by David Noland
Bombers: Boeing B-52
More than fifty years later, it's still flying
How many long-range strategic bombers have a rock group named after them? Only one: the Boeing B-52, the famed symbol of American air power and nuclear might during the Cold War.
When the Soviet threat withered, the B-52 soldiered on, morphing into whatever role the Air Force demanded of it: high-altitude carpet bomber, low-altitude stealth bomber, cruise-missile launch platform, you name it. Incredibly, 50 years after its first flight in 1952, the B-52 was flying bombing missions over Afghanistan. No other combat aircraft has even come close to that record of longevity.
"Big Ugly Fellow"
The B-52's basic layout was hatched in 1948 by a small team of Boeing engineers during a frantic weekend design binge in a motel room in Dayton, Ohio. It was essentially a larger version of the company's six-jet B-47 medium bomber, which had flown the previous year. The long, thin, flexible wings were swept back 35 degrees. Eight J-57 turbojets were slung below and ahead of the wing in four pairs. Known officially as the Stratofortress, its ungainly appearance earned the B-52 the affectionate nickname BUF (Big Ugly Fellow, in the G-rated version.)
A total of 744 B-52s were built between 1952 and 1962. At peak strength in 1963, the Strategic Air Command operated 650 BUFs in 42 squadrons at 38 different air bases.
From the Cold War to Iraq
Thankfully, the B-52 never played out the "Dr. Strangelove" doomsday nuclear role for which it was designed. It did, however, drop more than 15,000 tons of conventional bombs on North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos from 1965–73. Fifteen B-52s were shot down by North Vietnamese SAM missiles. It later supported U.S. troops in the Gulf War and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The biggest design change during the B-52's evolution was the TF33 turbofan engines on the last model, the B-52H. These more powerful, fuel-efficient engines improved the bomber's range significantly. In 1962, a B-52H set an unrefuelled distance record of 12,532 miles—almost exactly half-way around the world.
Thanks to regular refurbishment and updating, 93 B-52Hs remain in active Air Force service. (All other models have been retired.) As recently as 2003, B-52Hs helped launch the opening salvo in the Iraq war, and may resume a role there as pressure mounts to reduce ground troop levels. And come the year 2027—the 75th anniversary of the B-52's first flight—don't be surprised if a few of those Big Ugly, uh, Fellows are still hanging around.