Come Fly The Plane Your Grandfather Flew (And Your Son Might Fly Too)

On April 15th 1952, Boeing test pilot “Tex” Johnson pulled back on the control yoke of the prototype YB-52 Stratofortress and she took to the air for the first time. Once the design was deemed acceptable by the United States Air Force (USAF), the B-52 went into service in 1955. So began 62 years of continuous service by the Big Ugly Fat F*cker (BUFF) to the United States Air Force. Because the last of the 744 B-52s built was completed in 1962, the very youngest BUFF is still a card-carrying member of AARP. But the real mind-bending fact here is that BUFFs will most likely serve as this nation’s primary long-range heavy bomber well into the 2040s.

The B-52 originally came about as a Boeing response to a USAF requirement for a new strategic bomber. Originally in competition with the Consolidated B-36 Peacemaker, the first B-52 design was drawn with straight wings and six turboprop engines. Continuing design evolution yielded a design with swept leading edge wings and four turboprop engines, contra-rotating propellers driven by turboprop engines (much like the Russian Tupolev 95 Bear strategic bomber), and several other wing / propulsion configurations before the 35 degree swept wing with eight jet engines mounted paired in four pods became the final basic B-52 design. Ironically the B-52, along with the B-47, ended up replacing the B-36. The first B-52G became operational on February 13th 1959, the day after Strategic Air Command (SAC) retired its last operational Peacemaker.

After the original B-52 design was accepted in June of 1946, the development of the B-52 was drawn out by changing USAF payload, speed, range, crew complement, and other requirements for the design. It has been said that Boeing’s previous bomber design, the B-29 Superfortress, required 153,000 engineering hours. It took about 3,000,000 engineering hours to get the B-52 into USAF service. But get the B-52 into service they did. The first operational B-52B flew for the first time during December of 1954. This aircraft, B-52B, Air Force serial number 52-8711, then entered service with SAC’s 93rd Heavy Bombardment Wing (93rd BW) at Castle Air Force Base (AFB) in California on June 28th 1955. The 93rd BW gained operational status on March 12th 1956.

Like many new aircraft, B-52 operations came with some built-in headaches. Ramps and taxiways designed and built for lighter aircraft deteriorated under the aircraft’s weight. Initial B-52 fuel systems often leaked or iced up. The early bombing and fire control computers were unreliable. Even things as seemingly mundane as cabin temperature control were problematic. The Pratt & Whitney J57 engines were unreliable in early service. The B-52 fleet was grounded twice during 1956; once after an alternator failure caused the first fatal B-52 crash in February 1956, and again in July due to fuel and hydraulic problems. Tiger teams (dubbed “Sky Speed” teams) were brought in to pore over the B-52s and address a long list of specific issues. After this effort reliability was improved.

B-52s also racked up a number of firsts during their early service years. On May 21st 1956, a B-52B (52-0013) dropped the first air-dropped thermonuclear weapon, a Mark 15, on Bikini Atoll in the Cherokee test shot. Four B-52Bs of the 93rd BW and four B-52Cs of the 42nd BW flew nonstop around the perimeter of North America in Operation Quick Kick covering 15,530 miles in 31 hours and 30 minutes between November 24th and November 25th 1956. SAC, in a thinly veiled play for better tankers to go with their new bombers, decreed that Quick Kick flight time could have been reduced by 5 to 6 hours had the bombers been refueled by jet-powered tanker aircraft rather than the old propeller-driven Boeing KC-97 Stratofreighters.

To demonstrate B-52 and SAC’s “global reach”, between January 16th and January 18th 1957, three B-52Bs flew non-stop around the world as Operation Power Flight in 45 hours and 19 minutes. The trio of BUFFs covered a distance of 24,325 miles. The bombers were refueled several timed during their flight…by KC-97s. During the next few years, B-52s set speed and unrefueled distance records. One of the most impressive was the unrefueled distance record flight from Kadena AFB in Okinawa Japan to Torrejón AFB in Spain. The flight covered 12,532 miles.

During the 1960s B-52s, along with their Boeing B-47 Stratojet and Convair B-58 Hustler strategic bomber brothers, performed airborne alert missions under imaginative code names like Chrome Dome, Hard Head, Round Robin, Giant Lance, and Head Start. Flying at high altitude near the borders of the Soviet Union, the bombers were there to provide rapid first strike or retaliation capability in case of nuclear war. Remember that this was the time of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) thinking. But when the Soviets demonstrated to the world in 1960 that their surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) were capable of bringing down aircraft at high altitude, the strategic bomber mission profile went from high in the sky to low in the weeds. The B-52 adapted. The B-47 adapted to other roles. The B-58 did not.

