The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All

Larry Holzwarth - November 14, 2021

Officially it is known as the Stratofortress, following the styling assigned to its predecessors, the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-29 Superfortress. But unofficially it has long been called the BUFF, an acronym which stands for Big Ugly Fat (expletive deleted). It was originally designed as a high-altitude strategic bomber, intended to deliver the thermodynamic nuclear bomb to its target. Most of its operational life has been spent in other roles, including close air support for combat troops on the ground. It can carry 35 tons of munitions, on flights of nearly 9,000 miles without refueling. Over the course of its operational life, it has set several records, including the longest combat missions ever flown by any aircraft. The US Air Force has operated the bomber for nearly seven decades and intends to continue to operate for at least another thirty years.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
A Boeing B-17 flies in the foreground, with the B-52 in the distance. USAF

It has played a role in nearly all of America’s military conflicts since the Vietnam War. It has also provided significant roles in aviation research and development as well as weather research. Although other bombers have been developed in the years since the B-52 first flew, it is projected to outlive them in terms of service life. For example, the B-1 Lancer, first deployed in the 1980s, is projected to remain in service until 2036, as of this writing. The B-2 Spirit, colloquially known as the stealth bomber, is expected to be retired around the same time. Yet the Air Force plans to continue to fly the B-52 for over a decade longer, making it the backbone of the American heavy bomber force for nearly a century. Here is the story of one of the most successful airplanes of all time, the Boeing B-52.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
From the top, a B-17 Flying Fortress, B-29 Superfortress, and B-52 Stratofortress at Barksdale AFB in 2017. USAF

1. The B-52 was designed to eliminate American reliance on air bases in foreign countries

During the Second World War, and through the early days of the ensuing Cold War, the US Air Force relied on foreign bases for its heavy bombers. In late 1945, the US Army Air Forces requested proposals for a heavy bomber which could be operated “without dependence upon advanced and intermediate bases controlled by other countries”. Three American contractors responded to a formal request for proposals issued by the Air Force in early 1946; Boeing, Glenn L. Martin, and Consolidated Aircraft. All three had considerable experience building bombers for the Air Force. Consolidated had built the B-24 Liberator during World War II. Boeing constructed the successful B-17 and B-29, and Martin the B-26 Marauder medium bomber. In June, Boeing received a contract to build a mockup of its proposed design, labeled as the XB-52.

It bore little resemblance to the aircraft which eventually emerged. The proposed Boeing design was propellor-driven, with straight wings carrying six turboprop engines. Later, after the Air Forces changed the design requirements, Boeing submitted a second design, which was smaller, lighter, and driven by four engines. Further modifications were demanded by the Air Force, and Boeing eventually proposed two separate aircraft, one for use as a general-purpose conventional bomber, the other to deliver nuclear weapons. Defense cutbacks limited the military’s options. By late 1947 it appeared the contract would be canceled in its entirety. In 1948, Boeing was instructed to incorporate emerging technologies in the new design, including the use of jet engines, as well as the capability of in-flight refueling. Several designs and modifications were considered, including a design which resembled a flying wing. None were acceptable.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
A B-52 and its weapons payload at Minot Air Force Base in the 21st century, USAF

2. Boeing engineers came up with the basic design of the B-52 in a Dayton, Ohio, hotel

In late October 1948, after yet another rejection of their design by the Air Force, Boeing engineers gathered in the Van Cleve Hotel in Dayton, Ohio. The hotel was convenient to nearby Wright Field. By Friday night, October 22, the engineers completed the basic layout of what eventually became the B-52. They presented a design of an aircraft with 35 degree swept wings and 8 turbojet engines carried in four pods under the wings. Over the ensuing weekend, the engineers built a model of their proposed design, using materials purchased in a local hobby shop. On Monday, October 25, the model and its proposal were presented to the Air Force. According to the engineers, the new aircraft would surpass all design specifications presented by the Air Force. They were given the go-ahead to develop a full-scale mockup of the design.

