The Best Bargain in Military History

Nov. 27, 2018
A B-52G with Strategic Air Command readies for takeoff from a base in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. B-52s delivered more than 27,000 tons of bombs during the conflict. Photo: TSgt. Rose Reynolds via National Archives

The B-52 is a mainstay of the US bomber fleet. Though officially named the Stratofortress, the subsonic bomber is more often called the BUFF for Big Ugly Fat Fellow (while in less pristine jargon the last word is replaced by an alliterative expletive). A total of 102 H-models were built as the concluding segment of a production run that aggregated 744 aircraft.

The last B-52 rolled off the assembly line in October 1962. Virtually all crew members who currently fly aboard the bomber were born after it was built. The aircraft has undergone extensive structural modifications and avionics upgrades during its extended service life, keeping it an effective platform well into the twenty-first century. The miracle of its adaptability goes back to its development.

By the end of World War II, the jet engine was a reality that the Air Force sought to exploit in its emergent bombers. The problem was that the early jet engines failed to provide the blend of high thrust and efficient fuel consumption necessary to carry a heavily laden bomber great distances, as the air force requirement mandated. Not surprisingly, the first post–World War II heavy bomber was the mixed propulsion B-36 Peacemaker, which had a combination of propeller-driven and pure jet engines that were variously “turning and burning.”

Boeing had conceived a scaled-up version of its B-29/B-50 with six turboprops. Meanwhile, though, Boeing was developing the XB-47, a futuristic medium bomber with swept wings and four jet engines mounted in cluster pods. Because of the thrust limitation, fifth and sixth jet engines were added in individual pods on either side near the wingtips. The promising possibilities of this jet-powered medium bomber led some on the Boeing design team to suggest that the heavy bomber should be similarly configured with pure jets rather than turboprops.

The imperative for a long-range strategic bomber was heightened in June 1948 when the Soviet Union blockaded the Western sectors of Berlin. It became clear that the United States would need a modern heavy-bomber force to counter the threat posed by the rising tensions of the Cold War. Against this backdrop of increased urgency, work on the B-52 continued with a heightened sense of purpose.

The Air Force procurement officer on the project, Col. Pete Warden, was open to the idea of a pure jet design, but he wanted the turboprop configuration to remain a consideration. There are varying accounts of what happened next, but in general the story goes that on a Friday in mid-October 1948, Boeing’s top designers and aerodynamicists—Ed Wells, George Schairer, Bob Withington, Vaughan Blumenthal, Art Carlsen, and Maynard Pennell—met with Warden at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

Reportedly Warden told the men at that point that a pure jet design was the way to go after all, but that the configuration they had presented was deficient for it would hold back the bomber’s speed. They needed a greater angle of sweep, closer to that of the B-47, and more engines than the six adopted for the B-47. The Boeing team regrouped in a room at Dayton’s Van Cleve Hotel and worked nonstop through the weekend, sparing no effort to create the definitive design. They even obtained balsa wood from a local hobby shop to sculpt a model of their proposed heavy bomber.

First thing Monday morning the team showed up in Warden’s office with the model fittingly decorated in Air Force colors. Also, they submitted a thirty-three-page report revealing performance, engineering, production, and cost details that represented the culmination of their extraordinary exertions over the weekend. The wing was swept thirty-five degrees and the aircraft was to be powered by eight engines mounted in four under-wing pods of two engines each.

A new B-52 rolls out at the Boeing facility in Seattle during a night production-line move during the 1950s. The first BUFF flew in 1952. Photo: AFA


Though it defied the odds, the design thrashed out that weekend by the team from Seattle proved to be an engineering marvel. The design that derived from such improbable circumstances led to the B-52, which profoundly affected the balance of power for the generation to come and remains a bulwark of American might.

Maiden flight occurred less than four years later, on April 15, 1952. Lead test pilot was the flamboyant Tex Johnston, Boeing’s choice to take the helm on this important foray. The flight lasted nearly three hours as Tex and his copilot, Air Force Lt. Col. Guy Townsend, got the feel of the new plane.

