B-52D Stratofortress: Wikis


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B-52 Stratofortress
A B-52H from Barksdale AFB flying over the desert
Role Strategic bomber
Manufacturer Boeing
First flight 15 April 1952
Introduction February 1955
Status Active: 76[1]
Reserve: 20[1]
Primary users United States Air Force
Produced 1952–1962
Number built 744[2]
Unit cost B-52B: US$14.43 million[3]
B-52H: $9.28 million (1962)
B-52H: $53.4 million (1998)[4]

The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress is a long-range, subsonic, jet-powered strategic bomber operated by the United States Air Force (USAF) since 1955.

Beginning with the successful contract bid on 5 June 1946, the B-52 design evolved from a straight-wing aircraft powered by six turboprop engines to the final prototype YB-52 with eight turbojet engines. The aircraft first flew on 15 April 1952 with "Tex" Johnston as pilot.[5]

Built to carry nuclear weapons for Cold War-era deterrence missions, the B-52 Stratofortress replaced the Convair B-36. Although a veteran of a number of wars, the Stratofortress has dropped only conventional munitions in combat. The B-52 carries up to 70,000 pounds (32,000 kg) of weapons.[6]

The USAF has possessed B-52s in active service since 1955. The bombers flew under the Strategic Air Command until SAC was disestablished in 1992 and its aircraft absorbed into the Air Combat Command (ACC). Superior performance at high subsonic speeds and relatively low operating costs have kept the B-52 in service despite the advent of later aircraft, including the Mach-3 XB-70 Valkyrie, the supersonic B-1B Lancer, and the B-2 Spirit. In January 2005, the B-52 became the second aircraft, after the English Electric Canberra, to mark 50 years of continuous service with its original primary operator. (As of 2009, the list has added the Tupolev Tu-95, the C-130 Hercules, the KC-135 Stratotanker, and the Lockheed U-2.[7][8][9][10])



Models 462 (1946)[11] to 464-35 (1948)[11]
Models 464-49 (1949)[11] to B-52A (1952)

On 23 November 1945, Air Materiel Command (AMC) issued desired performance characteristics for a new strategic bomber "capable of carrying out the strategic mission without dependence upon advanced and intermediate bases controlled by other countries".[12] The aircraft was to have a crew of five plus turret gunners, and a six-man relief crew. It was required to cruise at 300 mph (240 kn, 480 km/h) at 34,000 feet (10,400 m) with a combat radius of 5,000 miles (4,300 nmi, 8,000 km). The armament was to consist of an unspecified number of 20 mm cannon and 10,000 pounds (4,500 kg) of bombs.[13] On 13 February 1946, the Air Force issued bid invitations for these specifications, with Boeing, Consolidated Aircraft, and Glenn L. Martin Company submitting proposals.[13]

On 5 June 1946, Boeing's Model 462, a straight-wing aircraft powered by six Wright T35 turboprops with a gross weight of 360,000 pounds (160,000 kg) and combat radius of 3,110 miles (2,700 nmi, 5,010 km), was declared the winner.[14] On 28 June 1946, Boeing was issued a letter of contract for US$1.7 million (1946 dollars) to build a full-scale mock-up of the new XB-52 and do preliminary engineering and testing. However, by October 1946, the Air Force began to express concern about the sheer size of the new aircraft and its inability to meet the specified design requirements. In response, Boeing produced Model 464, a smaller four-engine version with a 230,000 pound (105,000 kg) gross weight, which was briefly deemed acceptable.[15]

Then, in November 1946, the Deputy Chief of Air Staff for Research and Development, General Curtis LeMay, expressed the desire for a cruise speed of 400 miles per hour (345 kn, 645 km/h), to which Boeing responded with a 300,000 pound (140,000 kg) aircraft. In December 1946, Boeing was asked to change their design to a four-engine bomber with a top speed of 400 miles per hour, range of 12,000 miles (10,000 nmi, 19,000 km), and the ability to carry a nuclear weapon. The aircraft could weigh up to 480,000 pounds (220,000 kg). Boeing responded with two models powered by the T-35 turboprops. The Model 464-16 was a "nuclear-only" bomber with a 10,000 pound (4,500 kg) payload, while the Model 464-17 was a general purpose bomber with a 90,000 pound (40,000 kg) payload. Due to the cost associated with purchasing two specialized aircraft, the Air Force selected Model 464-17 with the understanding that it could be adapted for nuclear strikes.[16]

In June 1947, the military requirements were updated and the Model 464-17 met all of them except for the range. It was becoming obvious to the Air Force that, even with the updated performance, the XB-52 would be obsolete by the time it entered production and would offer little improvement over the Convair B-36. As a result, the entire project was put on hold for six months. During this time, Boeing continued to perfect the design which resulted in the Model 464-29 with a top speed of 455 miles per hour (395 kn, 730 km/h) and a 5,000-mile range.[17] In September 1947, the Heavy Bombardment Committee was convened to ascertain performance requirements for a nuclear bomber. Formalized on 8 December 1947, these called for a top speed of 500 miles per hour (440 kn, 800 km/h) and an 8,000 mile (7,000 nmi, 13,000 km) range, far beyond the capabilities of 464-29.[18]

