End of an Era: Last remaining B-52 aerial gunner retires after 30 years of service

Chief Master Sgt. Rob Wellbaum, 15th Operations Group superintendent, and his family pose in front of a KC-10 Extender. (Courtesy Photo)
Chief Master Sgt. Rob Wellbaum, 15th Operations Group superintendent, and his family pose in front of a KC-10 Extender. (Courtesy Photo)

Twenty-five years after his first career field was retired, a Chief Master Sgt. at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam said goodbye to the Air Force.

Chief Master Sgt. Rob Wellbaum, 15th Operations Group superintendent, retired Friday closing a book on his career and an era for the B-52 Stratofortress.

Wellbaum joined the Air Force in 1987 under Air Force Specialty Code 111X0 —Aerial Defense Gunner.

According to the 15th Wing Public Affairs, Wellbaum joined after feeling unfulfilled working as a civilian.

“I went into the recruiters’ office and asked them what jobs they had for enlisted [personnel] to fly,” Wellbaum tells. “My recruiter listed off loadmaster, boom operator and B-52 aerial defensive gunner. The gunner job sounded like the coolest job out of the three so that is what I applied for.”

During the next five years, he served in that role on a B-52 Stratofortress bomber. His assigned aircraft was the last in service to have a tail gun.

The early ‘90s posed unique challenges and the Air Force started phasing out the guns on the B-52 as a cost-reducing initiative.

In a news release from the 93rd Bombardment Wing’s Public Affairs Division, General George L. Butler, Strategic Air Command (SAC) commander, announced the elimination of the gunner position and the deactivation of the guns — the date: Sept. 16, 1991.

“My decision to eliminate the guns from the ‘BUFF’ was not an easy one,” stated Butler in a letter to the defense aerial gunners. “It stemmed from the collapse of the Soviet threat and the leading edge of very sharp budget cuts. Our Air Force is going to go through a lengthy period of turmoil as we adapt to a dramatically changing world.”

By 1992, the guns were non-functional on the aircraft, Tech. Sgt. Heather Redman, 15th Wing Public Affairs reports.

The Chief says at the time, gunners knew something was going to change — they just didn’t know what to expect.

“We knew something was in the works but we weren’t expecting to be cut,” Wellbaum said. “However, the Air Force did take care of us and opened up a lot of AFSCs, one of which was flight engineer. I knew several people who cross-trained into that career field, so I saw it as a natural progression.”

Wellbaum’s commander says the Air Force is better because of the Chief’s service.

“I’m immensely proud to have gotten to serve alongside Chief Wellbaum, and know for a fact our Air Force is a better service for having him in it,” Col. Charles Velino, 15th Operations Group commander said in an interview. “I have no doubts that the Chief will continue to do great things in the months and years to come.”

During his storied career, Wellbaum logged a total of 6,500 flight hours, with more than 1,000 flight hours on the B-52 and was awarded Master Aircrew Enlisted Flyer Wings.

“The Air Force challenged me at every point in my career and I appreciate that,” Wellbaum says. “I never felt like I was doing something I didn’t want to do. I felt like it was a privilege for me to be in the position I was in, regardless of what AFSC it was.”

The B-52 Stratofortress utilized guns in both the nose and tail.

The Drive reports B-52 tail guns were traditionally defensive weapons. Nearly all of the B-52 variants featured a radar-assisted tail position with four M3 machine guns, each firing at a rate of 1,200 rounds per minute. The ultimate version, the B-52H, came with a single 20mm M61 Vulcan cannon, able to spit out up to 100 shells every second, in their place. In addition, the air search radar for the guns was powerful enough to act as a navigational aid and help keep bombers in formation, according to an article in Air Force Magazine. On top of that, the radar could help guide trailing bombers toward their destination through bad weather.

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