B-52: Perennial Warrior

A Golden Anniversary For A Warrior Worth Its Weight In Gold

boeing b-52

By Walter J. Boyne

April 15, 2002 will mark the golden anniversary of the Boeing B-52 Stratofortess bomber. Just fifty years before, at Boeing Field, Seattle, the second prototype YB-52, serial number 49-0231, took off for the first time. No one, not its designers nor even its pilots, “Tex” Johnson and Lieutenant Colonel Guy W. Townsend, could ever have anticipated that the gigantic eight-engine bomber would serve so well, so long, or be adapted to so many missions.

The B-52 began projecting global airpower with its epic non-stop round-the-world flight of three aircraft in January 1957, and continues to do so today with thirty-five hour combat missions. As sterling as the original B-52 design was, its enduring success has depended entirely upon the talented human resources that built, flew, maintained and modified it over the decades.

Called to combat once again in the war against terrorism, the B-52 not only continues in the front line of service in a variety of roles, its career is assured for twenty and perhaps more years into the future. The unbelievable longevity of the B-52 is matched by its versatility. It was originally designed to be a high altitude bomber, capable of overpowering Soviet defenses by speed and electronic countermeasures to deliver gravity bombs of up to nine megatons. When Soviet air defenses improved, the B-52 broke new ground by carrying Hound Dog stand-off missiles designed to suppress enemy defenses. However, when the effectiveness of Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) was demonstrated with the downing of Gary Power’s U-2, the B-52 adopted new tactics, evading enemy radar by skimming the terrain at 300 feet or less. Almost intolerable stresses were placed on the airframe and the crews in this flight regime, but the rugged B-52 just flexed its wings and pressed on with its nuclear mission. Along the way, the B-52 was tasked with innumerable missions never envisioned, including photo-reconnaissance of Soviet shipping, carrying anti-shipping guided missiles and launching high speed reconnaissance drones.

boeing b-52

The Vietnam War brought another significant change. Part of the B-52 force was still SAC’s long rifle, aimed at the heart of the Soviet Union, but in Southeast Asia, the big bombers became flying artillery, backing up the ground forces whenever needed. Crews trained in long-range nuclear penetration tactics now became the arbiters of the battlefield, called on by commanders for close–very close–air support.

After the Vietnam War, the B-52 was modified to handle new weapon systems, including far more sophisticated air-launched cruise missiles and precision guided munitions, while retaining its ability to crush ground forces with tons of World War II type bombs. The B-52s’ defensive capability received comparable upgrades so that even in an age of stealth it continues to play a commanding combat role.

Both the longevity and the versatility of the B-52 came about in great part from the foresight of General Curtis E. LeMay, despite tight budgets and the growing importance of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs.) When offered a modified B-47 design that met most of the requirements for the proposed B-52 mission at far lower cost, LeMay declined angrily, insisting that he wanted an aircraft large enough to accommodate later developments, particularly in electronic counter-measures equipment. In essence, General LeMay had defined a new age in airpower, when aircraft were to be seen as “platforms” able to be modified over the years to take the systems that new weapons and new missions demanded. There were the usual protests at the time over the high unit cost of the aircraft ($27.0 million for the prototypes, falling to $3.8 million for the G model), but no one could have guessed that the costs would be amortized over a half a century of service.

Given the nickname “Buff” early on (for Big Ugly Fat Fellow-or something) the B-52’s first mission was important enough to have earned its place in history if it never had another. LeMay assigned it the task of deterring war by making SAC so strong that the Soviet Union would not dare launch a first strike on the United States or its allies. The quick response capability of the B-52 and the undeniable skill of its flight crews were made obvious to the Cold War enemy by constant exercises and record setting flights.

boeing b-52

SAC and the B-52s succeeded in that mission, and never more memorably during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. As Nikita Khrushchev revealed in his memoirs, the presence of nuclear-armed B-52s on orbit outside the borders of the USSR made him first think -and then blink.

As with many B-52 operations, the reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis had its (retrospectively) lighter moments. Roger Ferguson, a navigator, recalls that the mission briefings were deadly serious and that plans called for B-52s entering Soviet air space at a given point every twelve minutes. Security was airtight, but when Ferguson’s crew raced out to their loaded B-52 to launch, they were forced to hit the deck, spread-eagled, by an eager rifle-toting airman when the aircraft commander forgot the countersign. It was funny-but not until much later.