The original design featured a tandem seating arrangement for the pilot and copilot, with the latter sitting directly behind the former. The commander of Strategic Area Command, the Air Force entity responsible for acquiring the airplane, insisted the arrangement be changed to a side-by-side cockpit. The commander, General Curtis Lemay, believed the tandem arrangement contributed to pilot fatigue on long flights. Lemay piloted one of three US B-29 bombers which flew nonstop from Japan to Chicago, Illinois, in 1945, a distance of over 5,800 miles. The flight took over 27 hours, giving Lemay considerable insight over the subject of pilot fatigue. Other changes occurred during the airplane’s development and testing, but the basic design of the B-52 took place over the course of that October weekend in Dayton, Ohio, the home of the Wright Brothers.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
Curtis Lemay as he appeared during the period of development and testing for the B-52. USAF

3. Lemay was pushed by his vision of nuclear war with the Soviet Union

Curtis Lemay desired a heavy bomber for his Strategic Air Command which would allow him to implement his plans for a nuclear war. Lemay and his close ally, Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg, believed nuclear war with the Soviets was inevitable. Both men pushed for the Air Force to deliver up to 80% of American atomic bombs on the Soviet Union within a period of one month. By the late 1940s, the Air Force pushed for an American nuclear arsenal of 220 bombs, with all of them assigned to the Strategic Air Command. In order to establish the viability of his plans, Lemay needed a heavy bomber capable of flying from American bases. Storing airborne atomic weapons in overseas facilities was to Lemay unthinkable. Nor did he believe the Army or especially the Navy should play any role in America’s ability to wage nuclear war.

The Soviets did not detonate their first atomic bomb until August 1949. Their success did not change Lemay’s thinking. Instead, it added urgency to his desire for long-range heavy bombers able to strike quickly to destroy Soviet installations, factories, and infrastructure. He considered research into the use of missiles to deliver atomic bombs frivolous and lobbied hard for the increasingly limited defense budgets to create a modern, jet-driven, Strategic Air Command. After several prototypes were built, tested, and modified to incorporate lessons learned, Boeing was awarded a contract for 13 B-52A airplanes in February, 1951. Only three were built. They were used as test beds for the further development of the aircraft, and evaluation of its performance. An aircraft, designated the YB-52, made its first flight on April 15, 1952.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
The wingspan of the B-52 is longer than the first flight of the Wright Brothers only five decades earlier. Wikimedia

4. The first operational B-52s were ordered in 1952

Testing of the three delivered B-52As led to additional modifications, and the remaining ten from the initial order were built incorporating them, leading to their designation as B-52B. They officially entered operational service in March, 1954. The wingspan on the bomber was 185 feet. The Wright Brothers’ first flight, 51 years earlier, had covered a distance of just 120 feet. The tips of the B-52’s wings travel just over 30 feet as the wing flexes to lift the aircraft off the ground. The airplane itself was just 159 feet in length. Crew size has varied over its many years of service. Initially, the bomber carried a tail gunner, seated in the tail of the aircraft as had his predecessors in the bombers of World War II. Eventually, the gunner was moved forward, the guns operated by remote control. Finally, the tail guns were removed entirely in 1991.

The Stratofortress was designed as a subsonic, high altitude, strategic bomber, fulfilling Lemay’s vision for Strategic Air Command. It could cruise over 500 mph for a combat range of 8,800 miles. In straight travel, such as relocating to another base, it could reach over 10,000 miles. Its ceiling was 50,000 feet, though it seldom operated at that altitude, due to fuel concerns. Its ability to refuel in flight meant it could stay airborne for extended periods, hovering near an operational area ready to strike if ordered. On May 20, 1956, a B-52 dropped a thermonuclear (hydrogen bomb) weapon near Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean in a test as part of Operation Redwing. The weapon missed the target by four miles. An Air Force technician revealed the miss to the public, earning an official reprimand. Lemay would brook no criticism of his cherished SAC.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
The Palomares nuclear accident led to decades of cleanup and illness among those involved. NY Times

5. Several B-52s were lost to accidents over the next several decades

In January 1957, a B-52 operating out of Maine crashed after the airframe broke up a flight, killing all but one of the crew. The co-pilot successfully bailed out of the stricken airplane. The bomber had been on a training mission and had not been carrying nuclear weapons. But several B-52 crashes and accidents have involved nuclear weapons. During the 1950s and 1960s, SAC operated the Airborne Alert Program. B-52 bombers carrying nuclear weapons operated in various theaters around the globe, refueled by tanker aircraft, ready to initiate a nuclear strike if needed. The United States had nuclear bombs in the air at all times. It was the Air Force’s leg of the nuclear triad, which consisted of US land-based ballistic missiles, the bombers, and the Navy’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles. At least two B-52 crashes led to nuclear contamination.

