NASA 008 was one of two B-52s used as motherships to air launch the three rocket-powered X-15 aircraft for research flights. Aircraft 008 was the launch aircraft on 106 of the X-15 flights and flew a total of 159 captive-carry and launch missions for the X-15 program.
Air Combat Command's B-52 is a long-range, heavy bomber that can perform a variety of missions. The bomber is capable of flying at high subsonic speeds at altitudes up to 50,000 feet (15,166.6 meters). It can carry nuclear or precision guided conventional ordnance with worldwide precision navigation capability.
B-52 in flight dropping bombs.
B-52 of the 736th Bomb Squadron, 454th Bomb Wing, Columbus AFB, MS on October 26, 1966.
The B-52 Bomber
On the ground, the Boeing B-52 has all the elegance of a Mack truck. As it lumbers toward the runway, its long wings struggling with the weight of eight engines, fuel, and often a deadly cargo of bombs or missiles, observers might feel safe placing bets that the plane will never leave the ground. But, accompanied by the roar of its massive engines, the plane gathers speed and pushes off the ground. And airborne, it acquires the elegance of a bird, soaring freely overhead.
And it is an old bird. A half century after first entering service, the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, nicknamed BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fellow) by aircrews, is being flown by a new generation of pilots, young enough to be the grandchildren of the original pilots and often younger than the planes they are flying. Originally expected to serve for merely a decade, the B-52 remains the backbone strategic bombing plane for the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and is often still the first weapon sent against a combatant nation. This is a rather impressive record for a plane whose development program was canceled four times.
The program that resulted in the B-52 began in 1946. The Boeing B-29 that had dropped the atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 had already been replaced by the Boeing B-50. In 1947, the next generation of intercontinental strategic weapons delivery aircraft was ushered in with the deliveries of the Convair B-36, the biggest bomber ever to serve with the USAF, and the jet-engined Boeing B-47. But air force planners already knew that technological developments would make these bombers obsolete quickly. In January 1946, they sent out requirements for a new bomber that could fly at a top speed of 450 miles per hour (724 kilometers per hour), with a service ceiling of at least 40,000 feet (12,192 meters) and a range of more than 5,000 miles (8,047 kilometers) carrying 10,000 pounds (4,536 kilograms) of bombs. Proposals were received by military planebuilders Boeing, Consolidated Vultee, and Martin. The Boeing entry, a design named Model 462, which was powered by six turboprop engines, came out ahead and was given further funding with instructions to make it a faster plane.
Using advances in technology, the Boeing engineers swept the wings back at a 20-degree angle. Based on the success of the B-47’s jet engines, they replaced the turboprops with similar jet engines. In-flight refueling capabilities, one of the first, were added. On a Friday afternoon in October 1948, a group of engineers presented the plan to an officer at Wright Field in Ohio. He viewed it and ordered them to "give it more speed." The engineers returned to their hotel and spent the weekend improving the model. On Monday they emerged with Model 464-28, now nicknamed the Stratofortress. The wings were given a 35-degree sweep, and two more engines were added. The air force authorized Boeing to build two prototypes, the XB-52 and the YB-52.
The YB-52 was completed in November 1951. But rather than the normal festivities that accompany such events, the air force demanded top secrecy. When the plane was wheeled out of the plant, they demanded it be covered with muslin (although it is hard to imagine what it could be mistaken for), test flights had to be done at night, and all negatives of photos taken had to be developed at a secure location in Washington, D.C. Although these measures now seem extreme and almost paranoid, they reflected the times, when Cold War enemy Russia would have given anything for some of the B-52’s technology. Finally, more reasonable heads prevailed and restrictions on the B-52 were lifted after several days.
The plane took its first flight on April 15, 1952. The huge plane had a 48-foot (five-story) (15-meter) dorsal fin and its wings had an area of 4,000 square feet (372 square meters). As test pilot Tex Johnson fired up the engines that, according to a reporter, sounded like a "piercing cry," the watching crowd was worried that the test would fail. But for nearly three hours, the plane performed admirably, and its first test was a success, as were subsequent tests. The air force ordered more B-52s.