To support the change in the BUFF’s mission profile, SAC began the Big Four modification program for all operational B-52s except early B models. Also called Modification 1000, the four primary modifications to the B-52 fleet included the ability to launch the North American AGM-28 Hound Dog standoff nuclear missile and the McDonnell ADM-20 Quail decoy, an advanced electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite to improve survivability in the current battlespace, and airframe upgrades to better enable the B-52 to perform the all-weather, low-altitude interdiction mission required of the BUFFs as dictated by changing (and improving) Soviet air defense capabilities. The Big Four program was completed in 1963.

Also during the 1960s (after only about ten years of service) concerns were raised about the expected life span of the B-52. Already the B-58 and the North American XB-70 Valkyrie had been aborted or simply proven to be unviable solutions as replacements for the BUFF. On February 19th 1965, SAC Commander General Curtis E. LeMay told the United States Congress he was afraid that “The B-52 is going to fall apart on us before we can get a replacement for it.” LeMay, and his successors with SAC, would continue to operate B-52s as the single bomber in the arsenal with the range and payload to deliver strategic ordnance on target. In fact, the B-52 outlasted LeMay and SAC. When SAC was disbanded in 1992, BUFFs were still flying missions and getting their jobs done.

B-52s were unique in several ways. Equipped with both upward and downward firing ejection seats, the BUFF’s emergency egress system didn’t give the radar navigator and navigator a warm fuzzy when they were at work on the lower deck. At least the other four crew positions ejected upward. Instructors riding in the other seats would have to jump on their own in an emergency egress situation. The B-52 also had the ability to “crab” into a crosswind and for taxying and takeoff up to 20 degrees off the runway heading if necessary. The aircraft was not designed for high maneuverability so it had tiny ailerons. Roll control was achieved using spoilerons instead. Later models did away with the ailerons altogether and added an additional spoileron. One very noticeable characteristic of many B-52s are the “wrinkles” in the fuselage skin forward of the wing leading edge. Some call them age wrinkles, but they’re only there on the ground. In the air the B-52 looks as young as any other 50-something year old.

On January 17th 1966, A Chrome Dome-tasked B-52G Stratofortress and a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker collided in mid-air at 31,000 feet during mid-air refueling over Palomares in Spain. All four crew on the tanker were killed. Four of the seven crew members aboard the bomber survived. The bomber was carrying a payload of four B-28FI thermonuclear bombs when it broke up in flight. Each bomb was capable of a nominal yield of 1.45 megatons. Three of the weapons impacted the Spanish countryside and one came down in the Mediterranean Sea. One unexploded weapon was recovered more or less intact on the ground, but the conventional explosives contained in two of the weapons detonated on impact, spreading plutonium and requiring a massive cleanup of contaminated soil. The bomb that came down in the Med was eventually recovered after two and a half months.

Programs like Jolly Well (fixes and upgrades to the computers) in 1964, Rivet Rambler (expanded ECM capability) in 1971, and Rivet Ace (additional ECM expansion) in 1973 kept the B-52 fleet as electronically up-to-date as possible. But it was the AN/ASQ-151 electro-optical viewing system (EVS) that added the most obvious external indication of improved electronic warfare capability. EVS combined a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) system in the starboard side chin fairing and a low light level TV (LLLTV) in the port side chin fairing. Added between 1972 and 1976, this system improved the ability of the BUFF to penetrate at low altitude and hit targets effectively.

Continuing to improve the Stratofortress, GPS was added during the 1980s. Ability to employ the Northrup Grumman LITENING targeting pod was added in 2007. Carried on a dedicated pylon under the starboard wing, LITENING adds precision targeting of standoff weapons using laser guidance, high resolution FLIR, and high definition (HD) CCD camera. You’ve seen these pods on plenty of other aircraft including Grumman F-14D “Bombcats”, McDonnell Douglas (Boeing) FA/18 Hornets and AV-8B Harrier IIs, and General Dynamics F-16 Vipers.

Like any bomber, the BUFF makes its living delivering ordnance. At its core it’s a bomber so it can carry up to 70,000 pounds (35 tons) of bombs, cruise missiles, standoff weapons, mines, and just about anything else that can be crammed into its cavernous bomb bay or hung from its wing pylons. The BUFF has been upgraded and adapted over its service life to carry the very latest weapons in the inventory. Originally equipped with defensive guns in the tail (four .50 caliber machine guns or a 20 millimeter Vulcan rotary cannon in the H model), all defensive tail weaponry has been removed from the B-52H tails still in service.

The eight engines of the B-52 have been the subject of several upgrade and improvement programs over the years. None have been implemented yet. All versions of the BUFF through the G model were powered by one version or the other of the Pratt & Whitney J57 turbojet engine. The B-52H is powered by the Pratt & Whitney TF-33 turbofan engine, giving it improved range and total thrust available. A distinctive feature of the BUFF is the sooty black exhaust smoke that sometimes trails behind the aircraft caused by the use of water injection during takeoff. Water injection (actually a mix of water and alcohol) both increased thrust and cooled internal engine parts, but resulted in fuel being only partially burned- hence the smoky departure. Especially impressive during SAC minimal interval take offs (MITOs) in movies like A Gathering of Eagles (Universal 1963).

