything from bombers and transports to tankers and two-place fighters. In time, the generic term “navigator” was applied to all nonpilot officers in an aircrew.

In the mid-1980s, however, the Air Force realized that this jack-of-all-trades approach wasn’t working. Navigators might be trained for a wide variety of jobs, but, in practice, they were being used in relatively narrow specialties. The Air Force adopted a new training system giving students a core curriculum in navigation and then specialized training in the aircraft to which they would be assigned.

The original bombardier’s job has changed almost beyond recognition. More changes lie ahead. When the Air Force speaks of optical systems in the next century, it has in mind an exotic combination of fiber optics and electronics. The optical bombsight through which the operator strained to see the oil fields of Ploesti is a museum piece, as, in a sense, is the old bomb-aimer himself. His descendants speak a language laden with acronyms and high-tech terminology. This new breed of “offensive systems operator” may know only vaguely that there once was a species known as the bombardier.

Between tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War, Bruce D. Callander earned a B.A. in journalism at the University of Michigan. In 1952, he joined Air Force Times, becoming editor in 1972. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine, “The Aviation Cadets,” appeared in the November 1990 issue.