Air University Review, November-December 1982

The B-52 Story


Walter J. Boyne

The Boeing B-52 has been around so long and has become so familiar that we sometimes forget just how remarkable an airplane it is. There are some obvious things to note, and surely its longevity, performance, and adaptability stand out.

First flown in 1952, the B-52 is expected to be in service until the 1990s and perhaps even longer. By historical analogy the 1905 Wright Flyer would have been fighting over Berlin in 1945, a 1918 Spad XIII would have defended NATO in 1958, a 1927 Keystone bomber would have operated in Vietnam, or a 1942 Martin Maryland would be pulling SAC alert duty today.

Many factors have contributed to the aircraft’s longevity, though ultimately it was neither speed nor altitude but rather electronic countermeasures that offered safety. The B-52 had sufficient space in the airframe to carry the myriad black boxes that were developed for it. A smaller airplane, less clean, not so strong, could not have accommodated the changes and could not have survived in today’s environment. The B-58 was phased out in part because of these considerations.

And, of course, there was the seemingly endless series of modifications, which strengthened the B-52 and improved its capability year-by-year. Yet most people are unaware that these modifications took place. To the casual observer, a B-52H is not very different in appearance from a B-52A. But not only are there changes under the skin—the skin itself has been changed, with new metals of different gauges being introduced.

Even today, the B-52 has an excellent performance, whether in speed (still comparable to the most modern subsonic aircraft), in range (which even unrefueled is extraordinary), or in bomb- and missile-carrying capability. Boeing, in this first attempt at a very heavy subsonic jet bomber, did better than anyone has been able to do since and achieved this first-time-at-bat success because of a number of subtle factors. First was Boeing’s extensive bomber-building experience with B-17s, B-29s, B-50s, and, most of all, B-47s. Second, Boeing dared to go big enough; instead of opting for a smaller aircraft that could barely have met minimum mission requirements, Boeing insisted on selling the Air Force a plane that required new runways, new hangars, new nav-bomb gear, new systems, and new methods.

In so doing, Boeing provided the Air Force an airplane that had enormous growth potential. Much of the credit for the very large airframe must also go to General Curtis LeMay, who resolutely refused to reengine and modify the B-47 so that it could be stretched to equal the B-52’s initial performance. LeMay had the foresight to want the capability to which the aircraft could be extended ten years in the future and for which the needs were not yet known. He asked Pratt & Whitney to develop the J57 turbine engine especially for the B-52 instead of the turboprop on which the company had lavished so much time.

Boeing sought to meet LeMay’s needs by insisting on totally new concepts in subsystems, also. The Seattle-based firm responded also by changing from the thin-wing philosophy of the B-47 to the thick wing of the B-52. As a result of these combined efforts, the B-52 reached a performance level that Soviet Bears, Bisons, and Vulcans would never approach.

The B-52 started life as a high-level, nuclear gravity-fall bomber. It has become, successively, a brawling low-level intruder, capable of blasting a nuclear lane to the target; a conventional iron bomb dropper; a standoff missile launcher; a maritime surveillance aircraft; and, always, the proudest flag shower in history.

Boeing and the Air Force have elicited almost half a century of widely varied service from the Buf* by masterful planning. Like Super Bowl coaches, they have monitored the competitive threat and planned far ahead for circumstances so that the basic capability could always be enhanced to meet the new requirement Is low-level penetration going to be required by a certain date? Then there must be equipment instrumentation, and techniques available by that date. This sort of preparation is far more than a simple engineering task: the threat must be anticipated; the counter developed; the Air Force, Office of Management and Budget, and Congress persuaded that the development has a priority claim on funding; the equipment procured, tested, and installed—all to meet a critical need date.

* Originally an acronym for Big Ugly Fellow.

Is it necessary to carry far more 500- and 750-pound bombs than had been planned? Then the funds and planning for a tremendous modification program have to be provided. Has the age and change of flight regimes caused fleet-wide problems of structural fatigue? Then the fix must be engineered, the modification kit provided, the work accomplished, yet all the while retaining fleet capability.

To use these changes intelligently, it was necessary to create massive training programs to match them. Air and ground crews became more sophisticated just as the aircraft did but with the important difference that while the airplane remained through one modification after another, the personnel component changed as airmen and officers moved up, changed jobs, or left the service.

In the final analysis, the success of the B-52 has been the result of the capable people who have made a career of the relationship.

The YB-52 first flew on 15 April 1952; the XB-52 flew on 2 October the same year. This was not the intended plan, but the XB-52 had suffered a massive pneumatic system failure after its rollout on 29 November 1951 and had to undergo major repairs.

Originally 13 B-52As were ordered for service tests, but the requirement was subsequently changed to an order for 3 B-52As. The remaining 10 became part of an order for 23 B-52Bs and 27 RB-52Bs. The latter aircraft could accommodate a two-man pressurized capsule for either reconnaissance or electronic countermeasure work.

The"B" models were powered with an updated type of the J57 engine, delivering as much as 12,000 pounds of thrust with water injection. Thirty-five B-52C aircraft followed. These had 3000 gallon drop tanks, improved avionics, and a distinctive coat of white antithermal paint on the undersurfaces.

Sixty-nine B-52D aircraft were built at Wichita while another 101 were built in Seattle. The "D" model was to prove to be the longest lived and perhaps the most versatile of the entire series. It served as a strategic deterrent, and then it received the "Big Belly" modification to carry vast loads of conventional ordnance up to 54,000 pounds in a single massive load. It retained its nuclear capability and has since had additional missions laid on it.

One hundred B-52Es were purchased, fitted with improving bombing and navigation systems. The Seattle production tempo began to decline; 42 Es were built there and 58 in Wichita.

B-52F production was almost evenly divided, with 44 built in Seattle and 45 at Wichita. It used Pratt & Whitney J57-P-43W engines of 13,750 pounds of thrust.

The "G" models were built only at Wichita and incorporated a host of new features, most of which were designed to save weight. It was also designed from the start as a missile carrier and was fitted with supersonic GAM-77 Hound Dog air-to-surface missiles.

Not all of the changes introduced on the "G" model were successful. The aluminum alloy selected for the wing turned out to have poor durability and damage-tolerance characteristics, and serious fleet-wide problems made it necessary to redesign the wing completely, using the older, heavier but stronger 2024 aluminum alloy.

The "H" model was the last of the series. The last production heavy bomber delivery to the USAF occurred on 26 October 1962. It consisted of the 102d B-52H, #61 -040, and the 744th B-52. An era had apparently ended.

Yet the need for the giant bomber persisted, and a long and varied modification program evolved, one that somehow always left the B-52 competitive despite changes in mission or changes in threat.

It is entirely possible that outside forces, like inflation or a decline in the total military budget, may make the B-1B and Seattle bomber’s prohibitively expensive. If it does, there will undoubtedly be B52s to soldier on. They may have new engines or new missiles, and they will probably have grandsons of the original B-52 crews flying them.

National Air and Space Museum
Washington, D.C.


Colonel Walter J. Boyne, USAF (Ret) (B.S., University of California; M.B.A., University of Pittsburgh), is Assistant Director of the National Air and Space Museum. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. He retired from the Air Force in 1974 after 23 years of service and 5000 flying hours in a score of different aircraft. Colonel Boyne has written five books, has published 200 articles on aviation subjects, and is a previous contributor to the Review.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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