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B-52: The Legendary Air Force Bomber That Broke All the Rules

B-52 Bomber
A U.S. Air Force B-52H Stratofortress, assigned to the 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, deployed from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., approaches the flightline at Royal Australian Air Force Base Darwin, Australia, April 6, 2018. Two U.S. Air Force bombers visited the base in Australia’s Northern Territory to support the U.S. Pacific Command's Enhanced Air Cooperation initiative in cooperation with RAAF joint terminal attack controller teams. The EAC comprises a range of air exercises and training activities designed to enhance regional cooperation, coordination and interoperability between Australian and U.S. service members.

B-52, just say it out loud. The B-52 Stratofortress is a legend of the Cold War and despite its age keeps on flying and deterring America’s enemies. And while the plane is not stealthy, it can carry a heck of a lot of weapons. America’s Boeing B-52 Stratofortress sometimes referred to as the BUFF, has been around for a long time. As one of America’s three heavy-payload strategic bombers and one of only two bombers capable of deploying nuclear weapons, the mighty BUFF represents the nation’s nuclear triad’s most prominent airborne leg. If the world were going to end in nuclear hellfire, the B-52 would be right in the thick of it.

But this massive aircraft isn’t relegated to apocalypse duty. In just the past two months, B-52s have been dispatched to fly long-range deterrence missions, from the U.S. to the Middle East and back, meant to remind Iran that America’s bombers can strike anywhere in the world without breaking a sweat. B-52s participate in conventional strike missions with great aplomb, using their significant range and massive payload capacity to deliver ordinance of all sorts, from unguided bombs to strategically placed Naval mines. In short, wherever there’s a fight, you can count on the B-52 to be up for it.

In today’s world full of sleek and stealthy fighters and increasingly intelligent drones, the ol’ BUFF may seem like a relic of the past, but this flying dinosaur still has some pretty impressive tricks up its sleeve.

B-52: It was designed in a single “Dayton” weekend

Boeing’s original design for a long-range, heavy payload strategic bomber shared a number of traits with the bombers that had come before it… particularly in the engine department. Their B-52 design called for the use of four massive turboprop engines, despite the introduction of (pretty inefficient) jet engines some ten years prior. Jet engines, at the time, were just seen as too fuel-hungry to offer the range this new bomber would require.

But when Boeing presented their to design to U.S. Air Force Colonel Pete Warden one Friday afternoon, he told them to get rid of the props or he’d reject their proposal outright. With the future of military aviation and a whole lot of money on the line, Boeing’s design team said they’d be back on Monday and proceeded to lock themselves in a hotel room in nearby Dayton, Ohio to get to work.

Somehow, Boeing’s aeronautical designers George Schairer, Vaughn Blumenthal, Maynard Pennell, Ed Wells, Art Carlson, and Bob Whittington, managed to design a new bomber based on Warden’s notes, and they returned with a 33-page proposal for what would become the B-52. They had even managed to build a scale model of the design using parts they purchased from a local hobby store. The first B-52 would take to the skies just four years later. Little did they realize, their hurried creation was one of the most forward-reaching aircraft designs of the era.

“Essentially, they discovered the perfect form of the subsonic jet,” Michael Lombardi, Boeing’s corporate historian, said. “Airbus, Boeing, any other company, it’s the basic form they follow.”

B-52s shot down two enemy fighters in Vietnam

The B-52 has been in service for so long that it used to have a tail gunner just like the bombers of World War II. Today, the U.S. uses fighter escorts to deter or defend against attacking fighters, but the mighty BUFF was still shooting down bad guys as recently as the Vietnam War.

Two U.S. Air Force B-52Ds scored kills against Vietnamese MiG-21s in December of 1972, with the final kill taking place on Christmas Eve. The air war over Vietnam was tougher on American forces than many realize today, and more than 30 B-52s were shot down by enemy aircraft throughout the conflict. When tail gunner Airman 1st Class Albert Moore spotted an incoming MiG while aboard his aircraft called “Diamond Lil,” survival was less than assured. If Moore couldn’t down the fighter with his .50-caliber machine gun, being shot down was a real possibility.

“When the target got to 2,000 yards, I notified the crew that I was firing. I fired at the bandit until it ballooned to 3 times in intensity then suddenly disappeared from my radar scope at approximately 1,200 yards, 6:30 low. I expended 800 rounds in 3 bursts.”