The outright cancellation of the Boeing contract on 11 December 1947 was staved off by a plea from its president William McPherson Allen,[19] and in January 1948 Boeing was instructed to thoroughly explore recent technological innovations, including aerial refueling and the flying wing. Noting stability and control problems Northrop was experiencing with their YB-35 and YB-49 flying wing bombers, Boeing insisted on a conventional aircraft, and in April 1948 presented a US$30 million (1948 dollars) proposal for design, construction, and testing of two Model 464-35 prototypes. Further revisions of specifications during 1948 resulted in an aircraft with a top speed of 513 miles per hour (445 kn, 825 km/h) at 35,000 feet (10,700 m), a range of 6,909 miles (6,005 nmi, 11,125 km), and a 280,000 pounds (125,000 kg) gross weight which included 10,000 pounds (4500 kg) of bombs and 19,875 US gallons (75,225 L) of fuel.[20]



XB-52 Prototype on flight line (X-4 in foreground)
Side view of YB-52 bomber, with bubble canopy similar to that of the B-47

In May 1948 AMC asked Boeing to incorporate the previously discarded, but now more fuel-efficient, jet engine into the design. This resulted in Boeing developing yet another revision — in July 1948, Model 464-40 substituted Westinghouse J40 turbojets for the turboprops.[21] Nevertheless, on 21 October 1948, Boeing was told to create an entirely new aircraft using Pratt & Whitney J57 turbojets.

On 25 October, Boeing engineers produced a proposal and a hand-carved model of 464-49.[22] The new design built upon the basic layout of the B-47 Stratojet with 35° swept wings, eight engines paired in four underwing pods, and bicycle landing gear with wingtip outrigger wheels. A notable feature of the landing gear was the ability to pivot the main landing gear up to 20° from the aircraft centerline to increase safety during crosswind landings.[23] The aircraft was projected to exceed all design specifications.[24] Although the full-size mock-up inspection in April 1949 was generally favorable, range again became a concern since the J40s and the early model J57s had excessive fuel consumption.

Despite talk of another revision of specifications or even a full design competition among aircraft manufacturers, General LeMay, now in charge of Strategic Air Command, insisted that performance should not be compromised due to delays in engine development.[25] In a final attempt to increase the range, Boeing created the larger 464-67, stating that once in production, the range could be further increased in subsequent modifications.[26] Following several direct interventions by LeMay,[27] on 14 February 1951 Boeing was awarded a production contract for 13 B-52As and 17 detachable reconnaissance pods.[28] The last major design change, also at the insistence of General LeMay, was a switch from the B-47 style tandem seating to a more conventional side-by-side cockpit which increased the effectiveness of the copilot and reduced crew fatigue.[29] Both XB-52 prototypes featured the original tandem seating arrangement with a framed bubble-type canopy.[30]

The YB-52, the second XB-52 modified with more operational equipment, first flew on 15 April 1952,[31][Notes 1] a 2 hour 21 minute flight from Renton Field in Renton, Washington to Larson AFB with Boeing test pilot Alvin M. Johnston and Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Guy M. Townsend.[32][33] The XB-52 followed on 2 October 1952. The thorough development,[34] including 670 days in the wind tunnel and 130 days of aerodynamic and aeroelastic testing, paid off with smooth flight testing. Encouraged, the Air Force increased its order to 282 B-52s.[35]

First production

Only three of the 13 B-52As ordered were built. All were returned to Boeing, and used in their test program.[36] On 9 June 1952 the February 1951 contract was updated to order the aircraft under new specifications. The final 10, the first aircraft to enter active service, were completed as B-52Bs.[36] At the roll out ceremony on 18 March 1954, Air Force Chief of Staff, General Twining said:

The long rifle was the great weapon of its day. ...Today this B-52 is the long rifle of the air age.[37]


Upgrades and modifications

In November 1959, SAC initiated the Big Four modification program (also known as Modification 1000) for all operational B-52s except early B models. The program was completed by 1963.[38] The four modifications were:

  1. Ability to perform all-weather, low-altitude (below 500 feet or 150 m) interdiction as a response to advancements in Soviet Union's missile defenses. The low-altitude flights were estimated to accelerate structural fatigue by at least a factor of eight, requiring costly repairs to extend service life.
  2. Ability to launch AGM-28 Hound Dog standoff nuclear missiles
  3. Ability to launch ADM-20 Quail decoys
  4. An advanced electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite

The ability to carry up to 20 AGM-69 SRAM nuclear missiles was added to G and H models starting in 1971.[39] Fuel leaks due to deteriorating Marman clamps continued to plague all variants of the B-52. To this end, the aircraft were subjected to Blue Band (1957), Hard Shell (1958), and finally QuickClip (1958) programs. The latter fitted safety straps which prevented catastrophic loss of fuel in case of clamp failure.[40]

Ongoing problems with advanced avionics were addressed in the Jolly Well program, completed in 1964, which improved components of the AN/ASQ-38 bombing navigational computer and the terrain computer. The MADREC (Malfunction Detection and Recording) upgrade fitted to most aircraft by 1965 could detect failures in avionics and weapons computer systems, and was essential in monitoring the Hound Dog missiles. The electronic countermeasures capability of the B-52 was expanded with Rivet Rambler (1971) and Rivet Ace (1973).[41]