In 1966 a B-52 collided with a refueling tanker near Palomares, Spain. The B-52 carried four nuclear bombs, which used conventional explosives to detonate a nuclear explosion. Two of the bombs had their conventional explosives detonate, which did not cause a thermonuclear reaction, but which did scatter plutonium and uranium over a wide area. In 1968 another B-52 carrying nuclear weapons crashed in Greenland. Again, widespread contamination occurred, which the United States cleaned up at considerable political and financial cost (the Spanish accident cleanup continued into the 21srt century). Following the Greenland incident, SAC discontinued the airborne alert program, at least officially. By the mid-1960s the B-52 had a new mission, one for which it had not been designed, but which it continues to the present day.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
B-52s operated as conventional heavy bombers over Vietnam beginning in 1965. USAF

6. The B-52s became conventional bombers over Vietnam in 1965

Following the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, the United States began to ramp up its combat involvement in the War in Vietnam. Approximately 74 Stratofortress bombers received modifications to carry conventional bombs. In March, 1965, the United States initiated Operation Rolling Thunder. B-52 involvement in the sustained aerial bombing of targets in Vietnam began in June. On June 18, 1965, 30 B-52s took off from Anderson Air Force Base in Guam, bound for a target zone said to be a Viet Cong concentration north of Saigon. While maneuvering at a refueling rendezvous point, two of the bombers collided in mid-air. Eight crewmen were killed and both bombers lost. Twenty-seven bombers struck the target area, though post-strike analysis revealed that nearly half of the bombs missed the target, which had already been abandoned by the Viet Cong.

In Vietnam, the B-52 changed from a high-altitude strategic bomber to a lower altitude conventional strike weapon. Missions out of Guam typically lasted between ten and twelve hours, required refueling, and brought the bomber under anti-aircraft fire from both missiles and guns for the first time. Missions were later added out of Thailand. In late 1965, during the Battle of Ia Drang, B-52s flew close air support missions for the first time. ARVN and American troops attempted to lure North Vietnamese forces into open areas where the B-52s could deliver their massive bomb loads on the enemy. Although several of the heavy bombers were damaged by enemy fire, and several were lost to accidents, not until 1972 was a B-52 shot down in action. During the Vietnam War, B-52 tail gunners were credited with shooting down two enemy MiG 21 aircraft.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
B-52s taxiing at U Tapao AFB, Thailand, in 1972. USAF

7. B-52s also provided photo reconnaissance missions during the Vietnam War

Prior to the commencement of heavy bombing missions in Vietnam, B-52s flew on reconnaissance missions over South Vietnam. Beginning in May, 1965, B-52s flew on missions throughout South Vietnam, mapping areas as potential targets for the bombing missions of Operation Rolling Thunder. All bombing missions conducted by the B-52s in Vietnam during the year 1965 took place in the South, and most were directed at Viet Cong-controlled regions and communication facilities. The recon missions were flown by unarmed B-52s, other than the presence of the tail gunners. In late 1965, after saturation bombing had been underway for five months, B-52s struck a target whose “target box” extended into Laos. In 1969 SAC, which controlled B-52 operations in Southeast Asia, extended its bombing missions into Cambodia.