Development and Production

There are many apocryphal stories about aircraft being designed on the back of envelopes but it is absolutely true that the original design for what became the B-52 was created over one weekend in the Van Cleve Hotel in Dayton, Ohio. On Thursday, 22 October 1948, a group of highly talented Boeing engineers, including Edward C. Wells, George Schairer, H.W. Withington, Vaughn Blumenthal, Art Carlsen and Maynard Pennell were gathered to present the latest version of a swept-wing turbo-prop bomber design to Colonel Henry E. “Pete “Warden, a project officer at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Unknown to them, and acting on his own authority, Warden had been urging Pratt & Whitney to develop the J57 jet engine. Warden suggested to the Boeing engineers that they scrub the turbo-prop bomber and come up with a swept-wing pure jet engine aircraft using the J57.

The Boeing engineers were not exactly starting at ground zero. They had learned much from the six jet engine, swept-wing Boeing B-47 and were aware that major improvements in in-flight refueling systems were on the way, including what would become the KC-135 jet tanker and the Boeing flying boom in-flight refueling system. They notified Warden that they would be ready with a presentation on Monday morning, and by working continuously, with plenty of telephone calls to Seattle, they succeeded. In addition to three-view drawings and a thirty-five page proposal, they presented a silver balsa wood model of the new bomber, carved by Ed Wells himself.

The proposed aircraft bristled with advances over the B-47. The earlier aircraft had a thin, narrow-chord wing , bicycle landing gear and a structure designed using World War II criteria. The B-52’s huge wing had 4,000 square feet of wing-area and was still flexible enough to deflect through a thirty-two foot arc. It had a clever and top-secret cross-wind main landing gear that allowed landing in winds up to a direct cross wind of 43 knots. It also made use of the most modern construction techniques available.

boeing b-52

The YB-52 was the first to fly because the XB-52 had suffered damage during a full pressure test of its pneumatic system that ripped out the trailing edge of the wing. Production approval preceded the first flight, however, and an initial thirteen B-52As were ordered on 14 February 1951. These differed from the prototype aircraft in a number of ways, the most obvious being a change from the tandem B-47 style cockpit arrangement into conventional side-by-side seating for the pilots. Only three B-52A models were built, the remaining ten being completed as RB-52Bs. (The RB-52 was a dual role aircraft, designed to have a reconnaissance capability gained from a two-man pressurized capsule installed in the bomb-bay.) The third of the A models, 52-003, would have a distinguished career as a mother-ship for the North American X-15 and many other test vehicles. Designated NB-52A, it served until almost 1970 and is now at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona.

The first operational aircraft was an RB-52B, (54-8711) which was delivered to the 93rd Bomb Wing (H) by its commander, Brigadier General William E. Eubank, Jr., on 29 June, 1955. The 93rd maintained its place in the war plan while transitioning from B-47s to B-52s, and at the same time establishing the 4017th Combat Crew Training Squadron for B-52 crew training.

The author was flying B-47s at Castle then, and the sight of the first operational B-52 coming in to land brought mixed emotions. It was a beautiful airplane, but the minimum flying time to qualify for even a copilot position was 1,000 hours, and I was far short of that. As partial compensation, we junior pilots often flew a Lockheed T-33 as chase aircraft on early B-52 missions. During one of these, the right out-rigger gear of a landing B-52 failed to extend. After exhausting all the in-flight emergency procedures, the tip gear stayed up and the Buff came in to land. Determined that no incident would occur, General Eubank was driven in a jeep along side the landing aircraft, and personally grabbed the wing tip to make sure that it did not touch the ground.

The B-52C, D, E and F models that followed in quick succession were very similar in external appearance and differed primarily in the engine series, fuel capacity and the bomb-navigation and fire control systems. The D model was the first to be built at Boeing’s Wichita plant. Throughout 1965, only B-52Fs were used in Vietnam. The B-52F maximum bomb load was fifty-one 750-pound bombs, twenty-seven carried internally and twenty-four on pylons. The demand for B-52 bombing sorties became so great that the entire B-52D fleet was prepared for conventional warfare by a high-density bombing system modification called “Big Belly.” The bomb-bay capacity was increased to forty-two for 750 pound bombs and to eighty-four for 500 pound bombs. It could still carry twenty-four bombs externally, for a maximum bomb load, internal and external of 108 bombs. The nuclear bombing capability was retained.