To improve safe day and night operations at low altitude, the AN/ASQ-151 Electro-Optical Viewing System (EVS), consisting of a Low Light Level Television (LLLTV) and a Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) system mounted in blisters under the noses of B-52Gs and Hs between 1972 and 1976.[42] To further improve the B-52's offensive ability, it was fitted with Air Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCMs). After testing of both the Air Force backed Boeing AGM-86 and the Navy backed General Dynamics AGM-109 Tomahawk, the AGM-86B was selected for operation by the B-52 (and ultimately by the B-1 Lancer). A total of 194 B-52Gs and Hs were modified to carry AGM-86s, carrying 12 missiles on underwing pylons, with 82 B-52Hs further modified to carry another eight missiles on a rotary launcher fitted in the aircraft's bomb-bay. To conform with the requirements of the SALT II Treaty for cruise missile capable aircraft to be readily identified by reconnaissance satellites, the cruise missile armed B-52Gs were modified with a distinctive wing root fairing. As all B-52Hs were assumed to be modified, no visual modification of these aircraft was required.[43] In 1990, the stealthy AGM-129 ACM cruise missile entered service. Although originally intended to replace the AGM-86 its high cost and the end of the Cold War stopped production after only 450 were made. Unlike the AGM-86, no conventional (that is, non-nuclear) armed version was built.[44]

B-52H (61-023), configured at the time as a testbed to investigate structural failures, still flying after its vertical stabilizer sheared off in severe turbulence on 10 January 1964. The aircraft eventually landed safely and remained in service until 2008

Structural fatigue, exacerbated by the change to low-altitude missions, was first dealt with in the early 1960s by the three-phase High Stress program which enrolled aircraft at 2,000 flying hours.[45] This was followed by a 2,000-hour service life extension to select airframes in 1966-1968, and the extensive Pacer Plank reskinning completed in 1977.[46][47] The wet wing introduced on G and H models was even more susceptible to fatigue due to experiencing 60% more stress during flight than the old wing. The wings were modified by 1964 under ECP 1050.[48] This was followed by a fuselage skin and longeron replacement (ECP 1185) in 1966, and B-52 Stability Augmentation and Flight Control program (ECP 1195) in 1967.[48]

Boeing has suggested re-engining the B-52H fleet with the Rolls-Royce RB211 534E-4. This would involve replacing the eight Pratt & Whitney TF33s (total thrust 8 × 17,000 lb) with four RB211s (total thrust 4 × 37,400 lb). The RR engines will increase the range and payload of the fleet and reduce fuel consumption. However, the cost of the project would be significant. Procurement would cost approximately US$2.56 billion (US$36 million × 71 aircraft). A Government Accountability Office study of the proposal concluded that Boeing's estimated savings of US$4.7 billion would not be realized and found that it would cost US$1.3 billion over keeping the existing engines.[49] The higher cost was blamed on significant up-front procurement expenditure, necessary re-tooling, and the RB211's higher maintenance cost. The GAO report was subsequently disputed in a Defense Sciences Board report in 2003[50] and revised in 2004 that identified numerous errors in the prior evaluation of the Boeing proposal, and urged the Air Force to re-engine the aircraft without delay. Further, the DSB report stated the program would save substantial funds, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and increase aircraft range and endurance, duplicating the results of a Congressionally funded US$3M program office study conducted in 2003.[51] However, the re-engining has not been approved as of 2009.

Lower deck of the B-52 dubbed the battle station

In 2007 the LITENING targeting pod was fitted and commissioned increasing the combat effectiveness of the aircraft during day, night and under-the-weather conditions in the attack of ground targets with a variety of standoff weapons under the guidance of lasers and the help of high resolution forward-looking infrared sensor (FLIR) for visual display in the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum and charged coupled device (CCD-TV) camera used to obtain target imagery in the visible portion, this technology could also be used in real-time transmission to ground communications networks and government agencies to gather battlefield intelligence, assess battlefield damage, assess terrorist activities and counter drug activity, further advancing the B-52H's capabilities and uses.[52]

Fuel research platform

In September 2006, the B-52 became one of the first US military aircraft to fly using 'alternative' fuel. Syntroleum Corporation, a leader in Fischer-Tropsch process (FT) technology, announced that its Ultra-Clean jet fuel was successfully tested in a B-52. It took off from Edwards Air Force Base with a 50/50 blend of FT and traditional JP-8 jet fuel which was burned in two of the eight engines on the aircraft. This marked the first time that FT jet fuel was tested in a military flight demo, and is the first of several planned test flights.[53]

On 15 December 2006, tail number 61-0034, Checkmate took off from Edwards with the synthetic fuel blend powering all eight engines, the first time an Air Force aircraft was completely powered by the mixture. The test flight was captained by Major General Curtis Bedke, commander of the Edwards Flight Test Center, the first time in 36 years that the installation's commander performed a first flight in a flight test program. The flight lasted seven hours, reached an altitude of 48,000 feet, and was considered a success.[53]

On 8 August 2007, Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne certified the B-52H as fully approved to use the FT blend, marking the formal conclusion of the test program.[54]

This program is part of the Department of Defense Assured Fuel Initiative, an effort to develop secure domestic sources for the military energy needs. The Pentagon hopes to reduce its use of crude oil from foreign producers and obtain about half of its aviation fuel from alternative sources by 2016.[53] With the B-52 now approved to use the FT blend, the USAF will use the test protocols developed during the program to certify the C-17 Globemaster III and then the B-1B to use the fuel (the first B-1 test flight took place in March, 2008). The Air Force intends to test and certify every airframe in its inventory to use the fuel by 2011.[54]


