Near miss with a BUFF

Bob Button wrote Neil Armstrong Was My Co-Pilot, which is a great article about a great pilot and astronaut. Actually, author Bob Button and Jack Riley of the NASA Houston Astronaut Public Affairs Office and I as an aerospace engineer with NASA Houston Landing and Recovery Division were partners in a 1957 Champion 7EC (N7405B), registered as The Gemini Flying Club, and featured in the following article.

Thomas and wife
A cross country in a Champ with a 45 mph headwind… Why not?

On November 30, 1965, when my wife Jean and I lived inLaPorte, Texas, and I was an aerospace engineer at NASA Houston, I got my Private Pilot’s license in a N7405B, which had a 90 hp engine, fixed-pitch prop with an electrical system but no radio. Jean was my first passenger on that day.

We decided to fly down in the Champ to visit Jean’s folks in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas for Christmas. On December 23, 1965, we flew from La Porte to Aransas, Texas, to refuel. It was three hours and 15 minutes en route. We then followed Highway 77 south past Corpus Christi with a 45 mph headwind on our nose, giving us a groundspeed of around 45 mph! Everybody, including the 18-wheelers, were passing us on Highway 77. We finally arrived at the duster strip in Raymondville, Texas, near Jean’s home in Lyford. This was another three hours, for a total time of six hours and 15 minutes – which we could have driven just as fast!

On December 27, we left Raymondville to fly back to our home at La Porte. We left Raymondville and climbed to our cruising altitude of 2900 feet above the ground. We were proceeding northbound at 2900 feet, and the Gulf of Mexico was off our right wing, and Highway 77 was off our left wing. Jean and I were all bundled up because N7405B didn’t have a heater. As we approached Corpus Christi Naval Air Station and Kingsville Naval Air Station, I told Jean to keep a watch for Navy traffic from those training bases.

I was concentrating ahead, when my peripheral vision caught something to the left and crossing below us. I looked to the right and below. I shouted to Jean, “Look at that!” and pointed down and to the right.

B-52 bomber
The BUFF – an intimidating sight.

A US Air Force Boeing B-52, a BUFF, had flown under us – and we were only at 2900 feet!

The BUFF was banking to the north, all eight turbojet engines issuing black smoke. What a monster to see up close, with its wingspan of 185 feet, seen from our single-engine 2-place airplane of 32 feet wingspan and 90 hp!

Back then, there was an electronic bombing range at Matagorda Island, Texas. My guess is those guys were doing a low-level electronic bombing exercise.

My logbook shows 1 hour 50 minutes to Aransas to refuel, and 2 hours 30 minutes to LaPorte. Four hours 20 minutes returning sure as heck beat the 6 hours 5 minutes coming down. But, as all pilots know, your aircraft groundspeed is true airspeed minus a headwind, or plus a tailwind.

This was the first of our many long cross-country flights, and with that B-52, it was one to be remembered.

[Editor’s Note: If you’re unfamiliar with the acronym BUFF, Google it.]

9 Comments

  • VERY interesting article Dean. I am an Aeronautical Engineer also…. became a pilot in 1957 I received my wings to become a pilot… flew B-47s in the Air Force (1857-58) at low level (100-150 AGL) in the Air Force to practice how we would deliver a N-weapon in a combat situation…. flew F-84s and F-86Hs in the Mass. ANG… and later owned and flew a Cessna 182… a total of 50+ years of flying… now a ‘ground pounder’ that mentors and does ALL kinds Aviation Topic with youngsters and ‘oldsters’ here in the Seattle, WA area… a fun, interesting, and VERY rewarding. I never heart the term BUFF before; but now do know what it means! Finally, I would like to have a conversation with you to exchange ‘War Stories’ sometime… How can we do that ?

    • Hey Joel, thanks for your comments about my article “Near Miss With A Buff”.

      I have been an aviation guy from the 6th grade on. My first airplane flight was in a C-47 as a teenage Boy Scout at Bryan (TX) AFB on some military holiday ( I have lost the priceless photo of us standing by the Gooney Bird in Scout uniforms with parachutes on!)