The use of the B-52 in Vietnam did not alter the commitment of SAC to the maintenance of two legs of the nuclear triad, aerial bombardment and intercontinental ballistic missiles. A sizable number of B-52s remained unmodified and on alert for potential nuclear strikes. Thus, in the late 1960s, B-52s were in the air on an almost continuous basis. They operated above the Arctic Circle, the South Pacific, and across the United States, as well as in advanced bases in the United Kingdom, and other locales. At the same time the B-58 Hustler bomber, which had first deployed as a nuclear weapon delivery aircraft in 1961, was rapidly retired by SAC, leaving service by the end of the decade. In 1970 the B-52 was the only heavy bomber in the inventory of the United States Air Force.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
A B-52G landing at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, during the Christmas bombings in December, 1972. USAF

8. B-52 losses were heavier during the 1972 Christmas bombings

Operation Linebacker II was the official name of the bombing campaign of December 1972, often referred to as the Christmas bombings. Designed to intensify pressure on the North Vietnamese to conduct serious peace negotiations, Operation Linebacker II included 729 bomber sorties over a period of twelve days. They dropped over 15,000 tons of bombs on targets in North Vietnam, including Hanoi, Haiphong, Van Dien, and other targets. Initially, Strategic Air Command opposed the massive raids. By then, nearly half of their total inventory of B-52 bombers were committed to Southeast Asia, and replacing lost aircraft was out of the question. The production line for the bombers had been shut down for several years. Also placed at risk were the highly-trained aircrews, which the Air Force had prepared for entirely different missions.

In the end, their concerns proved justified. Improvements in North Vietnamese air defenses led to the outright loss in combat of 15 bombers. Another five were so heavily damaged they could only be stripped for reusable parts. Another crashed and exploded while landing in Thailand. An additional five suffered damages which required extensive repairs. In total, 31 B-52 bombers were lost during the Vietnam War, in which it conducted operations for which it had never been intended by its designers. Both during and following the war many B-52s were retired from service, having reached the end of their structural lifetimes. But the experience of combat in Vietnam revealed the B-52 to have uses which, with upgrades, extended its capability as a conventional bomber. Though it remained a part of the nuclear triad, it also became a tactical weapon in the post-Vietnam Air Force.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
A B-52 refuels from a KC-135 while en route from Vietnam to Andersen AFB on Guam. USAF

9. The B-52 operated in support of NASA and the Space Race in the 1960s

The B-52 was and is a subsonic airplane, incapable of surpassing the speed of sound. Yet it made considerable contributions to the study of supersonic and hypersonic flight as part of the X-15 program. The X-15 was operated from 1959 to 1968 in a joint program conducted by the United States Air Force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Three X-15s were built, and there were differences between each. It was essentially a hypersonic rocket, which flew into the edge of space, where the air is so thin that the normal means of aircraft control were unavailable. Rather than using surfaces to control yaw, pitch, and roll, thrusters were required to operate the aircraft during much of its flight. It returned to earth in an unpowered glide. In fact, the entire powered phase of its flight was less than two minutes.

The X-15 did not take off conventionally, accelerating down a runaway until its wings generated sufficient lift to allow it to fly. Instead, it was carried into the air under the wing of a mother ship. In June 1959, test pilot Scott Crossfield flew the X-15 for the first time, though the vehicle was carried into the air and released for an unpowered test flight. Its first powered flight occurred in September 1959. The X-15 was carried into the air by one of two B-52s assigned to NASA and modified for the purpose. The ex-bombers were designated NB-52A (nicknamed The High and Mighty One) and NB-52B (Balls Out). Both exist as museum displays today, with NB-52A at the Pima Air and Space Museum, Tucson, Arizona and NB-52B at Edwards Air Force Base, in California.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
The X-15 hypersonic space plane being carried by a B-52 prior to launch, circa 1967. USAF

10. The X-15 program was not entirely problem-free

The X-15 program included 199 flights of hypersonic aircraft, which were carried into the air by B-52s. After reaching the predetermined launch altitude the X-15 was released. The rocket plane dropped from the bomber’s wing, and its pilot fired the rocket motors. The X-15 carried several different pilots to altitudes that exceeded fifty miles, entering what is officially considered space. Until the release of the X-15, a chase plane flew with the mothercraft as an observer. After the X-15 launched the modified B-52 circled, eventually returning to base. The majority of the B-52 launch flights were piloted by Fitz Fulton, who years later flew the modified Boeing 747 used to launch the early evaluation and test version of the Space Shuttle. Among the X-15 pilots were Joe Engle, who later flew in the Shuttle, and Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.