The costs are in approximate 1955 United States dollars and have not been adjusted for inflation.[55]

X/YB-52 B-52A B-52B B-52C B-52D B-52E B-52F B-52G B-52H
Unit R&D cost 100 million
Airframe 26,433,518 11,328,398 5,359,017 4,654,494 3,700,750 3,772,247 5,351,819 6,076,157
Engines 2,848,120 2,547,472 1,513,220 1,291,415 1,256,516 1,787,191 1,427,611 1,640,373
Electronics 50,761 61,198 71,397 68,613 54,933 60,111 66,374 61,020
Armament 47,874 482,284 293,346 548,353 931,665 862,839 840,000 1,501,422
Ordnance 9,193 11,520 10,983 17,928 4,626 3,016 6,809 6,804
Flyaway cost 28,380,000 14,430,000 7,240,000 6,580,000 5,940,000 6,480,000 7,690,000 9,290,000
Maintenance cost per flying hour 925 1,025 1,025 1,182

Operational history

Three B-52Bs of the 93rd Bomb Wing prepare to depart Castle AFB, California, for their record-setting round-the-world flight in 1957

Although the B-52A was the first production variant, these aircraft were used only in testing. The first operational version was the B-52B which was developed in parallel with the prototypes since 1951. First flying in December 1954, B-52B, AF Serial Number 52-8711, entered operational service with 93rd Heavy Bombardment Wing at Castle Air Force Base, California, on 29 June 1955. The wing became operational on 12 March 1956. The training for B-52 crews consisted of five weeks of ground school and four weeks of flying, accumulating 35–50 hours in the air. The new B-52Bs replaced operational B-36s on a one-to-one basis.[56][57]

Early operations were complicated by lack of spares and ground facilities while ramps and taxiways deteriorated under the weight of the aircraft. The fuel system was prone to leaks and icing, and bombing and fire control computers were unreliable. The two-story cockpit presented a unique climate control problem – the pilots' cockpit was heated by sunlight while the observer and the navigator on the bottom deck sat on the ice cold floor. Thus, comfortable temperature setting for the pilots caused the other crew members to freeze, while comfortable temperature for the bottom crew caused the pilots to overheat. The J57 engines were still new and unreliable. Alternator failure caused the first fatal B-52 crash in February 1956,[58][59] which resulted in a brief grounding of the fleet. In July, fuel and hydraulic system problems again grounded the B-52s. To avoid maintenance problems, the Air Force set up Sky Speed teams of 50 maintenance contractors at each B-52 base. In addition to maintenance, the teams performed routine checkups which took one week per aircraft.[60]

On 21 May 1956, a B-52B (52-0013) dropped its first live hydrogen bomb (a Mk-15) over the Bikini Atoll.[61][57] On 24–25 November 1956, 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 (13,500 nm, 25,000 km) in 31 hours 30 minutes. SAC noted that the flight time could have been reduced by 5–6 hours if the four inflight refuellings were done by fast jet-powered tanker aircraft rather than propeller-driven KC-97 Stratotankers. In a demonstration of the B-52s global reach, on 16–18 January 1957, three B-52Bs made a nonstop flight around the world during Operation Power Flite, covering 24,325 miles (21,145 nm, 39,165 km) in 45 hours 19 minutes (536.8 smph) with several in-flight refuelings by KC-97s. The 93rd Bomb Wing received the Mackay Trophy for their accomplishment.[62][58]

The B-52 set many records over the next few years. On 26 September 1958, a B-52D set a world speed record of 560.705 miles per hour (487 kn, 902 km/h) over a 10,000 kilometers (5,400 nm, 6,210 mi) closed circuit without a payload. The same day, another B-52D established a world speed record of 597.675 miles per hour (519 kn, 962 km/h) over a 5,000 kilometer (2,700 nmi, 3,105 mi) closed circuit without a payload.[46][63] On 14 December 1960, a B-52G set a world record by flying unrefueled for 10,078.84 miles (8,762 nm, 16,227 km). The flight lasted 19 hours 44 minutes (510.75 mph).[64] On 10–11 January 1962, a B-52H set a world record by flying unrefuelled from Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan, to Torrejon Air Base, Spain, covering 12,532.28 miles (10,895 nmi, 20,177 km).[65]

During this time, at the Strategic Air Command's peak strength in 1963, 650 B-52s were in operation in 42 squadrons at 38 air bases.[66]

In informal circumstances, the official name Stratofortress is rarely used; personnel involved with the aircraft most commonly referred to it as BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fucker).[67][Notes 2][68]

On 19 February 1965, General Curtis E. LeMay testified to Congress that the lack of a follow on bomber project raised a serious danger that "the B-52 is going to fall apart on us before we can get a replacement for it."[69]

Vietnam War

With the escalating situation in Southeast Asia, in June 1964 28 B-52Fs were fitted with external racks for 24× 750 pound (340 kg) bombs under project South Bay. An additional 46 aircraft received similar modifications under project Sun Bath.[70] In March 1965, the United States commenced Operation Rolling Thunder, and the first combat mission of Operation Arc Light was flown by B-52Fs on 18 June 1965, when 30 bombers of the 9th and 441st Bombardment Squadrons struck a communist stronghold near Ben Cat in South Vietnam. The first wave of bombers arrived too early at a designated rendezvous point, and while maneuvering to maintain station, two B-52s collided, resulting in the loss of both bombers and eight crewmen. The remaining bombers, minus one more which turned back due to mechanical problems, continued on towards the target, which was bombed successfully.[71]