It was soon determined that the bubble-type canopy under which the pilot and copilot were seated in tandem should be changed to a more conventional bomber flight deck layout with side-by-side seating. Landing gear consisted of bicycle-type twin-row trucks of two wheels each spaced along the length of the lower fuselage. Innovatively, the wheels could pivot to remain in line with the runway as the aircraft crabbed at an angle in a crosswind. Lithe outrigger gear at the wingtips kept the fuel-laden wings from drooping to the ground and scraping against the taxiway/runway pavement.

A wing with a high angle of incidence permitted rotation while the aircraft was still positioned horizontally. Auxiliary power for the many power requirements in the massive airframe came from a bleed-air system driving small turbines. The original Pratt & Whitney J57 turbojets, which produced eighty-seven hundred pounds of thrust, were accompanied by deafening howls and black smoke trails. Reflecting the myriad improvements to the aircraft over its amazingly long time in service is the fact that today’s Pratt & Whitney TF-33 turbofan engines are rated at nearly double the thrust level of the bomber’s earliest engines.

The first combat-capable version was the B-52B, which achieved readiness in June 1955.

The final model was the B-52H, built exclusively at the Wichita plant. Notably, it received an engine upgrade that not only boosted thrust, but improved consumption to where a 30-percent increase in unrefueled range was possible.

The machine guns in the tail were replaced by the Vulcan gun system with six barrel 20-mm cannon.

The B-52 was a key asset of Strategic Air Command. The bomber frequently flew long-range high-altitude missions in preparation for a nuclear counterstrike against the Soviet Union. However, with the rise of a sophisticated surface-to-air missile threat, doctrine shifted and the bombers started to fly low-level missions as a means to avoid radar detection. The increased flying in thicker and more turbulent air near the ground necessitated structural upgrades to the B-52 fleet.

Under the hard-charging SAC commander, Curtis LeMay, B-52 flight and maintenance crews were forged into an exceptionally professional fighting force. SAC operated with great regimentation. It was an organization that exemplified the virtues of discipline and teamwork.

Largely because of the finely honed skills of SAC’s personnel and the unparalleled efficacy of its bombers, Soviet leaders did not dare to tap the tripwire. The certainty of catastrophic consequences prevented the Cold War from erupting into a shooting war. SAC’s motto of “Peace through strength” provided an epigrammatic description of the winning strategy. Without a single bomb being dropped in anger, the generational contest ended in a euphoric moment at the wall in Berlin where it had symbolically begun.

Airmen perform a postflight inspection on a B-52 at Andersen AFB, Guam. Since 2004, B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s have been rotating in and out of the base as part of a continuous bomber presence in the region. Photo: A1C Alexa Ann Henderson


It was in the unlikely airspace over the jungles of Vietnam that the B-52 got its baptism of fire. Raids started on June 18, 1965. B-52Fs flying from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam ranged over preselected sites in South Vietnam where the Viet Cong were thought to be operating. The bombing campaign, characterized by long flights and questionable effects, ensued for years under the code name Arc Light. As the war dragged on, some missions were flown out of the much closer U Tapao Air Base in Thailand.

Frustration reached the boiling point in late 1972 when North Vietnam would not negotiate in earnest at the Paris Peace Talks. Massive raids were ordered to jump-start the stalled diplomacy. For eleven days in December, the skies over North Vietnam reverberated with the roar of waves of B-52s. Hanoi and Haiphong, the North’s two major cities, were targeted like never before.

Because the airspace was more heavily defended than any other in the history of air warfare up to that time, B-52 losses were considerable. The array of top-line Soviet surface-to-air missile batteries caused an attrition rate of 7 percent after the first three nights of bombing. Tactics employed in the bombing campaign, known as Linebacker II, were flawed and contributed to the toll. Changes were implemented and SAM positions were targeted with renewed vigor, which improved the situation.

The relentless pounding, in coordination with other Air Force and Navy attack aircraft, had a substantial impact. Not only did the North Vietnamese take up negotiations again in Paris, but the North’s military leaders along with a large portion of the North’s population were deeply shaken. It was revealed years afterwards that officials in the North had doubted their ability to continue resisting because of Linebacker II’s devastation.

