The longest-serving and largest-weapons-capacity nuclear and conventional bomber in the United States inventory, featuring four under-wing engine pods with two engines each, midair refueling capability, and a crosswind landing gear system.
B-52’s were delivered to the U.S. Air Force from 1955 to 1962. During this production run of 744 airframes (excluding the two prototypes), eight models of the B-52 were built. Each model was an improvement on the previous version. Even decades after the last B-52 rolled off the factory floor, overhauls, modifications, and improvements have been made that maintain or improve the capability of this extremely versatile combat aircraft.
Two identical prototypes were fabricated and called the YB-52 and XB-52. They were the only models that had tandem pilot seating (one in front of the other). Three B-52A models were built and used for testing. Fifty B-52B models were produced. Twenty-seven of these were RB-52B’s, which were used for reconnaissance. Greater fuel capacity was added to the design for the thirty-five B-52C models.
Next manufactured were 170 of the D models. The D model later became famous for the “big belly” modification, which was accomplished during the Vietnam War. The internal bomb bay of the D was modified to add fifty-seven more internal bombs. The E model had improved navigation and electronic jamming equipment. One hundred E models were made. A change in engines precipitated the F model. The F model had an improved version of the Pratt & Whitney J-57 engine, which produced 13,750 pounds of thrust. Eighty-nine F models were completed.
The G models were the most prolific version, with 193 being procured by the Air Force. The G had a shortened vertical stabilizer on the empennage and increased fuel capacity; the gunner position was moved from the tail to the front of the aircraft with the rest of the crew. A total of 102 B-52Hs were constructed. This final version had a 20-millimeter vulcan cannon (Gatling gun) in the tail instead of the previous four .50-caliber machine guns. The most significant change for the H model was the Pratt & Whitney TF-33-P-3 turbofan engine. These turbofan engines were much more powerful and fuel efficient than the previous turbojets.
B-52’s had six crew members: gunner, electronic warfare officer (EWO), navigator, radar navigator, copilot, and pilot (aircraft commander). The crew compartment was divided into two levels, each about 5 feet in height. The only place a crew member could stand completely erect was next to the ladder that connected the upper and lower decks. Gunners in the A through F models were completely separated from the rest of the crew and sat in the tail of the plane. Although the gunners in the tail did not have a normal ejection seat like the rest of the crew, they could blow the back of the fuselage away and bail out in case of an emergency. In the G and H models, the gunners sat in the front cabins facing aft on the top deck next to the EWOs, who sat on the right side of the aircraft.
The electronic warfare officers use radio receivers to detect enemy surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and airborne interceptor (AI) attacks. The EWO can electronically jam enemy SAMs and AI radar to make it difficult to hit the B-52 with a radar-guided missile. The EWO can also dispense chaff, small strips of aluminum that reflect radar, or flares to misdirect radar-guided or heat-seeking missiles.
The navigator sits in the lower level and faces forward. This person is responsible for deciding when to turn and what airspeed to fly to make sure the weapons explode at the correct time. The navigator also launches the missiles. The radar navigator or “radar” (in World War II this position was called the bombardier) is responsible for making sure the weapons hit the intended target. During low-level portions of the flight, the radar helps keep the pilots from flying into mountains and also accomplishes final aiming of the bombs. The radar sits to the left of the navigator. Both navigators are equipped with downward ejection seats.
The pilot flies the airplane manually, except during high-altitude cruise when the autopilot is typically engaged. During midair refueling, the pilot can work up a sweat trying manually to stay close behind a KC-135 for forty-five minutes to get the needed fuel. Manually flying low-level at altitudes down to 400 feet above the terrain and at 350 to 425 miles per hour is also a physical and mental challenge. Typical training flights last from five to eight hours; combat missions in Vietnam sometimes took eighteen hours.
The Strategic Air Command (SAC) was formed on March 21, 1946. SAC was the Air Force organization that was given initial responsibility for nuclear weapons. In the beginning, aircraft were the only method of delivering nuclear weapons. Then came intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and the U.S. Navy’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Nuclear ground alert was started in the late 1950’s and continued into 1991. This ground alert had aircraft, weapons, and flight crews ready to take off on fifteen minutes’ notice or less. Airborne alert was employed for several years, including during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Two B-52’s have crashed while on airborne alert. One crashed near Thule, Greenland. The second had a midair collision during air-refueling. The aircraft parts and nuclear weapons fell into the Mediterranean Sea and on Spain.