B-52F releasing its payload of bombs over Vietnam

In December 1965, a number of B-52Ds underwent Big Belly modifications to increase bomb capacity for carpet bombings. While the external payload remained at 24× 500 pound (227 kg) or 750 pound (340 kg) bombs, the internal capacity increased from 27 to 84× 500 pound bombs or from 27 to 42× 750 pound bombs.[72] The Big Belly modification now created enough capacity for a total of 60,000 pounds (27,215 kg) in 108 bombs. Thus modified, B-52Ds could carry 22,000 pounds (9,980 kg) more than B-52Fs.[73] Replacing B-52Fs, modified B-52Ds entered combat in April 1966 flying from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. Each bombing mission lasted ten to 12 hours with an aerial refueling by KC-135 Stratotankers.[31] In spring 1967, the aircraft began flying from U Tapao Airfield in Thailand giving the aircraft the advantage of not requiring in-flight refueling.[72] These missions lasted only 2 to 3 hours. On 15 April 1968, a Replacement Training Unit was established at Castle AFB which converted B-52E through B-52H crews to B-52Ds so they could participate in combat in Southeast Asia.[74]

On 22 November 1972, a B-52D (55-0110) from U-Tapao was hit by a SAM while on a raid over Vinh. The crew was forced to abandon the damaged aircraft over Thailand. This was the first B-52 to be destroyed by hostile fire in Vietnam.[63]

The zenith of B-52 attacks in Vietnam was Operation Linebacker II (sometimes referred to as the Christmas Bombing) which consisted of waves of B-52s (mostly D models, but some Gs without jamming equipment and with a smaller bomb load). Over 12 days B-52s flew 729 sorties,[75] dropping 15,237 tons of bombs on Hanoi, Haiphong, and other targets.[76] In total, 30 B-52s were lost during the war, including ten B-52s being shot down over North Vietnam with five others being damaged and crashing in Laos or Thailand.[77]

Air-to-air victories

During the Vietnam War, B-52D tail gunners were credited with shooting down two MiG-21 "Fishbeds". On 18 December 1972, tail gunner SSgt Samuel O. Turner's B-52 had just completed a bomb run for Operation Linebacker II and was turning away when a North Vietnamese Air Force MiG-21 approached.[78] The MiG and the B-52 locked onto one another. When the fighter drew within range, Turner fired his quad .50 caliber machine guns.[79] The MiG exploded aft of the bomber,[78] a victory confirmed by MSG Lewis E. Le Blance, the tail gunner in a nearby Stratofortress. Turner received a Silver Star for his actions.[80] His B-52, tail number 55-0676, is preserved on display at Fairchild AFB in Spokane, Washington.[78]

On 24 December 1972, during the same bombing campaign, the B-52 Diamond Lil was headed to bomb the Thai Nguyen railroad yards when tail gunner A1C Albert E. Moore spotted a fast-approaching MiG-21.[81] Moore opened fire with his quad fifties at 4,000 yards, and kept shooting until the fighter disappeared from his scope. TSG Clarence W. Chute, a tail gunner aboard another Stratofortress, watched the MiG catch fire and fall away. The Diamond Lil is preserved on display at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado.[81]

Moore was the last bomber gunner to shoot down an enemy aircraft with machine guns in aerial combat.[79] The last Arc Light mission took place on 15 August 1973 and all B-52s left Southeast Asia shortly thereafter.[63]

These victories make the B-52 the largest aircraft to be credited with air-to-air kills.[82]

Cold War

Southerly route of the "Operation Chrome Dome" airborne nuclear alert

During the Cold War, B-52s performed airborne alert duty under code names such as Head Start, Chrome Dome, Hard Head, Round Robin, and Giant Lance. Bombers loitered near points outside the Soviet Union to provide rapid first strike or retaliation capability in case of nuclear war.[83][84]

B-52Bs reached the end of their structural service life by the mid-1960s and all were retired by June 1966, followed by the last of the B-52Cs on 29 September 1971; except for NASA's B-52B "008" which was eventually retired in 2004 at Edwards AFB, California.[85] Another of the remaining B Models, "005" is on display at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver, Colorado.[86]

A few time-expired E models were retired in 1967 and 1968, but the bulk (82) were retired between May 1969 and March 1970. Most F models were also retired between 1967 and 1973, but 23 survived as trainers until late 1978.[87]

The fleet of D models served much longer. Eighty D models were updated under the Pacer Plank program (ECP 1581) at Boeing's Wichita plant. Skinning on the lower wing and fuselage was replaced, and various structural components were renewed. Work was completed in 1977. The fleet of D models stayed largely intact until late 1978, when 37 un-upgraded Ds were retired.[88] The remainder were retired between 1982 and 1983.[89]

B-52H modified to carry two D-21 drones

The remaining G and H models were used for nuclear standby ("alert") duty as part of the United States' nuclear triad. This triad was the combination of nuclear-armed land-based missiles, submarine-based missiles and manned bombers. The B-1B Lancer which was intended to supplant the B-52, replaced only the older models and the supersonic FB-111.[90]

