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Guns and Gas: Reserve Citizen Airman comes full circle with B-52

Airman pins on wings.

U.S. Air Force Airman Corey Palmer, B-52 Stratofortress tail gunner, looks on as his father, Sumner, pins on wings during as ceremony at Castle Air Force Base, California in this undated photo. Palmer enlisted in the Air Force in 1988 and now serves as an in-air refueling specialist with the 914th Air Wing. (courtesy photo)

Airman stands outside a B-52

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Corey Palmer, 914th Air Refueling Wing in-flight refueling specialist, stands outside a B-52 Stratofortress at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana Oct. 17, 2021. Palmer started his Air Force career as a B-52 tailgunner in 1988. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Tambri Cason)

Airman refuels B-52

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Corey Palmer, 914th Air Refueling Wing in-flight refueling specialist, works the boom of a KC-135 Stratotanker during a temporary duty assignment at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana Oct. 16, 2021. Palmer, who started his career in 1988 as a B-52 Stratofortress tail gunner, was able to refuel the bomber for the first time during the TDY. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Tambri Cason)

Airman refuels a B-52

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Corey Palmer, 914th Air Refueling Wing in-flight refueling specialist, refuels a B-52 Stratofortress assigned to the 307th Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, Oct. 16, 2021. Palmer entered the Air Force as a tail gunner on the jet in 1988. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Tambri Cason)

Airman walks down a hallway

U.S. Air Force Airman Corey Palmer, B-52 Stratofortress tailgunner student, attends technical school training at Castle Air Force Base, California in this undated photo. He refueled the B-52 for the first time during a temporary duty assigment at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana Oct.17, 2021. (courtesy photo)

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. --

Master Sgt. Corey Palmer fought to clear his head as he watched the B-52 Stratofortress grow larger in the window of the KC-135 Stratotanker’s boom operator station.

The 914th Air Refueling Wing aerial refueling specialist volunteered for the assignment to refuel the B-52 here last week. Still, he was unprepared for the flood of memories from his time as a tail-gunner in the bomber more than 30 years ago.

“I’d never seen it from that angle before, and it made me sort of rewind because we used to refuel on almost every single flight,” he said. “I kind of removed myself for just a second and put myself back in that gunner’s seat.” 

Palmer had not been on a B-52 since 1990, but he had no trouble recalling the long sorties and pride he felt manning the jet’s 20 mm cannon.

Palmer enlisted in 1988. He was eager to fly, so being a tail gunner was his ticket to the skies. The Cold War was still raging with the Soviet Union, and tail gunners were necessary to defend the B-52 from enemy aircraft.

And the young Airman loved plying his dangerous craft.

“Everyone in the world was afraid of the B-52 because they knew what it could do, and enemy aircraft knew to stay away from the tail because we had these guns sitting out there,” he said. “It was a point of pride for us.” 

But for all his love of flying in the B-52, Palmer’s career timing couldn’t have been worse. Only 18 months into his enlistment, the Soviet Union began to unravel and their fighters were no longer a threat.

Palmer could see the writing on the wall.  No enemy aircraft meant he was out of a job.

“We could kind of tell the Cold War was ending, and Strategic Air Command was dissolving, so I took an early out in hopes of going to college and becoming a pilot,” he said.

Those plans didn’t play out, so Palmer remained in civilian life, but he never could shake his love of flying. So in 2010, three decades after separating from active duty, he reached out to the Air Force Reserve to secure an enlisted flying job.

That long journey came to one culminating moment last week, as Palmer found him staring down the boom at a B-52 assigned to the 307th Bomb Wing.  It was then he realized his sense of awe for the jet had never left.

“It’s just an amazing plane; it doesn’t get old,” he said. “I couldn’t help but be impressed by this big monster with a 185-foot wingspan coming up just as smooth as can be.”

Back on the ground, Palmer’s presence at Barksdale AFB was causing a buzz of its own.   Visits from any former B-52 tail gunners are rare in the bomber community. So, the fact that Palmer was a former tail gunner and still serving ushered him to near-unicorn status.

News of his background spread quickly, and the wing members sought him out, peppering him with questions.

“It’s really humbling,” said Palmer of the attention. “I really didn’t have a full understanding of how interested they were in the history of the tail gunner.”

Palmer isn’t sure if he’ll ever get to refuel a B-52 again, but he said refueling his old jet was a great experience and made him a little philosophical about his own military journey.

“It’s empowering,” he said. “But it seems like I was on the B-52 just ten years ago, and it’s amazing how quickly the time goes by.”