The B-52 G and H models differed significantly in appearance from their predecessors, having a shorter vertical fin and rudder. The G was designed especially for flight at low levels, and was considered by pilots to be more difficult to fly than others in the series because the ailerons had been removed, and lateral control was by spoilers only. Unlike all previous models, which used conventional fuel bladders, both the G and the H models had wet-wing fuel tanks, greatly increasing their internal capacity. This was a disadvantage in combat, for during Linebacker operations, fifteen B-52Ds were hit by SAMs but were still able to land at friendly bases. More vulnerable because of the wet wing, all but one of the B-52Gs hit by SAMs crashed.

The H-model was modified to be easier to control, and was easily distinguished by powerful new TF33 turbofan engines that offered thirty percent more power than those of the G model. The 744th and last B-52, an H model, was delivered on 26 October 1962. The B-52H is now the only Buff in active service, and indeed defines the versatility of the basic design. The B-52H has been modified to accept the new AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW) and AGM-158A Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff (JASSM) weapons, upgraded AGM-86C Conventional Air Launch Cruise Missiles (CALCMs), and its offensive avionics system is getting new computers. The old Inertial Navigation System is being upgraded with the Ring Laser Gyro INS, and the electronic counter-measures equipment is getting color-touch-screen technology.

The build-up in numbers of the B-52 came as SAC was in a period of profound transition. In 1958, the B-47s had reached a peak with 1,367 in operation, but their numbers declined rapidly thereafter, and all were out of operational use by 1965. While original plans had called for a fleet of only 282 B-52 aircraft, the demand built steadily and by 1962 there were no less than 639 B-52s operational. As the B-47 and B-36 units converted to B-52s, there were some unusual personnel problems. With the change-over, some combat crews with years of service together and many with individuals who had earned spot promotions, were broken up and the spot promotions lost. (Some especially skilled crew members had “spots on spots”-two spot promotions. When the spots were taken away, Lieutenant Colonels reverted to Captains overnight. ) As a result, there were often unseemly scrambles among aircraft commanders to select the best talent for their new crews. In SAC, promotions depended in great part upon crew performance, and every new B-52 crew wanted the best people at each of the six positions: aircraft commander, pilot, radar/navigator (essentially, the bombardier), navigator, electronic-warfare officer (EWO) and gunner. (A great and honorable tradition ended in 1991, when the gunner’s position was eliminated from the B-52, a victim of new technology which made aerial gunnery passé. )

boeing b-52

Introducing the B-52 meant far more than crews learning to fly a new aircraft. The wingspan of 185 feet and a gross weight reaching 488,000 pounds on later models meant that new runways, taxiways, hangars, refueling facilities and maintenance docks had to be provided at many bases. The planning problem was increased in 1957, when the perceived threat of Soviet missiles made it imperative to disperse B-52s to a larger number of bases to make enemy targeting more difficult. By 1 October 1963, there were forty-two squadrons of B-52s stationed at thirty-eight bases. The dispersal made it easier for SAC to try to reach its goal of having one-third of its force on ground alert at all times, but imposed severe problems on training, maintenance and logistics.

SAC was without question the most influential component of the United States’ armed forces, and it routinely received a large share of the military budget. But even a large budget and good management could not solve all the problems, and the usual last resort was to take a solution out of the hides of the crews. The alert system was one of these last resorts, intended to solve the problem of maintaining a large proportion of the force instantly ready for war.

While the alert system was undeniably effective, it was also cruel to family life. The ordinary working week averaged sixty to eighty hours, and there were lots of Temporary Duty (TDY) separations. The alert system added to the hardships. Sometimes the stress of life in SAC became too much and divorces resulted, but for the most part, the wives and children pulled their “tours of duty” with the same courage as did the crew-members.

Under the alert concept introduced on October 1, 1957, the B-52s were required to get airborne within fifteen minutes of the order to take off. At the time, it was widely accepted that the U.S.S.R. had a great advantage in ballistic missiles that could strike U.S. targets thirty minutes after being fired. With immediate warning, a fifteen-minute alert meant that the B-52s would just have time to get off to retaliate for the missile attack.

Crews on alert status were expected to remain together and in close enough proximity to the aircraft to make the fifteen-minute schedule. Aircraft were “cocked”, i.e. ready for engine start, and experienced crews could have the engines running within two minutes after the alarm and be taxiing within five minutes.