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the B-52Gs were destroyed per the terms of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The AMARC was tasked with eliminating 365 B-52 bombers. The progress of this task was to be verified by Russia via satellite and first-person inspection at the AMARC facility. Initially, the B-52s were chopped into pieces with a 13,000 pound guillotine.[91]

In 1991, B-52s ceased continuous 24-hour SAC alert duty.[92]

Gulf War and later

Retired B-52s are stored at the 309th AMARG (formerly AMARC), a desert storage facility often called the "Boneyard" at Davis-Monthan AFB near Tucson, Arizona[93]

B-52 strikes were an important part of Operation Desert Storm. Flying about 1,620 sorties, B-52s delivered 40% of the weapons dropped by coalition forces, while suffering only one non-combat aircraft loss, with several receiving minor damage from enemy action.[4]

On 16 February 1991, a flight of B-52Gs flew from Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, refueled in the air en route, struck targets in Iraq, and returned home — a journey of 35 hours and 14,000 miles round trip. It set a record for longest-distance combat mission.[94][95] Over the next months, B-52Gs operating from bases at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; RAF Fairford in the United Kingdom; Moron AB, Spain; and the island of Diego Garcia flew low-altitude bombing missions. After the first three nights, the B-52s moved to high-altitude missions, while coalition forces took air superiority and suppressed anti-aircraft weapons that might have struck high-flying aircraft.

The conventional strikes were carried out by three bombers dropping up to 153 750-pound bombs, covering an area 1.5 miles long by 1 mile wide. The bombings demoralized the defending Iraqi troops, many of whom surrendered in the wake of the strikes.[96]

Various Russian sources have claimed Iraqi air-to-air successes, including a story of Iraqi pilot Khudai Hijab firing a Vympel R-27R missile from his MIG-29 and damaged a B-52G on the opening night of the Gulf War.[97] However, the United States Air Force disputes this claim, stating the bomber was actually hit by friendly fire, a AGM-88 High-speed, Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) that homed on the fire-control radar of the B-52's tail gun; the jet was subsequently renamed "In HARM's Way".[98]

On 2–3 September 1996, two B-52H struck Baghdad power stations and communications facilities with 13 AGM-86C air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) as part of Operation Desert Strike, a 34-hour, 16,000-mile round trip mission from Andersen AFB, Guam—the longest distance ever flown for a combat mission.[99] Only two days prior, the crews completed 17-hour flights from Louisiana to Guam.

A B-52H Stratofortress of the 2d Bomb Wing lands at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam
Boeing B-52.ogv
Stratofortress video in-action

Since the mid-1990s, the B-52H has been the only variant remaining in military service;[100] it is currently stationed at:

The B-52 also contributed to Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 (Afghanistan/Southwest Asia), providing the ability to loiter high above the battlefield and provide Close Air Support (CAS) through the use of precision guided munitions, a mission which previously would have been restricted to fighter and ground attack aircraft.[102]

B-52s also played a role in Operation Iraqi Freedom, which commenced on 20 March 2003 (Iraq/Southwest Asia). On the night of 21 March 2003, B-52Hs launched at least one hundred AGM-86C CALCMs.[103]

In August 2007, a B-52H ferrying AGM-129 ACM cruise missiles from Minot Air Force Base to Barksdale Air Force Base for dismantling was mistakenly loaded with six missiles from which the nuclear warhead was not removed. The weapons did not leave USAF custody and were secured at Barksdale.[104][105]

As of April 2008, 94 of the original 744 B-52 aircraft were still operational within the U.S. Air Force. Four of 18 B-52Hs from Barksdale AFB that are currently being retired are in the "boneyard" of 309th AMARG at Davis-Monthan AFB as of 8 September 2008.[106]

Future of the B-52

Even while the Air Force works on new bombers scheduled for 2037 it intends to keep the B-52H in service until at least 2040, nearly 80 years after production ended. This will be an unprecedented length of service for a military aircraft.[4][107] B-52s are periodically refurbished at the USAF maintenance depots such as Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma.[108]

The USAF continues to rely on the B-52 because it remains an effective and economical heavy bomber, particularly in the type of missions that have been conducted since the end of the Cold War against nations that have limited air defense capabilities. The B-52's capacity to "loiter" for extended periods over (or even well outside) the battlefield, while delivering precision standoff and direct fire munitions, has been a valuable asset in conflicts such as Operation Iraqi Freedom.[109]

The speed of the B-1 Lancer and the stealth of the B-2 Spirit have only been useful until enemy air defenses were destroyed, a task that has been swiftly achieved in recent conflicts. The B-52 boasts the highest mission capable rate of the three types of heavy bombers operated by the USAF. Whereas the B-1 averages a 53% ready rate, and the B-2 achieved a 26%, the B-52 averages 80% as of 2001.[93]

Additionally, a proposed variant of the B-52H was the EB-52. This version would have modified and augmented 16 B-52H airframes with additional electronic jamming capabilities.[110] This new aircraft would have given the USAF an airborne jamming capability that it has lacked since retiring the EF-111 Raven. The program was cancelled in 2005 following removal of funding for the stand-off jammer. The program was revived in 2007 but funding was again canceled in early 2009.[111]


Production numbers[2]
Variant Produced Entered Service
XB-52 2 (1 redesignated YB-52) prototypes
B-52A 3
NB-52A 1 Modified B-52A
B-52B 50 29 June 1955
RB-52B 27 Modified B-52Bs
NB-52B 1 Modified B-52B
B-52C 35 June 1956
B-52D 170 December 1956
B-52E 100 December 1957
B-52F 89 June 1958
B-52G 193 13 February 1959
B-52H 102 9 May 1961
Grand total 744 production