      Before graduation from high school, I signed up for a 3 year enlistment in the Army. While on jump status with the 82nd Airborne Division, Ft. Bragg, NC, I made 34 jumps from the C-119, C-123, C-124 and the A model of the C-130. I made 42 jumps with the 18th Airborne Corps Sport Parachuting Club at Ft. Bragg from the L-20 Beaver and the H-21 and H-34 helicopters.

      After separation from the Army in May 1956, I returned home and enrolled in Aero at Texas A&M. As a junior, I joined the A&M Corps of Cadets (Air Force) as a prior serviceman.My eyes were 20-50, so I couldn’t fly (I would have made a great C-130 pilot!).

      My first job was NASA Houston, then as a civilian flight test engineer for the Army Aviation Test Activity at Edwards AFB; then as a experimental flight test engineer at Bell Helicopter; then as a flight test engineer at Swearingen Aircraft on the prototype Merlin III and Metro airplanes.

      Most of my GA experience has been in taildraggers, although at one time I was also a partner in a 182 (great airplane!).

      My wife Jean & I have hung it up, and we still miss it (we both flew competition aerobatics in an American Champion Super Decathlon).But, I am most proud of flying 55 youngsters in the EAA Young Eagles.

      My brother Bob (’64 Texas A&M) flew F-4s as a backseater out of Ubon Thailand in 1966. He had to punch out of a burning F-4, so is a member of the Caterpillar Club!

      My brother-in-law Jerry Ellinton (’58 Texas A&M) instructed in T-33, at , I believe, Laredo. He got orders for Viet Nam, went through F-100 school, and then his orders were changed to FAC in a Cessna O-1!

      Now this blows my mind: when Jerry returned from Viet Nam after flying the O-1 and O-2, he went through KC-135 training, and was put in the left seat of a KC-135 after flying single engines CL thrust for his whole career! (Jerry said that his right-seater had more time in the 135 than Jerry did as aircrafr commander!)

      That’s enough about me. Does any of the above ring any bells?

      Dean Thomas

  • I spent time in eastern Colorado during the Cold War, the B-52’s would roar through the countryside at low level (500’ or less) on their training runs. They were magnificent. It impressed me so much I became a Buff mechanic.

  • I had my own experience with the B-52. We were flying A-7s out of Nellis AF Base during a Red Flag exercise. We were the enemy tasked with bombing the target with the F-15s defending. On one mission after hitting the target we egressed east towards a plateau that was about 2 hundred feet above the desert floor. As we approached the ridge at about 50 feet we pulled up and rolled inverted, pulled down to roll out level above the ridge. To my surprise I came beak to beak with a B-52. As I was inverted I didn’t have time to roll upright, so I pushed the nose up and went over the BUFF with about 50 foot clearance. I did wonder if the BUFF crew ever saw us!

  • Back in the 1960’s, 52’s and 135’s were flying out of Westover Air Force Base. I was a newer private pilot flying my Cherokee about 15 miles away from Westover when a 52 came toward me and below me. I quickly learned that his pattern was slightly larger than what I was used to. Another encounter with a jet fighter was when flying over Bradley Field at night. At that time I was talking to their tower and was told to strictly maintain an altitude as there would be this jet crossing right at 500′ below me. Interesting sights for a newbie.

  • Dean,

    I remember hearing this account from you a few years ago but not with all the details.

    I think AF readers might also like to read about your encounters with the iconic XB-70 Valkyrie while you were at Edwards AFB (including the airshow mishap that nearly burned one down on static display).

    Give our regards to Jean and the girls.

  • In the early 1970’s, I was flying a Cessna 182 from Red Bluff, CA to the Bakersfield area when, just south of Fresno, the left door post started sprouting wings – one tip on each side and sliding down the post as they ‘grew’. Moving my head to the side brought the whole 727 into view as it passed 500-1000 feet below.

  • Thanks to Air Facts Journal for printing my “Near Miss With A Buff” experience. This is one of my favorite flying stories that Jean & I experienced over the years.

    A slight correction to my bio. “Glider” is a license, not a rating. I have a Commercial Pilot License with Instrument and Multi-Engine Ratings, and a Commercial Glider License with Glider Instructor Rating.

    Thanks again, Air Facts Journal.

    Dean Thomas, Liberty, SC
    Sr. Parachutist & Grunt, 82nd Airborne Division, 1956-1959
    ’63 Texas A&M University, Aerospace Engineering

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