One of the unacknowledged problems of the alert was unique in warfare for an enemy attack meant that the families were more in danger than were the warriors. If an actual enemy ICBM attack was imminent, the crews would takeoff to retalitate. The chances were that they would return from the combat mission, only to find that they had lost their families to the enemy attack. There were evacuation plans but Civil Defense was never really embraced by the United States as it had been in the Soviet Union. Tension remained high throughout the Cold War despite the frequency of training alerts, for the crews never knew which one might be the real thing.

The routine and schedule of alert duty varied from base to base and over time, but a crew might expect to pull one-week of alert out of the month, in addition to all their other many training requirements. In the early days, the “alert shacks” were improvised, but later they were well built and relatively comfortable. In their “free” moments the crews could use the usually Spartan recreational facilities or work on correspondence courses, but much of the time was spent in studying their Positive Control Procedures and their specific war plan mission The crews had to be as concerned about Positive Control Procedures and the associated paperwork as they were about the war plan mission, for any failure with the procedures-or loss of the paperwork-meant serious disciplinary action.

The B-52 did not go to war for more than ten years after it entered service but its entry into the Vietnam War would have a drastic impact on SAC’s ability to maintain a substantial percentage of its force on alert.

boeing b-52

The Buff at War.

The Buff entered combat from Andersen Air Base, Guam, on June 18, 1965 when thirty B-52Fs of the 7th and 320th Bomb Wings were ordered to attack Viet Cong forces about forty miles north of Saigon in the very first Arc Light operation. The results were tragically disappointing. Two B-52s were lost in a mid-air collision during a 360-degree timing adjustment turn. Eight crewmembers, including a general officer, lost their lives. A third aircraft was diverted. The remaining twenty-seven dropped their bombs on an area that the Viet Cong had just vacated.

Despite the inauspicious beginning, the Arc Light campaign proved to be so invaluable that the demand for sorties went up from an initial rate of 300 per month at the beginning of 1966 to a peak of 3,150 in 1972, in the successful effort to contain the North Vietnamese spring offensive. The effectiveness of the force was enhanced with the introduction of the B-52D as the standard bomber and the introduction of the Combat Skyspot radar-assisted ground-directed bombing system. U Tapao Royal Thai Naval Air Base was brought into operation, enabling missions with greatly reduced en-route times. Sorties were extended beyond Vietnam to Laos and Cambodia. The strategic nuclear bomber had been turned into a flexible, on call tactical bomb delivery system.

The B-52 distinguished itself many times during the Vietnam War, but two efforts stand out above all. The first is the battle of Khe Sanh, where new tactics devastated the North Vietnamese besiegers in 2,548 sorties that dropped 59,542 tons of bombs, and in the words of General Westmoreland “broke the back” of enemy resistance.

The second was Operation Linebacker II, when in twelve days, B-52s totally smashed the defenses of Hanoi and Haiphong and forced the North Vietnamese to return to the negotiating tables in Paris. The B-52 flew 729 out of 741 planned sorties, dropped 15,000 tons of bombs and lost fifteen aircraft-about two percent of the force. The action proved that the B-52, supported by tactical air assets, could meet and defeat the enemy. The results have caused many to wonder what the world might be like if the B-52s had been unleashed in 1965, when the target areas were virtually undefended.

The story of Linebacker II has been told many times, but the cold statistics conceal the human drama faced by every crew on every mission. Lieutenant Colonel George Larson has provided the following interview with Major John Wise, 28th Bombardment Wing, to give some insight into just how demanding the missions were and how harrowing they could be.

“I flew my 295th combat mission on December 27, 1972. We were to attack the Van Dien Supply Area. We were Ash Cell. I flew Ash 02, aircraft No. 56-05999, not a good position to be in, because the North Vietnamese were using the lead aircraft to set up on the following cell’s aircraft. At the IP, I believe there were five to six SA-2 fired at us. At bombs away, we were level for dropping our bombs, which were salvoed in 1.5 seconds. I put the B-52D into a 90 degree wing over when (wham!) we were hit in the left side (wing.) All four engines on that side were finished. There were lights blinking all over the cockpit. We were later told by USAF intelligence that the fatal hit was from SAM Site VN 549.

All the crew was O.K. We had no engine power on the left side. It was 250 miles to reach friendly territory. Aircraft control was terrible, trying to make course on an exit heading to U-Tapao. We were at 30,000 feet, and as the aircraft slowed, I would dive down, picking up speed, slowly climbing, but not making up all lost altitude. I could only steer a course of 190 degrees, but we were getting out of the North by using this roller coaster maneuver. However, we were slowly losing precious altitude.