The B-52 went through several design changes and variants over its 10 years of production.[55]

Two prototype aircraft with limited operational eqiupment, used for aerodynamic and handling tests
One XB-52 modified woth some operational equiopment and re-designated
Only three of the first production version, the B-52A, were built, all loaned to Boeing for flight testing.[31] The first production B-52A differed from prototypes in having a redesigned forward fuselage. The bubble canopy and tandem seating was replaced by a side-by-side arrangement and a 21 inch (53 cm) nose extension accommodated more avionics and a new 6th crew member.[112][Notes 3][113] In the rear fuselage a tail turret with four 0.50 inch (12.7 mm) machine guns with a fire-control system, and a water injection system to augment engine power with a 360 US gallon (1,363 L) water tank was added. The aircraft also carried a 1,000 US gallon (3,785 L) external fuel tank under each wing. The tanks acted as dampeners to reduce wing flex and also kept wingtips close to the ground for ease of maintenance.[112][113]
NB-52A carrying an X-15
The last B-52A (serial 52-0003) was modified and redesignated NB-52A in 1959 to carry the North American X-15. A pylon was fitted under the right wing between the fuselage and the inboard engines with a 6 feet x 8 feet (1.8 m x 2.4 m) section removed from the right wing flap to fit the X-15 tail. Liquid oxygen and hydrogen peroxide tanks were installed in the bomb bays to fuel the X-15 before launch. First flight with X-15 was on 19 March 1959, with the first launch on 8 June 1959. The NB-52A, named "The High and Mighty One" carried the X-15 on 93 of the program's 199 flights.[114]
Balls 5, a RB-52B converted to a B-52B, at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum
NASA's NB-52B Balls 8 (lower) and its replacement B-52H on the flight line at Edwards Air Force Base
B-52G on static display at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia
The B-52B was the first version to enter service with the USAF on 29 June 1955, with the 93rd Bombardment Wing at Castle AFB in California.[113] This version included minor changes to engines and avionics in the attempt to fix minor problems. Temporary grounding of the aircraft after a crash in February 1956 and again the following July caused training delays, and at mid-year there were still no combat-ready B-52 crews.[58][59]
Of the 50 B-52Bs built, 27 were capable of carrying a reconnaissance pod as RB-52Bs (the crew was increased to eight in these aircraft).[31] The 300 pound (136 kg) pod contained radio receivers, a combination of K-36, K-38, and T-11 cameras, and two operators on downward-firing ejection seats. The pod required only four hours to install.[58][59]
Seven B-52Bs were brought to B-52C standard under Project Sunflower.[115]
The NB-52B was B-52B number 52-0008 converted to an X-15 launch platform. It subsequently flew as the "Balls 8" in support of NASA research until 17 December 2004, making it the oldest flying B-52B. It was replaced by a modified B-52H.[116]
In the B-52C the fuel capacity (and range) was increased to 41,700 US gallons by adding larger 3000 US gallon underwing fuel tanks. The gross weight was increased by 30,000 pounds (13,605 kg) to 450,000 pounds. The belly of the aircraft was painted with antiflash white paint, which was intended to reflect thermal radiation away after a nuclear detonation.[117][118]
The RB-52C was the designation initially given to B-52Cs fitted for reconnaissance duties in a similar manner to RB-52Bs. As all 35 B-52Cs could be fitted with the reconnaissance pod, the RB-52C designation was little used and was quickly abandoned.[117][118]
The B-52D was a dedicated long-range bomber without a reconnaissance option. The Big Belly modifications allowed the B-52D to carry heavy loads of conventional bombs for carpet bombing over Vietnam, while the Rivet Rambler modification added the Phase V ECM systems, which was better than the systems used on most later B-52s. Aircraft assigned to Vietnam were painted in a camouflage colour scheme with black bellies to defeat searchlights.[119][120]
In the B-52E the aircraft received an updated avionics and bombing navigational system, which was eventually debugged and included on following models.[121]
One E aircraft (AF Serial No. 56-0631) modified as a testbed for various B-52 systems. Redesignated NB-52E, the aircraft was fitted with canards and a Load Alleviation and Mode Stabilization system (LAMS) which reduced airframe fatigue from wind gusts during low level flight. In one test, the aircraft flew 10 knots (11.5 mph, 18.5 km/h) faster than the never exceed speed without damage because the canards eliminated 30% of vertical and 50% of horizontal vibrations caused by wind gusts.[121][122]
In the B-52F, the aircraft was given J57-P-43W engines with a larger capacity water injection system and new alternators.[123] This model had problems with fuel leaks, but were eventually solved by several service modifications: Blue Band, Hard Shell, and QuickClip.[40]
The B-52G was proposed to extend the B-52's service life during delays in the B-58 Hustler program. At first, a radical redesign was envisioned with a completely new wing and Pratt & Whitney J75 engines. This was rejected to avoid slowdowns in production, although changes were implemented. The most significant of these was the brand new "wet" wing with integral fuel tanks which considerably increased the fuel capacity — gross aircraft weight went up by 38,000 pounds (17,235 kg) compared with prior variants. In addition, a pair of 700 US gallon (2,650 L) external fuel tanks was fitted under the wings. In this model, the traditional ailerons were eliminated, instead utilizing spoilers for roll control. The tail fin was shortened by 8 feet (2.4 m), water injection system capacity was increased to 1,200 US gallons (4,540 L), and the nose radome was enlarged. The tail gunner was provided with an ejection seat and moved to the main cockpit. Dubbed the "Battle Station" concept, the offensive crew (pilot and copilot on the upper deck and the two bombing navigation system operators on the lower deck) faced forward, while the defensive crew (tail gunner and ECM operator) on the upper deck faced aft. The B-52G entered service 13 February 1959 (a day earlier, the last B-36 was retired, making SAC an all-jet bomber force). Nearly all B-52Gs were destroyed in compliance with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1992. A few examples remain in museums and as static displays at various air force bases.[124]
The B-52H had the same crew and structural changes as the B-52G. The most significant upgrade was the switch to TF33-P-3 turbofan engines which, despite the initial reliability problems (corrected by 1964 under the Hot Fan program), offered considerably better performance and fuel economy than the J57 turbojets. The ECM and avionics were updated, a new fire control system was fitted, and the rear defensive armament was changed from machine guns to a 20 mm M61 Vulcan cannon (later removed in 1991-94). A provision was made for four AGM-48 Skybolt ballistic missiles. First flight 10 July 1960, entered service 9 May 1961. This is the only variant still operational.[125] A total of 744 B-52s were built. The last production aircraft, B-52H AF Serial No. 61-0040, left the factory on 26 October 1962.[126][127]


