Since 2017, the Veterans Honor Banner Project has been celebrating veterans of the United States Armed Forces by displaying commemorative banners on every banner hanger in Rapid City. U.S. Air Force veteran Bill Casper brought the banner initiative to the Black Hills in an effort to share the stories of the men and women who have fought for our country’s freedom.
Jerry Mitchell, Vietnam era veteran and former B-52 navigator in the Air Force, is one of the many veterans whose legacy has been honored by the Veterans Honor Banner Project in Rapid City. Mitchell served from 1961-1968 and left the service just before the Vietnam War.
Navigation is no small task, and the position of B-52 navigator requires a great deal of training. According to Mitchell, an aspiring navigator must complete at least two years of training before officially earning the title.
“Well, first you go through basic navigation training, which is one year, and then you go to advanced navigation training, which is another year. And then you have to go through crew training, missile training, so it ends up to be a real good two years of training before you can even start out as a navigator of B-52’s,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell flew many missions during his seven years of service, around four every month, including days-long flights around the North Pole.
“A normal mission would be 12-14 hours long and we would first take off and usually hook up to the tankers, and after that we’d either do a navigation mission, either celestial at night or something else during the day time, and then usually we’d enter low-level and do bombing, bomb runs,” said Mitchell. “Of course, we had other missions too. We did, it’s called a Chrome Dome, where we went up over the North Pole and around. Ours wasn’t a Chrome Dome, ours was a Hard Hat. We were on station for 12 hours, the flight was usually 24 hours long, going up and back.”
According to Mitchell, the B-52 planes flew at 400 knots, or about seven nautical miles a minute. At this speed, navigators must make split-second decisions while flying their missions, especially on routes which involved navigating the planes over mountains.
“We had one route that turned at Cook City, then the route came across northern Montana, ended up at a mountain right there at Cook City. If you didn’t start by six miles, you probably wouldn’t make it over. So there was a couple scary moments there at the beginning,” said Mitchell.
While he greatly valued the time he spent in the Air Force, Mitchell said the benefits of enlisting continue even after leaving the service.
“The Air Force was enjoyable. I enjoyed my time there,” said Mitchell. “It helps you professionally in some other endeavors. I ended up getting a pilot’s license while in the Air Force and did a lot of flying after that. So it does help you after you’re out of the service doing different things, and it’s enjoyable to go to different bases and see what the rest of the United States or the world looks like.”
For a full list of veterans celebrated by the Veterans Honor Banner Project and for banner locations, visit their website here.