We crossed the 15,000 foot altitude bailout decision point, but I looked down and there were lights. These lights were coming from a fire-fight below, between Communist troops and U.S. backed forces in Laos. I decided we would not jump into the middle of a war. We crossed the Me Kong river at 12,000 feet, all the time keeping in constant communications with the Air Force rescue helicopters then airborne.

We had been in the air nearly 45 minutes after being hit by the SAM and it was time to bail out. I called the gunner to go first. However, unknown to me at the time, the gunner did not go out on the first try, requiring a second attempt. The gunner eventually went. The navigator attempted to go, trying to blow the hatch below, but it did not open, probably jammed from the SAM hit in the left wing. The radar navigator ejected. I told the navigator to jump out the open radar navigator’s hatch. The EWO then ejected. Well, the navigator’s microphone pulled loose as he jumped and I did not know he had gone. I told the co-pilot to eject and (boom) he was gone, filling the cockpit with insulation. I kept calling the navigator. I was not going to eject until I knew he had gone safely out of the wounded bomber. At 3,000 feet, I heard the Air Force rescue boys indicate that it was time for me to get out of the aircraft. Well, (boom) the hatch above me was gone and then I squeezed the ejection handle. Then, up and out I went. I was uncertain if I would separate from the seat. However, once in the wind, the seat was gone and I was floating free. The chute opened with a jerk. I looked down to see the bomber hit the ground with a huge fire ball, turning night into day.”

All six crewmembers of Ash 02 survived and were picked up. Their outstanding professionalism and heroism under fire was matched many times by the 126,615 sorties flown during eight years of Arc Light, as the B-52 grew from a desperation weapon, thrown in when there was nothing else, to become the final instrument of the war.

boeing b-52

After Vietnam, the B-52s returned to service in the Cold War. As the years passed, attrition and economics pared the B-52 fleet down until by 1991, only B-52Gs and Hs remained in service, with the exception of an NB-52B serving as mother plane at Edwards Air Force Base.

Operation Desert Shield called the old warrior into action once more, with about eighty B-52Gs operating from the United States and four overseas locations including Diego Garcia, Moron, Spain, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and, briefly, from RAF Fairford, United Kingdom. History was made when on January 17, 1991, when seven B-52Gs from the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana completed the longest combat mission in history-thirty-five hours-attacking Iraqi targets with thirty-five AGM-86B CALCMs. Post-strike reconnaissance revealed that 33 CALCMs found their target.

The B-52 missile attack was followed up with the first low-level combat attack in SAC history. After three decades of practice, B-52 swept in at less than 300 feet above the ground to bomb four Iraqi airfields and an important highway. Then, after these glamorous forays, it was back to text-book duties from the Vietnam War era, with three-ship cells of B-52s bombing from above 30,000 feet. The B-52s would put down about 150 bombs in a devastating tight pattern that killed troops in the target area and demoralized those adjacent to it. The B-52s were assigned other missions as well, but the main thrust of their attacks was the decimation of Iraqi troops with conventional M117 750 pound bombs and cluster bomb units. All told, the Buffs flew more than 1,600 sorties and dropped more than 25,000 tons of ordnance. No B-52s were lost to enemy action, but one crashed in the Indian Ocean on its way back to Diego Garcia, with the loss of three crewmembers.

The Buff, now a hardened combat veteran, returned to war in February, 1999, in Operation Noble Anvil, the U.S. portion of Operation Allied Force. Aircraft were sent first from Barksdale Air Force Base, LA and later from Minot AFB, ND. Combat operations began in late march, with six B-52s launching CALCMs. Heavy raids by B-52s on Yugoslav Army units in Kosovo helped precipitate a peace agreement between NATO and Serbia on 9 June. In the process, B-52s had flown 270 sorties and dropped 11,000 bombs.

After fifty years and hundreds of thousands of sorties, B-52 crews have lots of tales to tell, ranging from the hair-raising (landings with four engines out on one side) to the ribald (blowing over a privy when taking off from U-Tapoa.). No matter what the subject is, however, the story is always filled with affection for an airplane that just keeps going on, year after year, decade after decade, always taking on new tasks, and always on the first team.

Reprinted, Courtesy of Aviation History Magazine & Flying With Walter Boyne.