 United States

Notable accidents

  • On 11 February 1958, a B-52D crashed in South Dakota due to ice blocking the fuel system and leading to an uncommanded reduction in power to all eight engines. Three crew were killed.[128]
B-52H 61-0026 Czar 52 before crash; note the escape hatch detaching during the co-pilot's ejection sequence is visible near the tip of the leading edge of the tail.
  • On 13 January 1964, a B-52D carrying two nuclear bombs suffered a structural failure in flight that caused the tail section to shear off. Four crew ejected successfully before the aircraft crashed near Cumberland, Maryland.[132] Two crew subsequently perished on the ground because of hypothermia, while another who was unable to eject died in the aircraft; both weapons were recovered.
  • On 17 January 1966, a fatal collision occurred between a B-52G and a KC-135 Stratotanker over Palomares, Spain. The two unexploded B-28 FI 1.45-megaton-range nuclear bombs on the B-52 were eventually recovered; the conventional explosives of two more bombs detonated on impact, with serious dispersion of both plutonium and uranium, but without triggering a nuclear explosion. After the crash, 1,400 metric tons (3,100,000 lb) of contaminated soil was sent to the United States.[133] In 2006, an agreement was made between the U.S. and Spain to investigate and clean the pollution still remaining as a result of the accident.[134]
  • On 21 January 1968, a B-52G, with four nuclear bombs aboard as part of Operation Chrome Dome, crashed on the ice of the North Star Bay while attempting an emergency landing at Thule Air Base, Greenland.[135] The resulting fire caused extensive radioactive contamination, the cleanup of which lasted until September of that year.[133] Following closely on the Palomares incident, the clean-up costs and political consequences proved too high to risk again, so SAC ended the airborne alert program the following day.[136][137][138]
  • On 31 March 1972, a B-52D, AF Serial No. 56-0625, departed McCoy Air Force Base, Florida on a routine training mission. Assigned to the 306th Bombardment Wing, the unarmed aircraft sustained multiple engine failures and engine fires on engines #7 and #8 shortly after takeoff. The aircraft immediately attempted to return to the base, but crashed just short of Runway 18R in a residential area of Orlando, Florida, approximately 1 mile north of McCoy AFB, destroying or damaging eight homes. The flight crew of 7 airmen and 1 civilian on the ground were killed.[139]
  • On October 16, 1984, a B-52 clipped its wing on Hunts Mesa, an outcropping in Monument Valley, Arizona, and crashed, sending a fireball high into the air. Two of the seven crew perished in the crash.[140]


There are many B-52s still in use and others on static display at USAF bases and museums around the world.

Specifications (B-52H)

B-52H profile
Boeing B-52H static display with weapons, Barksdale AFB 2006

Data from Knaak,[143] USAF fact sheet,[6] Quest for Performance[144]

General characteristics



  • Guns:20 mm (0.787 in) M61 Vulcan cannon in a remote controlled tail turret, removed from all current operational aircraft
  • Bombs: Approximately 70,000 pounds (31,500 kg) mixed ordnance -- bombs, mines, missiles, in various configurations[6]

Electro-optical viewing system that uses platinum silicide forward-looking infrared and high resolution low-light-level television sensors[145][146] Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod[147]

Popular culture

The B-52 has been featured in a number of major films, most notably: Bombers B-52 (1957), A Gathering of Eagles (1963), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), and By Dawn's Early Light (1990). It has also been featured in numerous novels, such as most of the early Patrick McLanahan novels by Dale Brown feature one or more heavily-modified B-52 bombers, nicknamed the "EB-52 Megafortress". A 1960s hairstyle, the beehive, is also called a B-52 for its resemblance to the aircraft's distinct nose. The popular band The B-52's was subsequently named after this hairstyle.

See also

Related development

Comparable aircraft

Related lists


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External links

Redirecting to B-52 Stratofortress


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