B-52s Still Dominate US Fleet After 60 Years

Glance down from the ageless expanse of blue sky into the cockpit of the Air force’s largest bomber, and the panorama is decidedly more dated — banks of steam gauges quiver above aluminum levers built during the Eisenhower administration, obsolete knobs and dials unused in decades gather dust. And much of the rest of the mammoth B-52 bomber is just as antiquated. Vacuum tubes have been replaced with microchips, and the once-standard ashtrays are gone. But eight engines along the wings still connect to the cockpit by yards of cables and pulleys, and the navigator often charts a course with a slide rule.

“It’s like stepping back in time,” said Capt. Lance Adsit, 28, the pilot. He banked left to start a mock bombing run, wrestling a control yoke forged decades before he was born. Time had stripped it entirely of paint. “I love the B-52,” Captain Adsit said. “But the fact that this is still flying is really insane.” A few minutes later, his onboard navigation computers crashed. The first B-52 bomber was built more than 60 years ago, but in the absence of a reliable replacement, the jets are still used by Air Force pilots today. The B-52 is an Air Force plane that refuses to die. Originally slated for retirement generations ago, it continues to be deployed in conflict after conflict. It dropped the first hydrogen bomb in the Bikini Islands in 1956, and laser-guided bombs in Afghanistan in 2006. It has outlived its replacement. And its replacement’s replacement. And its replacement’s replacement’s replacement.

Air Force commanders are now urging the Pentagon to deploy B-52s in Syria. “We’re ready, we’re hungry, we’re eager to be in the fight,” said Col. Kristin Goodwin, who commands the Second Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where about half of the bombers are based. Now in its 60th year of active service, the bomber is slow, primitive and weighed down by an infamy lingering from the carpet bombing of Vietnam in the 1960s. But 76 B-52s still make up the bulk of the United States’ long-range bomber fleet, and they are not retiring anytime soon. The next potential replacement — the Long Range Strike Bomber, which has yet to be designed — is decades away, so the B-52 is expected to keep flying until at least 2040. By then, taking one into combat will be the equivalent of flying a World War I biplane during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The unexpectedly long career is due in part to a rugged design that has allowed the B-52 to go nearly anywhere and drop nearly anything the Pentagon desires, including both atomic bombs and leaflets. But it is also due to the decidedly underwhelming jets put forth to take its place. The $283 million B-1B Lancer first rolled off the assembly line in 1988 with a state-of-the-art radar-jamming system that jammed its own radar. The $2 billion B-2 Spirit, introduced a decade later, had stealth technology so delicate that it could not go into the rain. “There have been a series of attempts to build a better intercontinental bomber, and they have consistently failed,” said Owen Coté, a professor of security studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Turns out whenever we try to improve on the B-52, we run into problems, so we still have the B-52.”

Officially, the B-52 is called the Stratofortress, but flight crews long ago nicknamed it the B.U.F.F. — a colorful acronym that the Air Force euphemistically paraphrases as Big Ugly Fat Fellow. Too outmoded to be a stealth bomber, the B-52 has become the anti-stealth bomber — a loud, obvious and menacing albatross. It has pummeled armored divisions in Iraq, and has laid thunderous walls of destruction over Taliban positions in Afghanistan. “The big plane was very good,” said one beaming Northern Alliance commander in 2001. In more recent years, it has flown only what the Air Force calls “assurance and deterrence” missions near North Korea and Russia. In 2013, when China claimed disputed airspace over the South China Sea, a pair of B-52s soared through in defiance. “The B.U.F.F. is like the rook in a chess game,” said Maj. Mark Burley, the co-pilot for the training mission over the Great Plains. “Just by how you position it on the board, it changes the posture of your adversary.”

But the usefulness of the large bomber — and bombers in general — has come under question in the modern era of insurgent wars and stateless armies. Even after millions of tons of bombs were dropped in far corners of the world, most foes targeted by the bomber, including those in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, ultimately prevailed. When the first of the top-secret jets rolled off the assembly line in 1954, the Air Force’s chief of staff proudly called it “the thing that’s going to keep that Red fellow in his place.” Throughout the 1950s, widespread fear of a “bomber gap” with the Soviet Union prompted the Air Force to churn out more than 740 of the swept-wing bombers at a then-unprecedented cost of around $8 million each. The last was built in 1962.

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The aging B-52s require intensive maintenance.