Though the NASA B-52s performed their missions well, not all of the X-15 flights were successful. On November 15, 1967, USAF Major Michael Adams piloted the rocket plane to an altitude of 266,000 feet, qualifying him as an astronaut. During descent, the aircraft encountered problems which threw it into a violent spin while traveling five miles over the speed of sound (Mach 5). As the descent continued the aircraft suffered forces which exceeded its design limits and broke apart, killing Major Adams. The exact cause of the crash was never fully determined, though the investigative board speculated the pilot deviated from his flight path through distraction and possibly vertigo. Major Adams was the only pilot to lose his life as a result of an accident involving the X-15.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
The X-15 during the powered phase of flight, date unknown. USAF

11. The B-52’s mission changed as a result of the Vietnam War

The design of the B-52 is actually older than the Air Force in which it serves. The B-52 concept and basic design preceded the 1947 formation of the United States Air Force as a service separate from the US Army. Designed in the aftermath of what was then considered successful strategic precision bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan, the bomber was initially intended to continue that Air Force priority, using nuclear weapons to annihilate America’s enemies. It had not been designed to pursue conventional bombing missions against enemy troop concentrations or fortified bases. Nor had it been designed to destroy infrastructure. Yet it was modified and used in such roles during the Vietnam War, with its crews gaining experience in conventional warfare. It delivered more bomb tonnage on enemy targets during the Vietnam War than any other aircraft.

After the end of American involvement in Vietnam, the remaining B-52s in the Air Force inventory were updated for continuing use as a conventional weapon, rather than a strategic nuclear bomber. Over the years several variants had been built, designated by a letter following the B-52 (B-52D, B-52G, and so forth). By the end of the Vietnam War, only the B-52G and B-52H remained in the Air Force. The B-52G remained in the role of carrying nuclear bombs, part of the Strategic Air Command’s contribution to the nuclear triad. B-52s were upgraded with new avionics and armed with additional weapons, including cruise missiles, guided missiles, and self-defense weaponry. Advances in technology allowed the airplanes to be a major factor in the developing modern battlefield of the late 20th century, despite their essentially post-World War II design.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
Rollout of the first B-52A by Boeing. Production of B-52 variants reached 744 before shutting down. Boeing

12. The B-52 was in production for just ten years

Boeing began delivering the B-52 in 1954, with three of the huge bombers delivered that fiscal year. Through the ensuing decade, Boeing built a total of 742 B-52 variants, with peak production in fiscal 1958, when 187 of the bombers were delivered. The majority of the airplanes were built in Boeing’s main production facility near Seattle, Washington. A second manufacturing facility in Wichita produced B-52D aircraft. In the late 1950s, Boeing decided to use the Seattle facility to produce commercial aircraft, including the Boeing 707, which entered commercial service with Pan American World Airways in 1958. Production of the B-52 was shifted in its entirety to Wichita, allowing the Seattle facilities to produce the lucrative commercial airliners. Wichita built and delivered the last of the B-52 variants (B-52H) in fiscal year 1963. The B-52 was thus out of production before it flew in Vietnam.

Boeing was far from the only commercial entity required to produce the B-52. Its plants assembled the aircraft with the support of over 5,000 subcontractors. Over 40% of the massive airframe was built by subcontractors at facilities across the United States. Pratt and Whitney built the engines, themselves supported by a slew of subcontractors contributing parts. General ElectBric built the tail gun, four Vulcan cannons, operated by remote control. Over the years various tire manufacturers provided the massive tires equipping the bomber, with Michelin holding the contract at this writing. Though only in production for ten years, maintenance and modernization contracts continue to make the B-52 a major portion of the US Air Force operating budget nearly 60 years after the assembly line in Wichita shut down.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
Using his arms to represent the airplane’s wings, General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) demonstrates how a low-flying B-52 could reach its target in Dr. Strangelove. Wikimedia

13. The B-52 became a movie star early in production

In 1957 the first of several films in which the B-52 Stratofortress played a prominent role was released by Warner Brothers. Bombers B-52 featured Karl Malden and Natalie Wood and focused on the introduction of the new bomber into the Air Force inventory. The film also depicted the difficulties encountered by the service in retaining experienced, highly trained personnel. Made with the full support of the Air Force, Bombers B-52 was filmed at Castle Air Force Base in California, with some shots of operational B-52s made at March Air Force Base. Of the moderately successful film, TIME Magazine wrote it was a “…want ad for Air Force technicians.” It was the first of many Cold War era films centering around the B-52 and the men who operated them. Many were made with the support and approval of the US Air Force.