Interestingly, SAM defenses had been depleted, which meant that the skies would have been virtually open to US bombers had raids continued. When the constraining rules of engagement had been lifted by US policymakers, measurable results were evidenced. All of this has caused some analysts to wonder what outcome might have been achieved if such ferocious air strikes had been unleashed early in the war.

For nearly the next two decades, the B-52 force refocused on the Cold War. Crews remained on alert in scramble huts near their bombers, ready to launch retaliatory strikes on a moment’s notice. The nuclear-armed B-52s were a main component of the nuclear triad, which still includes them as part of the bomber component along with land-based ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

SrA. John Myer pushes a tow bar under a B-52H during a Red Flag exercise at Nellis AFB, Nev., in 2013. Photo: SSgt. Vernon Young Jr


When the Iron Curtain finally came crumbling down on Nov. 9, 1989, there was but a brief sigh of relief for US airmen. In 1990, Kuwait, a small and vulnerable country rich in oil reserves, had been overrun by its belligerent neighbor to the north. In conjunction with a large coalition of international partners, US air strikes were ordered against Iraq in early 1991.

In the opening phase of Operation Desert Storm, seven B-52s from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana embarked on a mission to Saudi airspace where they employed Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missiles (CALCMs) against designated targets in Iraq. The bombers then returned to their home base in what was the most distant bomb run in history up to that time. The nonstop mission involved multiple air refuelings and lasted a grueling thirty-five hours.

Isolated carpet bombing was successful in compelling Iraqi troops to abandon their positions and surrender. B-52s delivered more than twenty-seven thousand tons of bombs. In little more than a month of aerial bombardment and a matter of only a few days of land warfare, Kuwaiti sovereignty was restored.

The following year, with the Cold War lapsing into faded memories, the Air Force was restructured to better contend with new global challenges. Strategic Air Command was inactivated; its B-52s were transferred to the newly established Air Combat Command. In the post-Soviet era, with no strong-fisted global power imposing its will in forgotten corners of the world, long-simmering ethnic divisions broke out in the Balkans.

In the spring of 1999, Operation Allied Force commenced against Serbian forces to stop so-called ethnic cleansing against Albanian and Muslim majorities in Yugoslavia’s Kosovo province. B-52s staged for sorties at RAF Fairford in England. These operations initially involved use of CALCMs and soon entailed gravity bombs. The ethnic cleansing at first accelerated, but as the bombing ramped up, the Serbian forces stood down and a peace agreement was signed on June 9.

Any thought of mothballing the fleet of aging bombers ended on Sept. 11, 2001. Jihadi terrorists hijacked four domestic US airliners. Two were rammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and one was flown into the side of the Pentagon. Passengers were aroused on the fourth airliner, and after a fight for control it slammed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Nearly three thousand people were killed. Most of the victims were civilians.

The horrifying acts prompted a military response less than a month later. As Operation Enduring Freedom unfolded, B-52s and other bombers aided the takedown of Afghanistan’s Taliban government and the scattering of the al Qaeda terrorist organization’s key leaders. In addition to bombs, B-52s dropped propaganda leaflets.

With radicalized elements in the Middle East seemingly intent on obtaining weapons of mass destruction, fears grew in Western capitals that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein may have developed such weapons. Though the suspicions were later determined to be unfounded, the United States decided once and for all to remove Saddam from power.

B-52s played a role in Operation Iraqi Freedom, which got underway the night of March 20, 2003. Flying from Fairford and the island of Diego Garcia, the B-52s pummeled Iraqi forces with a variety of ordnance. The air campaign persisted for eighteen days until Saddam’s regime was toppled.

The bomber has proven to be a versatile delivery platform. It can be configured for the full range of bomber-attack missions, including nuclear strikes, conventional saturation bombing, and surgical blows. Before the Air Force had deployed a large number of Predator/Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles to the conflict in Southwest Asia, the B-52H served as a kind of close air support aircraft, loitering high above the battlefield for long durations and launching precision-guided weapons as directed by ground troops.