31 B-52s were lost during the Vietnam War (all causes). When B-52s went to war in Southeast Asia they were strategic bombers that had to be adapted to be used in a tactical situation. The Big Belly program added additional internal conventional bomb carrying capacity and Sun Bath modified the wing pylons to carry more bombs as well. Flying missions from Anderson AFB on Guam in the Pacific took a mind-numbing 10 to 12 hours to complete and required aerial refueling at least twice. Once B-52s began operating from U-Tapao in Thailand missions were shorter and required no refueling, but were just as dangerous. B-52 tail gunners shot down at least two North Vietnamese MiG-21 Fishbed interceptors. Another MiG-21 kill could not be credited to a particular BUFF but North Vietnamese records indicate a third MiG-21 shot down by B-52s.

The More Modern BUFF

As early-model B-52s reached the end of their structural service lives in the mid-1960s they were retired. By June 1966 there were no more B model BUFFs in service. By September of 1971 the C models had been put out to pasture. And so the story went. The B-52Es were retired by 1970. The majority of the F models were gone by 1973. The B-52Ds remained in service through the 60s and well into the 70s thanks to the Pacer Plank program, but during the early 1980s the Ds were retired too. The remaining G and H models were upgraded and their capabilities improved by adding the Boeing AGM-69 short range attack missile (SRAM) to the B-52’s arsenal, yet another major ECM refit, and the ability to carry the subsonic-cruise unarmed decoy (SCUD), the successor to the ADM-20 Quail.

B-52Gs from Barksdale AFB in Louisiana departed their CONUS base, attacked Iraqi targets, and recovered back at Barksdale. This mission covered 14,000 miles and took 35 hours to complete- a record at that time. B-52Gs also flew missions against Iraq from RAF Fairford in the United Kingdom, King Abdullah Air Base at Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, Morón Air Base in Spain, and from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The missions were flown at high altitude after the first three nights of sorties, but those initial three low-altitude missions were said to have a telling effect on Iraqi morale. B-52s flew about 1,620 sorties, and delivered 40% of the weapons dropped by coalition forces during Operation Desert Storm.

Two B-52Hs struck Baghdad power stations and communications facilities with 13 AGM-86C conventional air-launched cruise missiles (CALCMs). These BUFFs had departed Andersen AFB, Guam on September 2nd 1996 and returned to recover at Andersen on September 3rd. The mission covered 16,000 miles and took 34 hours to complete This Operation Desert Strike mission covered more distance than any other combat mission ever flown. During Operation Allied Force, B-52Hs took out Serb targets. During Operation Enduring Freedom, the B-52H was turned into a close air support (CAS) aircraft through the use of precision-guided munitions. Ten B-52Hs dropped a third of the total bomb tonnage delivered in Afghanistan. B-52s also performed missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom, delivering over 100 cruise missiles. BUFFs are still flying missions over Afghanistan as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. You’ll probably be reading about B-52Hs taking out targets in Syria sometime soon.

75 BUFFs Remain Today

Roughly 75 of the original B-52s produced still serve with the USAF. They are kept in the best shape possible by the USAF maintenance depot at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma and maintained at their Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) bases in Minot AFB in North Dakota and Barksdale. A few B-52s are based at Edwards AFB in California for testing. B-52s are still viable weapons systems even though they are all older than their pilots. Well, most of them. There are third-generation BUFF pilots in the USAF pilot training pipeline as you read this, and it’s highly likely that there will fourth generation B-52 pilots before the venerable bomber is retired. B-52s cost less to operate than the B-2 Spirit bombers and have a higher mission-capable rate than either the B-1B Lancer or the B-2. Add to that the psychological value of a B-52 flying over places like Korea and the South China Sea these days and those 12 intact H models in storage still seem like good investments. There could have been more but…

A B-52 departs from Nellis during a Red-Flag exercise. B-52s will soon be deployed overseas in support of operations against ISIS. (Photo by Jim Mumaw)

Every last one of the 365 B-52Gs remaining in service were destroyed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Peace Dividend? You decide. Those airframes could, and might have, come in handy had the nation had the foresight to see that there was no viable replacement for them on any drawing board or rattling around in any defense contractor’s noggin. Yes, they were cut up into pieces at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMRC) in accordance with the terms of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), but BUFF fans don’t have to like it. Perhaps the worst part is that the pieces were left to sit there so Soviet satellites could verify their carcasses were well and truly dismembered. What a shame!

B-52s have starred in several movies. Bombers B-52 (Warner Brothers 1957), A Gathering of Eagles (Universal 1963), Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Columbia 1964) and By Dawn’s Early Light (HBO 1990) all featured BUFFs in leading roles. Can you think of any more?