One which most decidedly did not have the support of the Air Force was 1964’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The B-52 played a prominent role, with its crew led by Major Kong (Slim Pickens) following through emotionless, deadpan recitations of checklists as they prepare to drop a nuclear weapon on the Soviet Union. Another memorable scene has General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) demonstrating to the President (Peter Sellers) how a B-52 could fly in low, avoiding radar, and destroy its target. The B-52s used in the film were mockups on a British soundstage. B-52 bombers continued to feature in Cold War films, often using recycled stock footage when the Air Force did not approve of the premise of the film.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
To date, other than NASA, the US Air Force is the only entity to operate the B-52 throughout its long career. USAF

14. The Air Force is the only military branch to operate the B-52 throughout its history

Other than the two motherships used by NASA, only the United States Air Force has operated the B-52 over its long history. During the peak years of the bomber’s deployment, it could be found at bases across the United States. B-52s flew out of bases in Florida, Louisiana, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, and California. In those locations, the maintenance crews and support personnel, as well as the aircrews, found significantly different climate conditions than those of their northern brethren. B-52s also operated from bases in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and New York. They flew from Minot, North Dakota and Ellsworth, South Dakota. In short, B-52s operated from dozens of bases, in all climatic conditions.

Although only the US Air Force has operated the B-52 over its long service life, it has performed missions in support of the other branches of the US military. Its extended range makes the bomber ideal for long searches over water, a mission the US Navy has a long history of performing using Air Force bombers. For example, during World War II in the Pacific, and in the Battle of the Atlantic, the Navy used Consolidated B-24 Liberator long-range heavy bombers for search and rescue missions, reconnaissance, and other tasks not within the reach of their smaller aircraft. In those cases, the Navy took actual ownership of the aircraft and redesignated it with Navy terminology. With the B-52 the Air Force has operated the aircraft in co-operation with the Navy.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
The all-nuclear powered US Navy Task Force 1, taken before the expansion of American involvement in Vietnam. US Navy

15. The post-Vietnam era weakened the US Military

The end of the Vietnam Era in the United States military led to two significant changes in the services. The United States shifted to an all-volunteer military, with the draft discontinued. It also saw drastic reductions in operational budgets, as well as for future expansion. At the time US Naval doctrine centered around the aircraft carrier-based task force for surface warfare. Anti-submarine warfare was an important part of surface, aerial, and submarine doctrine as well. By the late 1970s, there was significant concern the Soviet air and naval assets could overwhelm the defense systems of the carrier task force through simple force of numbers.

Joint US Navy/US Air Force operations allowed the B-52, its defenses hardened by modifications following the Vietnam War, to fly long-range reconnaissance missions monitoring the steadily expanding Soviet fleet. Those flights were considerably outside the envisioned duties of the B-52 when it was designed in the 1950s. In 1975 the US Air Force began training B-52 aircrews in naval reconnaissance missions. By the early 1980s, B-52s were armed with anti-ship missiles, which could be launched against Soviet Naval assets. Anti-naval B-52 squadrons operated out of bases in Maine in the Atlantic, and Guam in the Pacific. They were coordinated by US Navy or US Air Force AWAC airplanes and formed an important part of the American response to the Soviet naval buildup during the latter years of the Cold War.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
USAF B-52 deploying a naval mine in the early 1980s. USAF

16. The B-52 became a critical component of deployment of naval mines

In May 1972, the US Navy used aircraft to mine the waters of Haiphong Harbor in North Vietnam, effectively closing the port to shipping for the next 300 days. President Nixon announced the operation to the American people. “All entrances to North Vietnamese ports will be mined to prevent access to these ports and North Vietnamese naval operations from these ports”. For the remainder of 1972, US Navy mine-laying operations closed the rest of the ports of North Vietnam. It was one of the more successful American operations of the entire Vietnam War. Eventually, over 8,000 mines were deployed by US Navy and Marine aircraft, effectively shutting down water commerce in North Vietnam. Although the United States was then involved with withdrawing from Vietnam, it nonetheless viewed the mining operation as a crucial negotiating tool with the intransigent North Vietnamese.

