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.