The most important reason for having bombers with people in them was that they could be sent on nuclear missions and then called back before destroying targets. Once launched, ICBMs and SLBMs cannot be recalled or destroyed. Crewed bombers can be moved or launched to show that the United States is serious about its intent to use nuclear weapons. This show of force can be made without actually having to set off a nuclear explosion.
In the middle of the Cold War, the B-52 was forever immortalized in the film Dr. Strangelove (1964). This motion picture was a macabre comedy that showed the seriousness of nuclear war and the theory of mutually assured destruction. This concept is based on the premise that neither side will start a nuclear war if both sides believe it will end up completely destroying the home country as well as the enemy.
B-52’s were employed in Vietnam from 1964 to 1973. It was the first time B-52’s were in combat. During this time, gunners shot down two enemy fighter planes (MiGs). The major offensive battles fought by the B-52 in Vietnam were ArcLight, Bullet Shot, and Linebacker II. The eleven days of intense bombing during Linebacker II in December, 1972, had a major effect on the peace talks and the end to this Southeast Asian conflict.
The B-52 can carry weapons inside the fuselage bomb bay and also on two wing-mounted pylons, one under each wing next to the fuselage. During conventional (nonnuclear) combat, the B-52 has been primarily used for carpet bombing. This occurs when large numbers of explosions are desired over a large or spread-out target. Except for the “Big Belly” modified D model, which could carry more than one hundred 500-pound conventional bombs, normal loads were fifty-one 500-pound or fifty-one 750-pound high-explosive bombs. The B-52 can also carry several types of mines designed to be dropped into the ocean. In the 1980’s, B-52G’s were altered to launch Harpoon air-to-ship missiles for destroying ocean-going military ships. Runway destruction or antipersonnel land mines, chemical weapons, and even bombs that open to deploy leaflets over enemy territory can be delivered by the B-52.
Many different nuclear weapons can be carried by the B-52. Typical bombs are the B-28, B-53, and B-61. The Hound Dog was a 1960’s supersonic winged missile that was so large that only one could be carried under each wing. The short-range attack missile (SRAM) has a two-stage solid rocket motor that propels the missile at over Mach 5. Capacity for carrying SRAMs and air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) is the same: six on each wing and eight on a rotary launcher in the bomb bay. ALCMs can be launched over a thousand miles away from the target and then fly at speeds just under the speed of sound at a few hundred feet above the ground. A typical nuclear weapons load in the 1980’s may have consisted of four bombs and eight SRAMs in the bomb bay plus twelve ALCMS on wing pylons for a total of twenty-four nuclear warheads per aircraft.
During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, complete air superiority was achieved over the skies of Iraq. The Air Force determined that B-52’s would only be used in a conventional war when most enemy aircraft had been destroyed. This reduced the need for gunners and also brought on the phasing-out of gunners in 1992. By the mid-1990’s, all but the remaining H model B-52’s had been sent to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, for storage. Of the B-52’s in storage in the desert, all but the Gs have been destroyed and sold for scrap metal. That leaves ninety-four B-52H models still flying. The Air Force plan is to have these last remaining H models in operational service well past 2010. The B-52 holds the record for a combat aircraft in constant operational service, since June 29, 1955. Interestingly, the runner-up for claim to this record is the former Soviet Union’s equivalent to the B-52, the Tupolev Tu-95 Bear bomber. The Tu-95 was accepted into operational service on December 20, 1955, just six months after the B-52.
Although the B-52 has been supplemented and will someday be completely superceded by the B-1B and B-2 bombers in the nuclear and conventional war fighting roles, there will never be another airplane that will bring to mind the tenuous years of the Cold War and the term “nuclear bomber” like the B-52.
Boyne, Walter. Boeing B-52: A Documentary History. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981. Includes a detailed history of the development of the B-52, its uses, specifications, weapons, and a typical training mission. Drendel, Lou. B-52: Stratofortress in Action. Carrollton, Tex.: Squadron/Signal, 1975. A wonderful collection of photographs and detailed drawings of the different models of the B-52. Holder, William. Boeing B-52 “Stratofortress.” Fallbrook, Calif.: Aero, 1975. Covers the history of the B-52 and its uses during the Cold War, with dozens of photos of different models.
Air Force, U.S.
World War II