Lt. Col. Steve Smith

Lt. Col. Steve "Thirsty" Smith was honored two years ago when he became the first crewman since the Vietnam War era to log 10,000 hours on a B-52.

An Air Force career was always the plan for Lt. Col. Steve Smith, who goes by the call sign "Thirsty." And there's no quenching his desire to fly the B-52.

Though it didn't start out that way.

Lt. Col. Smith has spent more hours on board the venerable bomber than anyone currently in the Air Force.

"It's not glamorous. But it's home," Lt. Col. Smith said as he sat in a small windowless compartment surrounded by electronics where he flies as a weapons systems officer. That used to be known as the radar navigator.

They had a big celebration at Barksdale two years ago when he crossed 10,000 hours.

"Seeing all the people when we taxied off the runway there, the crowd of people there, is just unbelievable. I am honored beyond measure," he said on that day, March 3, 2017.

Now, he's nearing 11,000 hours. And to think when he was first assigned the B-52 back in the mid 1980's, he really didn't want to spend a single minute in one.

"It was old. I didn't think there was any future in the B-52 at all," he says. "I wanted fast jets. I wanted an F-111 or an F-4. Those were the hot jets. Those were the hot jets for navigators back then. And, uh, B-52, not so hot."

And here's a fun fact for you. The youngest B-52 in the Air Force fleet was delivered the same day Lt. Col. Steve Smith was. They share a birthday, October 12, 1962.

"Thanks for reminding me," Lt. Col. Smith joked. "I'm feeling pretty dang old now.

He plans to keep flying about four more years to age 60. But he's not about setting records.

"I just hate sitting behind a desk," he explained with a laugh.

He could've taken a command position over a bomb squadron, but turned it down so he could keep flying.

"I'm doing it because I love the mission. I love the people," he says.

His log includes 42 combat missions in four wars, going back to Operation Desert Storm in 1991 when the B-52's dropped dumb bombs, but were in range of Iraqi anti-aircraft fire.

"Those first couple of sorties were pretty hairy. We were getting shot at quite a bit," he says, adding that the pilot had to bank sharply to evade the enemy fire.

Another decade later, Lt. Col. Smith was back over Iraq after the 9-11 attacks. And as recently as a couple of years ago, he flew more missions over Iraq and Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve.

He's changed with the times -- as has the B-52 -- firing GPS guided weapons, and using modern gadgets like a targeting pod that's affixed to a wing.

"It's like a video game for 55-year-olds," Lt. Col. Smith says of the results of his actions he views through the scope.

"The instant gratification that you know that you supported those ground troops, or helped those civilians in Mosul that escaped the horrors of terrorism," he added about the modern weaponization of the B-52.

He's primarily an instructor with the 93rd Bomb Squadron, teaching the next generation of B-52 crews .

"I thank God for the air in my lungs and the desire in my heart to do this mission," he says.

At age 56, Lt. Col. Smith jokes that he doesn't get the upgrades to keep going like the B-52. The Air Force plans to keep flying them another 40 years plus, to 2060 and beyond. That would mean the current air frames will be a 100 years old.

But he says they're confident the planes will last. The B-52's are basically rebuilt every few years, in addition to all the modernizations with electronics, avionics and weapons capability.


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