There is an aircraft that has been in active military service since before I was born, and may very well outlast me before it is withdrawn from service. This aircraft is the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, also affectionately known to its many devotees as The Big Ugly Fat Fucker.
Just contemplating the longevity of this aircraft is mind-boggling. Its planned service retirement date is currently set to 2045, a full ninety-three years after the first one was flown. Aeronautical engineers specialising in aircraft ageing refer to it as the one-hundred year aircraft, for good reason; there will be airworthy, flyable B-52s long after the centenary. As an historical aircraft alone, it is worth preserving, but an aircraft of such longevity provides many opportunities for the industry to analyse and lengthen the life-cycle of military aircraft.
The aircraft’s development history is fascinating. The original military requirement for an intercontinental bomber aircraft (in other words, a strategic bomber) dates back to the early days of US involvement in the Second World War, when it seemed possible that England could fall, requiring the United States to wage war against a European enemy without any airbases in the region.
The first post-war bomber produced with long range capability was the B-36 Convair, a huge aircraft with six radial propeller engines and four jet engines (six turning, four burning) but this design was rendered obsolete almost from the start by the adoption of fast jet-engine interceptor aircraft such as the MIG-15 by the Soviet Union and its allies. The B-36’s successor, the six jet-engine B-47, while faster, failed to meet the United States Air Force (USAF) operational range requirement.
Operational range was the overriding factor in the Cold War era. The requirement was for an aircraft that could fly far, fly high, fly fast and deliver a nuclear or conventional payload.
The B-52 is a swept-wing, eight-engine bomber. It has an operational ceiling of 50,000 feet, a cruising speed of 525 mph, and a combat radius of nearly 4,500 miles, extendable via mid-air refuelling capability. The maximum payload is stated to be 70,000 lbs. Defensive capability was initially provided by a single 20mm canon in a rear remotely operated turret, but this was withdrawn from all operational aircraft in 1991, improvements in defensive electronic counter measures (ECM) being regarded as providing sufficient defensive capability. Until removal of the turret, B-52s required a six-man crew for operational flights: Aircraft Commander, Pilot, Radar Navigator, Navigator, Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) and Gunner. All regular crew positions have ejector seats. Four additional crew positions are provided for instructors, but without ejector seats.
Noise abatement and pollution were rightly low on the list of design priorities. To witness a B-52 take-off is a memorable experience. The noise is shattering, and the eight engines on full thrust spew out a rich exhaust trail of partially burnt hydrocarbons guaranteed to offend the delicate sensibilities of any Green Party member.
744 B-52s were built between 1952 and 1962, including 5 prototypes and test aircraft. Today, around 75 of them remain in service with the USAF. There were eight variants (A through H) over its ten-year production run. While not all variants saw operational service, extensive modifications were made under each, and often within each, to airframe, engine, avionics, and weapons systems. The base design is both durable and flexible in that it lends itself to continuous improvement and the ability to adapt to changing needs.
Because of this flexibility, B-52s have been put to a range of different uses. As a general-purpose long-range bomber, it is capable of delivering a nuclear payload or a conventional one, as well as performing many other roles.
From the start, nuclear deterrence was the prime mission of the B-52, and remained so until 1991. A test device was dropped by a B-52 on Bikini Atoll in 1956, the subject of a now famous video (search YouTube for uArM48C_H9w). The device was dropped from 55,000 feet and detonated at 15,000 feet. For years, the bomber was used as the primary deterrent against covert attacks, providing an around-the-clock, always-airborne assurance that any such attack could and would be met with severe consequence.
For ten years from 1958, the Strategic Air Command of the USAF deployed some of the B-52 force in an airborne alert status. This meant that there were always some B-52 fully loaded with nuclear weapons in the air, and more on the ground at fifteen-minute readiness to take off if required. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the airborne alert effort was dramatically increased, and it is thought that this was a key factor in preventing the crisis from spiralling out of control into a full-on confrontation between the US and the USSR. The costs to aircrew of maintaining airborne alert status were high. Despite the size of the aircraft, conditions in a B-52 are cramped, and crews would frequently stay airborne for up to 26 hours at a time. This and the stress and boredom of maintaining 15 minute readiness on the ground placed huge demands on the aircrews.
The development of fast jet interceptors, surface-to-air missiles and improved radar gave birth to new tactics and technologies to counter these new threats. To evade enemy radar, low-level penetration flying tactics (as low as 500 feet) were developed, giving rise to the use of terrain-avoidance radar. ECM also played an increasingly important role. To facilitate sustained low-level flight itself required an array of changes to airframe and engines. Later still, with the development of air-to-air and air-to-ground missile technologies, tactics shifted from low-level penetration to stand-off attack.
Nuclear deterrence was not the only job of the B-52 crews. In 1965, a force of 27 B-52-Fs dropped bombs on a target in South Vietnam, the Iron Triangle, in an attempt to destroy Viet Cong tunnel complexes. Two bombers collided mid-air having reached the rendezvous point too early, with the loss of eight crew. This mission was the start of the Arc Light Operation, an eight year period during which B-52s, flying from Guam and Thailand, engaged in 126,615 sorties in close air support of the US Army and USMC in Vietnam. Initially, B-52-Fs were used, but these were withdrawn in 1966 and replaced with the “Big-Belly” B-52-D, giving a much greater bomb-load capacity.
In December of 1972 in Operation Linebacker II, B-52-Ds and Gs flew 729 sorties against military targets in Haiphong-Hanoi. Fifteen aircraft were lost to enemy fighters and surface-to-air missiles. The following month, the North Vietnamese signed the Paris Peace Accord, paving the way for US withdrawal from the conflict.
B-52s would go on to play important roles in the First Gulf War (1991), Afghanistan (2001) and the Second Gulf War (2003). This year (2017) B-52s have flown over South Korea, in response to Kim Jong Un’s sabre-rattling.
Upgrades on the B-52 continue to this day. In 2013, the Combat Network Communications Technology (CONECT) programme started, upgrading the communications, computing and avionics for thirty of the current B-52 fleet, at the cost of $1 billion. CONECT leverages NATO’s existing LINK-16, a system for data-exchange of real time combat and targeting information between land, air and ship forces and ground stations.
This truly remarkable aircraft has withstood the test of time and met the demands placed on it in wars both cold and hot. It has helped keep the West safe from its enemies, and will continue to do so for years to come.
© Martin Mezger 2017