Even as the bombers were being assembled, defense officials were planning their replacement, but each plan was undone by its own complexity. First was a nuclear-powered bomber able to stay aloft for weeks (too radioactive), then the supersonic B-58 with dartlike wings (kept crashing), and then the even faster B-70 (spewed highly toxic exhaust). “This was high-tech, futuristic stuff, but because it was so futuristic, the projects ran into problems,” said Yancy Mailes, an Air Force historian. A front-page story in The New York Times in 1966 said all B-52s would need to retire by 1975 because they would “be too old to continue beyond that point.” But no viable alternative emerged.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan warned, “Many of our B-52 bombers are now older than the pilots who fly them.” Today, there is a B-52 pilot whose father and grandfather flew the plane. Reagan rushed production of the B-1, which was designed to fly fast and low beneath enemy defenses. It was expected to replace the B-52 in the 1990s, but in a prelude of future problems, the first B-1 unveiled in 1985, in front of a crowd of 30,000, failed to start. Design flaws and engine fires sidelined the plane during the Persian Gulf war and have limited its capabilities since.

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An instrument panel in a B-52. The next potential replacement for the bombers is still decades away, so the B-52 is expected to keep flying until at least 2040. Credit Edmund D. Fountain for

Next came the B-2 stealth bomber in 1997. But the B-2, with its delicate radar-evading coating, had to be stored in a climate-controlled hangar to be effective, and its sensors at first could not tell a storm cloud from a mountain. It soon became known as the $2 billion bomber. The B-52 became a technologically humble — but still frighteningly effective — stand-in. Although the fleet was designed as a nuclear retaliator, it began bombing the countryside of South Vietnam in 1965. Rebutting claims that B-52s were missing most of their targets, one pilot said at the time, “We’re doing a lot more than killing monkeys and making kindling wood out of the jungle.” A New York Times correspondent interviewing him marveled that the bombers were almost a decade old, “yet the mechanics keep them flying.”

In 1972, during the so-called Christmas bombing, wave after wave of B-52s destroyed sections of Hanoi in North Vietnam, killing hundreds of civilians and prompting nationwide protests and international condemnation. But the bombers were far from done. In the Persian Gulf war, Kosovo, Afghanistan and the Iraq war, the lumbering jets, well-established as a symbol of death and destruction, demoralized enemy ground troops by first dropping tons of leaflets with messages like “flee and live, or stay and die,” then returning the next day with tons of explosives.

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Maintenance at Barksdale Air Force Base. The B-52s now have computers, but pulleys still connect engines along the wings to the cockpit.

The Air Force is trying to change the image of the B-52 from indiscriminate carpet bomber to precision weapon. Laser-targeting pods attached to the wing of many of the bombers in recent years allow them to drop guided “smart” bombs. In recent years, the big bombers circling high above Afghanistan acted as close air support. “We’re as accurate as a fighter,” said Lt. Col. Sarah Hall, a B-52 pilot who flew missions over Afghanistan. “And sometimes just the sight of the B-52 is enough to end the fight. The enemy just takes off.” While its weaponry has been upgraded, the rest of the plane can look like a midcentury museum exhibit. Ground crews scouring the aging frames for rust often find graffiti in hidden nooks by previous generations — a recent discovery, perhaps commenting on the age of the planes, featured primitive cave-style animal paintings. However, despite intensive maintenance, the planes’ ages are starting to show. On a recent training flight out of Barksdale Air Force Base after three days of rain, leaks in a bomber left the seats soaked and the control panel glistening. One engine refused to start, then some wiring shorted. “This is really the full B.U.F.F. experience,” the co-pilot said with a patient grin as the maintenance crew scrambled to fix problems. “But once we get airborne, we’re usually O.K.”

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The bomb bay of a B-52 as the plane prepared to take off in October from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

A few minutes later, the bomber with a crew of five roared into the sky and banked toward its mock bombing target in Texas. In a dark den beneath the pilots, two weapons officers charted their position and calculated bomb runs. Among their tools: rulers and stopwatches. Halfway through the mission, their aging navigation system crashed. Then it crashed again. Lt. Nicole White, 31, a weapons officer with her hair in an unruly bun and an energy drink sitting next to her slide rule, called the pilot on the radio. “We have a computer that is potentially catawampus,” Lieutenant White said. “What does catawampus mean?” said Major Burley, the co-pilot, with a laugh. “Cray-cray,” she responded. For several minutes as the computer rebooted, the bomber flew, relying on its original 1950s technology of charted maps and line of sight.