Beginning in the 1980s, with US Navy/Air Force joint maritime operations on the uptick, B-52s were modified to operate as airborne minelayers. The aging bomber offered the advantages of being able to deploy more mines, from a longer distance, than any aircraft in the Navy’s inventory. It also provided the ability to mine enemy waters without requiring a close approach by a carrier group, thus placing the ships of the group in harm’s way. The B-52, originally designed to deliver gravity bombs carrying nuclear warheads, had by the 1980s evolved into a strike weapon for use against enemy shipping using both anti-ship missiles and naval mines. It still retained its role as an alert weapon of America’s nuclear triad, as events in Europe led to the collapse of the Soviet system and the end of the Cold War.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
An AGM-86 Air Launched Cruise Missile in flight in the 1980s. USAF

17. The B-52 changed to nuclear-tipped cruise missiles in the 1980s

By the early 1980s, the B-52s that remained in the nuclear force carried as their primary weapon a subsonic air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) designated as the AGM-86. The range of the new weapon allowed the B-52 to approach, but not enter, Soviet airspace. Releasing the weapons while still outside Soviet airspace provided the bombers with greater survivability while flooding the Soviet detection and defense systems with small, fasting moving, targets. Of course, the Soviets responded with improvements to their defenses, and the Air Force reacted in kind with newer cruise missiles with better capabilities. The cost and tensions of the Cold War continued to rise on both sides. By 1982, a single B-52 could carry up to 20 AGM-86 missiles, making it once again a formidable nuclear strike weapon.

Beginning in May 1982, the United States and the Soviet Union discussed placing a rein on their expanding nuclear arms inventories. Throughout the decade the talks started and broke off, in response to changing politics and various international crises. Ultimately the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) led to a treaty known as START 1, which was signed by US President George H. W. Bush and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in July 1991. One of the conditions of the treaty was the removal of the B-52 as a nuclear strike weapon. The Russians were allowed to verify the destruction of the required number of B-52s both via satellite observation and in-person inspection. The designated B-52s were sent to the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARG) near Tucson, to await their fate.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
A B-52 equipped with AGM-28 Hound Dog missiles, capable of attacking Soviet antiaircraft installations. USAF

18. Destruction of the B-52 fleet from 1991-2001

Not all of the B-52s in the Air Force inventory were destined for destruction as a result of START 1. The service retained the final variant of the airplane, the B-52H, designated as a conventional bomber. A few of the remaining B-52G variant were distributed as non-flying museum displays under the terms of the treaty. The remaining 365 B-52s were sent to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where they were then relocated to AMRG. After arriving, and in accordance with the schedule established by the START agreement, the airplanes were stripped of all serviceable parts. They were then placed into positions in the fields at AMRG. There, the aircraft awaited the services of a giant crane which served as a sort of guillotine to break up the aircraft. The airframes were sliced into separate parts.

A 13,000-pound “blade” was dropped onto the aircraft. Each wing was removed, followed by the fuselage being sliced into three pieces. The aircraft then remained in place for the ensuing three months, a provision in the agreement which allowed the Russians to confirm compliance with the terms of the treaty. After it was determined the “guillotine” was destructive of potentially reusable materials, according to some reports, rescue saws were used to cut up the retired airplanes more efficiently. After confirmation by the Russians, the remains of the former bombers were sold as scrap. The process of destroying the bulk of the B-52 bomber fleet continued into 2001. The US Air Force retained an inventory of less than 100 B-52H variants, yet they still had a significant role to play in American military operations.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
B-52s flying from Barksdale AFB in Louisiana struck the first coalition blow during Operation Desert Storm. USAF

19. B-52s struck in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm

On January 16, 1991, a flight of B-52s departed Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana (These planes were later destroyed at AMRG). The airplanes refueled inflight, launched conventionally armed AGM-86 stand-off cruise missiles and returned to Barksdale after a flight of 14,000 miles, taking 34 hours from takeoff to landing. It was at the time the longest combat mission ever flown by any aircraft. And it was a complete success. The B-52 eventually flew over 1,620 missions during Operation Desert Storm. About 40% of the ordnance dropped on targets in Iraq during that conflict were delivered by B-52s. They operated from bases in Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Spain, and the remote island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