The first B-52As were delivered to the Strategic Air Command in 1954 where they became the primary airplane of the command. And while crews were training on the plane to protect the country at a moment’s notice, Boeing engineers remained busy improving the plane. In subsequent models, engines were changed, radar and electronic systems updated, and in the mid-1960s, the silver planes began to be painted in camouflage patterns. On the G-model, the dorsal fin was shortened and the gunner, originally positioned in a separate compartment in the rear, was moved to the front cabin with the rest of the crew. Advanced Capability Terrain Avoidance Radar (ACR) was added to allow the plane to fly close to the ground at 300 feet (91 meters), avoiding surface-to-air (SAM) missiles. Changes in the wing structure strengthened it. Each wing could now support a GAM-77 Hound Dog, the first Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), which often held a nuclear warhead and weighed about 10,000 pounds (4,536 kilograms) each. Varying changes to the bomb bays and wings increased the plane’s carrying ability from either 27 conventional bombs or one 43,000-pound (19,504-kilogram) nuclear weapon to all types of bombs and missiles such as gravity bombs, cluster bombs, precision guided missiles, Short-Range Attack Missiles (SRAM), advanced cruise missiles, and many more. These changes allowed the BUFF’s life to extend far beyond the predicted decade.
In addition to delivering conventional and nuclear weapons, the B-52 has found other roles. It is used for ocean surveillance: two B-52s can monitor a 140,000-square-mile (364,000-square-kilometer) section of ocean in two hours, helping the navy in anti-ship and mine-laying operations. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration owns a B-52 that has served as an airborne launch vehicle for test flight for projects such as the X-15, lifting bodies, rocket boosters, the X-38 crew return vehicle and other elements of the agency’s aeronautics and space programs.
After a decade of preparing for strategic bombing campaigns with nuclear weapons, the B-52 finally first went to war in 1965 in Vietnam, as part of Operation Arc Light. This campaign carried out tactical carpet bombing of South Vietnam, an assignment for which the plane was not equipped and the crews were not trained; consequently, the results were not good. Finally, in December 1972, the strategic skills of the B-52 were unleashed over North Vietnam for eleven days in a successful attempt to force North Vietnam to negotiate peace terms. Although the mission was a success, 15 B-52s were lost to SAMs. They could not be replaced since production of the B-52 had ended when the last one, an H-model, had rolled off the assembly line in 1962.
The Cold War ended in 1991, but the B-52 remained in service. The Strategic Air Command was disestablished in 1992 and its B-52s transferred to the Air Combat Command (ACC). The B-52 was used during the Gulf War in 1991, delivering 40 percent of all weapons dropped on Iraq by the United States and its allies. It flew over Iraq again in 1996 during Operation Desert Strike and in 2001 over Afghanistan during the war against terrorism.
An engineering study in the year 2001 predicted that the B-52 would be flying for the air force into the year 2045, almost a century after its development began. It has outlived not only its predecessors but also many of its successors such as the Convair B-58, Rockwell B-70 and B-1A, and perhaps even the B-1B. A USAF general called it a plane that is "not getting older, just getting better." Of the 744 B-52s built, fewer than 100 remain in service, all H-models. The Boeing engineers had built a plane that was strong enough to last and basic enough to be adaptable to the changing technology of air war.
References and Further Reading:
Bowers, Peter M. Boeing Aircraft Since 1916. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1989.
Boyne, Walter J. Boeing B-52: a Documentary History. London; New York: Jane's, 1982.
Dorr, Robert F. and Peacock, Lindsey. B-52 Stratofortress: Boeing’s Cold War Warrior. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1995.
Lloyd, Alwyn. A Cold War Legacy: A Tribute to Strategic Air Command. Missoula, Mont.: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1999.
Redding, Robert and Yenne, Bill. Boeing: Planemaker to the World. San Diego, Cal.: Thunder Bay Press, 1997.
Rodgers, Eugene. Flying High: The Story of Boeing and the Rise of the Jetliner Industry. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996.
Serling, Robert. Legend and Legacy; The Story of Boeing and Its People. New York: St. Martin’s Press 1992.
Yenne, Bill. Legends of Flight. Lincolnwood, Ill.: Publications International, 1997.
Frontline on the Gulf War: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/gulf/weapons/b52.html
NASA B-52 Facts: http://www.dfrc.nasa.gov/PAO/PAIS/HTML/FS-005-DFRC.html
USAF B-52 Fact Sheet: http://www.af.mil/news/factsheets/B_52_Stratofortress.html