The B-52’s ejection system spits crew out above and below the aircraft

When people think of ejection seats, they usually picture one or two crew members ejecting upward through the canopy of their fighter jet. The B-52, however, carries a crew of six on two levels within the fuselage, making upward ejection impossible for the two crew members on the lower deck.

As a result, the B-52 has a unique ejection apparatus that includes a self-contained ejection system for each crew member, with individual hatches for a hasty departure. Four crew members, including the pilot and co-pilot, eject up out the aircraft as you’d imagine, but the navigator and radar navigator who ride in the lower deck are shot out beneath the aircraft.

The B-52 will probably be in service for a hundred years

The B-52 airframe has seen repeated updates and upgrades over the years, allowing the “Stratosaurus” to keep pace or even outmatch more modern bombers. In fact, both the B-1B Lancer and B-2 Spirit were designed and unveiled during the B-52’s tenure, and both are now slated for retirement. The B-52, on the other hand, is expected to stay in service in one form or another all the way to 2060.

Seeing as the B-52 first flew in 1952 and then entered service in 1955, that means these massive bombers will have been in the sky for a hundred years before Uncle Sam finally puts them out to pasture. That longevity is an incredible testament to the aircraft’s original design and the subsequent efforts to keep the mighty BUFF as mighty as it needs to be.

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University. This first appeared in Sandboxx news.

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Sandboxx News is a digital and print military media outlet focused on the lives, experiences, and challenges facing today’s service members and America’s defense apparatus. Built on the simple premise that service members and their supporters need a reliable news outlet free of partisan politics and sensationalism, Sandboxx News delivers stories from around the world and insights into the U.S. Military’s past, present, and future– delivered through the lens of real veterans, service members, military spouses, and professional journalists.

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. william cronin

    June 27, 2022 at 9:07 am

    The Buff was never shot down by enemy aircraft in Vietnam. It was Sam’s or AAA that took them down.

  2. Divia

    June 27, 2022 at 10:20 am

    BUFF
    Big
    Ugly
    Fat
    Fellow (G rated version)

  3. Jakee308

    June 27, 2022 at 2:05 pm

    It’s the robust and well assembled airframe that has allowed the B52 to last so long thru so many upgrades. That’s why the 747 lasted as long as it has and those planes will be flying into the 22nd century. One key factor is a design that allows easy inspection and repair before damage takes hold. Aluminum “rusts”in a manner like steel. It oxidizes and weakens the metal at vital joints. Repair can stop that and maintain the strength of the airframe.

  4. douglas lamoureaux

    June 27, 2022 at 2:08 pm

    The B-52 was designed at a time when long range was accomplished by sleakness, not by using fuel efficient engines. New engines burn half as much fuel per mile could easily turn the airplane into one capable of flying to any target in the world unrefueled, if only they can solve the engine failure problem. Split trailing edge flaps on the outboard part of the wing, similar to those used on the B-2, would give much needed additional lateral control.

  5. Frank

    June 27, 2022 at 2:47 pm

    Old radar navigator. 4 turbo fans and cruise missles will keep it going til 2070. The old beer can radar system was better during EPMs than the new system.

  6. Geeboi

    June 27, 2022 at 6:21 pm

    Are any parts on the B52 considered original, or has everything been replaced over years?

  7. Stoney

    June 27, 2022 at 10:43 pm

    I’d like to have a moratorium on the phrase “that broke all the rules.” So far I’ve seen four different stories today about four different aircraft that all say they broke all the rules.

  8. B

    June 28, 2022 at 2:33 pm

    Could you please knock it off with the “broke all the rules” headlines for every story? Super click-baity.

  9. Randy Mineard

    June 29, 2022 at 10:51 am

    As a former Crew chief on B52G models. These aircraft are robust, strong and pretty easy to maintain. The first one I crewed was built 10 years before I was born. Now the G has since been retired. Love these big ugly fat fellows!

  10. Olga

    June 30, 2022 at 7:05 am

    Putin says BATO keep tops on would be scary sight,well he should have heeded his own advice he should have been named FLABBAMIR Putin he has more fat on show the a butchers shop ,he has a chest like a fucking jelly his upper body has more fat creases in it than a Chinese telephone book has Chins in it, must be from wrestling all those doped gorillas and bears.what does Putin and a Polar Bear have in common incidendtly? THEY BOTH HAVE BLUE HELMETS.

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