Concerns over the integrity of the US nuclear arsenal arose when a succession of troubling incidents demonstrated that oversight and proper handling were deficient. A new organization was established to renew the high levels of safety, security, and effectiveness that nuclear weapons warrant and that were manifest during the time of the vaunted Strategic Air Command.

Air Force Global Strike Command was activated on Aug. 7, 2009, to assume this important responsibility. The B-52 fleet, the sole B-2 wing, and the three remaining ICBM wings came under its purview at that time.

A current focus is on the Pacific Rim, as China flexes its new-found muscle and the irascible North Korean regime continues to make mischief. B-52Hs are currently rotated on a virtual permanent basis at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. With air tanker support, this outpost in the Pacific gives the bombers a springboard to reach points in Asia.

There are sixty-five combat-coded B-52s left in active duty (split between Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota). Eleven are in the reserves at Barksdale. Because these bombers have precision strike capability, substantially fewer airframes are required to hit a given target set. Yet the fact that so few comprise the force means that there is hardly any margin for attrition.

Despite its age, the B-52 has continued to demonstrate its worth. Both the Air Force and prime contractor Boeing see the old bomber soldiering on for years to come. Indeed, an Air Force study has projected that the B-52H can remain a viable military platform through 2044, and Boeing has indicated that the aircraft can keep flying through 2060, based on a structural service life of eighty thousand hours. If the latter comes true, B-52s—the actual airframes of the models currently flying—will achieve an operational span of ninety-nine years.

One modernization idea was to swap out the B-52’s eight aging engines with four engines of the type used on either the Lockheed C-5 cargo plane or the Boeing 757 airliner. This would have led to significantly reduced maintenance and higher fuel efficiency, but was rejected because of the estimated time and cost to integrate the aerodynamics-changing retrofit. Instead, attention focused on the possibility of doing an engine-for-engine swap so that the aircraft’s configuration would remain essentially unchanged.

Under this proposal, the replacements would be off-the-shelf engines used on regional airliners or high-end business jets, offering better maintainability, sustainability, and performance. From an environmental standpoint these engines would be drastically less polluting and much quieter. Also, additional thrust would permit the carriage of a heavier payload. Pratt & Whitney, manufacturer of the bomber’s decades-old TF33 engines, advocates upgrading them through targeted design changes, which it claims would be the lowest-cost solution.

Beyond modifications to keep the B-52 viable as a flying machine, extensive avionics and weapons upgrades continue to be implemented to enhance the aircraft as a combat platform. One of the more important programs is the coming replacement of the B-52’s outdated APQ-166 radar. Meanwhile, phased installation of the Combat Network Communications Technology (CONECT) is occurring to integrate the bomber into network-centric operations. With the addition of the Link 16 data link, the B-52 will have an unmatched ability for secure communication with other mission aircraft.

Whereas in the past, human-to-human communication via voice was necessary, it will be possible for vital data to be transmitted machine to machine. This technology will simplify and speed up the transfer of target coordinates to the B-52 from ground-based tactical air controllers. By eliminating tasks in the data transfer process, the so-called kill chain will be compressed and there will be less probability of flawed data entry.

Separately, installations of an upgraded rotary launcher have begun. Along with an electrical power system enhancement, this will give the B-52 the ability to carry large numbers of the precision Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) internally. Also in the works is the follow-on cruise missile, known as the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) weapon, which will eventually equip the B-52.

With further modifications and upgrades in the years to come, some current crew members speculate that the B-52 will be around long enough for their children and maybe even their grandchildren to fly it. Little could Boeing’s design team have known during the drawn-out weekend at the Van Cleve Hotel, sketching configurations, running numbers, and fashioning a balsa wood model that their labors would yield such a long-lived warplane. The Air Force has already stated that it expects the B-52 Stratofortress to complement the next bomber, the B-21 Raider, when it enters service, scheduled for the mid-2020s.

Walter J. Boyne and Philip Handleman are the authors of “The 25 Most Influential Aircraft of All Time,” from which this article is excerpted. Copyright by the authors, by permission of Globe Pequot (