Impressions of the bomber have proved almost as lasting as the jets themselves. At the entrance to Barksdale, a retired B-52 from Vietnam sits on display. On a sunny fall morning, a former officer from the South Vietnamese Navy named Phuoc Luong stood taking photos of his wife in front of the hulking plane, which had dropped tons of bombs on his country — bombs that still explode unexpectedly in farm fields, killing and maiming people 40 years after the war ended. Now 69 and retired, living in Massachusetts after fleeing his homeland in 1975, Mr. Luong, said he was not surprised to see B-52s still flying. “American technology is super,” he said. “It’s a great plane. In Vietnam we didn’t use it enough. That’s why we lost.”

Evolution of the B-52, From
Top-Secret Marvel to Flying Fossil

The B-52 bomber is the longest-serving United States military aircraft. In its 60 years of service as a nuclear bomber, it became a symbol of both dread and assurance — it was the thing that could end civilization and would prevent the end from occurring. Although it never fought in the nuclear war it was designed for, it has fought in nearly every other war since its creation.

1948

After the Air Force announces that it wants its next bomber to be a jet, Boeing engineers quickly redesign its latest propeller bomber over a weekend in a hotel room, producing a 33-page proposal and a sweptwing balsa wood model that becomes the United States Air Force’s most enduring plane. After testing, the first B-52 enters service in 1955.

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Boeing engineers George Schairer, left, Vaughn Blumenthal, Maynard Pennell, Ed Wells and Art Carlson discussed the design of the B-52, which entered service in 1955.

1956

A B-52 drops the first hydrogen bomb from a plane in a test over the Bikini Islands. Though the bomb misses the target by four miles, the plane gets away safely and the 4-megaton explosion is hailed a success.

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A hydrogen bomb lit the sky a few seconds after it was released over Bikini Atoll on May 21, 1956.

1960

B-52s begin 24-hour nuclear deterrent flights across the globe, with several nuclear-armed bombers in the air at all times. In the next year, two B-52s crash carrying nuclear bombs, one in California and one in North Carolina. Safety systems keep the bombs from detonating, though later investigations suggest that most of the safeguards failed.

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The 6-man crew of a Strategic Air Command B-52 Stratofortress bomber participated in a practice alert in 1960.

1965

B-52s begin bombing enemy positions in South Vietnam, trading their nuclear mission for carpet bombing runs over the jungle. They dropped mile-long walls of explosions so powerful that they were felt in Saigon.

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A B-52 Stratofortress dropped a string of 750-pound bombs over a coastal target in Vietnam in October 1965. Credit United States Air Force

1968

After two more nuclear-armed B-52s crash, scattering radioactive debris over sites in Spain and Greenland, the Air Force ends continuous flights of nuclear-armed B-52s. Crews are instead put on 24-hour ground alert.

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Wreckage of a B-52 bomber near Palomares, Spain, in January 1966.

1972

More than 100 B-52s bomb North Vietnam during the so-called Christmas bombing in December. The attacks, which level swaths of Hanoi and kill hundreds of residents, are meant to push the North Vietnamese into peace negotiations. North Vietnamese troops shoot down 15 B-52s during the 12-day campaign. A peace accord is signed a month later.

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Vietnamese people carried victims of the American air raids on Hanoi and North Vietnam in December 1972.

1991

After the fall of the Soviet Union, B-52s are taken off nuclear alert for the first time in decades. As part of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, the Air Force publicly cuts the wings off 365 bombers. Most of the remaining B-52s are switched to a conventional mission and begin completing bomb runs over Iraq during the Persian Gulf war.

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A B-52 took off from R.A.F. Fairford in England in February 1991.

2001

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, B-52s fly over Afghanistan, dropping laser-guided bombs and long strands of gravity bombs on Taliban forces. The planes stay in the region, providing close air support, until 2006. The big bombers also destroy enemy positions during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

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Eastern Shura fighters watched as B-52s bombed an area of the Tora Bora mountain region in Afghanistan in December 2001.

2015

B-52s regularly fly what the Air Force calls “assurance and deterrence” missions near Russian and Chinese airspace, acting as a loud and visible reminder of the United States’ military might.

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A B-52 bomber in October at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where about half of the Air Force’s bombers are based.

[Source: New York Times | Dave Philipps | December 5, 2015 ++]