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The last B-52 gunner

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)

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii --

The Air Force’s last B-52 Stratofortress (BUFF) enlisted aerial defensive gunner will retire here, Friday May 12, 2017, marking the end of an era.

Twenty-five years after his first career field was retired, Chief Master Sgt. Rob Wellbaum, 15th Operations Group superintendent, will end his 30-year career as the last former defense aerial gunners, Air Force Specialty Code 111X0.

Wellbaum joined the Air Force in 1987 after feeling unfulfilled working as a civilian.

“I worked in the civilian sector for a number of years and didn’t really have a gratifying experience,” said Wellbaum.  “I just wanted something more.”

Although his father and older brother served in the Air Force, it was Wellbaum’s desire to fly that encouraged him to join.

“I went into the recruiter’s office and asked them what jobs they had for enlisted [members] to fly,” said Wellbaum. “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.”

In Dec. 1987, Wellbaum left his home in Ashland, Oregon, and was off to basic training.

The early 1990s posed unique challenges as the Air Force started to phase 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, 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.  

“We knew something was in the works but we weren’t expecting to be cut,” said Wellbaum.  “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 attitude and professionalism helped his transition from gunner to flight engineer, as well as his climbing of the ranks to Chief Master Sgt.

According to Col. Charles Velino, 15th Operations Group commander, it’s rare for members to serve 30-years and retire Chief Master Sgt.

“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,” said Velino.  “I have no doubts that the Chief will continue to do great things in the months and years to come.”

 

Over his career, Wellbaum logged a total of 6,500 flight hours, with over 1000 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,” said Wellbaum. “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.”