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

The Boeing B-52 Was the Greatest Fighting Airplane of Them All
A B-52 refuels from a KC-135 while enroute 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 the hypersonic aircraft, which was 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 which exceeded fifty miles, entering what is officially considered space. Until the release of the X-15 a chase plane flew with the mother craft 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 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 experience, 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. The 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. M

eanwhile, 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

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

“US Strategic Command History”. Article, Strategic Command.com. 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, History.com. June 10, 2019. Online

“Historical Snapshot: B-52 Stratofortress”. Article. Boeing.com. 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

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