During one mission a B-52 was hit by friendly fire which accidentally targeted the airplane’s radar-controlled tail gun fire control system. In response, the Air Force removed the tail gunner from the bombers’ crews, and over the next several years the weapon was deactivated. The B-52 broke its own record for the longest combat mission in 1996. Two B-52H bombers departed Andersen Field, Guam, took out targets in and around Baghdad, Iraq, and returned. The 34-hour mission covered over 16,000 nautical miles, claiming the longest distance flown for a combat airstrike. B-52s also served in the wars over the collapse of Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan, and in operations against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Although the Air Force inventory is reduced to less than 80 aircraft, it remains a workhorse of the skies.

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
The B-52’s reliability and versatility are likely to keep it in service for another three decades. USAF

20. The B-52 is likely to remain in service for another 30 years

As the geopolitical situation around the globe continues to change, the proven versatility of the B-52 means the Air Force will continue to call upon its oldest combat aircraft for the foreseeable future. Plans to re-engine the fleet, giving it still greater capabilities at more economical costs, have been proposed and studied during several budget cycles. Replacement of two far more recent bombers is scheduled for the mid-2020s, the B1 Lancer and the B2 Spirit. Their replacement, the B-21 Raider, is scheduled for deployment by 2026, though in all new weapons systems development there are unavoidable and often seemingly endless delays. Meanwhile, under current plans, the B-52 will keep flying.

As of this writing, no military aircraft has served longer than the B-52. Though some claim that record for the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, that highly successful airplane entered service in 1956. The Hercules does claim the record for the aircraft with the longest period of production, over 60 years and counting. The Hercules has served in the Air Forces or civilian service of over 60 nations. By contrast, the Boeing B-52 has served but one. Whether current plans hold, or changing circumstances cause them to be reconsidered, the design which arose in a Dayton hotel continues to prove its merits across the globe. The US Navy built and operated 29 ballistic missile submarines during the period of B-52 production, and another 12 in the decade which followed (41 for Freedom). All are retired, and most have been scrapped. The B-52 flies on.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“B-52 Aircraft”. Article, Britannica. Online

“April 15, 1952 – First flight of the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress”. Aviation Trail, Apr 11, 2020. Online

“Air Force Legend Curtis Lemay Once Bombed the Navy to Prove a Point”. Blake Stilwell, Online

“US Strategic Command History”. Article, Strategic Online

“Ex-US Soldiers Nearing Resolution of Claims From 1966 Palomares Accident”. Graham Keeley, Voice of America. January 18, 2021. Online

“The War in South Vietnam. They Years of the Offensive: 1965 – 1968”. John Schlight, Air Force History and Museums Programs. 1999. Online

“Linebacker II”. Walter J. Boyne, Air Force Magazine. November 1, 1997

“Across the Hypersonic Divide: Story of the X-15 Rocket Plane”. Richard P. Hallion, History Net. Online

“Operation Rolling Thunder”. Article, The Editors, June 10, 2019. Online

“Historical Snapshot: B-52 Stratofortress”. Article. Online

“Almost Everything in Dr. Strangelove Was True”. Eric Schlosser, The New Yorker. January 17, 2014

“PB4Y ‘Liberator'”. Display, National Museum of the US Navy”. Online

“Navy, Air Force Reviving Offensive Mining with New Quickstrikes”. Colonel Michael Pietrucha, USAF. USNI News. April 26, 2016. Online

“START 1 At a Glance”. Factsheet, Arms Control Association. February, 2019. Online

“Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty”. Article, AMARC Experience. Online

“Operation Secret Squirrel: The story of the top-secret ultra-long range B-52 Stratofortress mission that opened strikes of Operation Desert Storm” Dario Leone, The Aviation Geek Club. November 28, 2016. Online

“The US Air Force Is Gradually Rebuilding Its B-52 Bombers From The Rivets Out”. David Axe, Forbes Magazine. September 27, 2021

“What makes the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress so long-lasting?”. Garrett Reim. Flight Global. 13 September 2019