USAF YB52 B-52 Stratofortress Prototype

Boeing B-52 Stratofortress

B-52 Stratofortress Long Range Bomber

Boeing B-52 Stratofortress

The iconic Boeing B-52 Stratofortress has now been in military service for over 60 years – an extraordinary length of a time for an aircraft first envisaged just months after WW2’s end.

The B-52 was conceived as a long-range bomber that could deliver nuclear weapons deep into enemy territory. Some six decades on, the type – its operational profile much-expanded - still equips the USAF in strength and remains one third of the US military’s three-pronged nuclear deterrent capability.

Perhaps most astonishingly, the ‘BUFF’ (Big Ugly Fat Fella’, as it was dubbed) will serve on into the 2040s, with several upgrade programmes keeping the type at the forefront of globally-projected airpower. Thus, the mighty B-52 is set to sweep across the world’s skies for some decades yet.

X-15 with B-52 Mothership

B-52 Development

By 1948, the B-52’s basic layout had been decided, expanding Boeing’s preceding B-47 Stratojet design into an eight-engined behemoth. 15 April 1952 saw the type’s first flight occur and less than three years later, deliveries to the USAF of the initial B-52B model got underway. The USAF remains the only air arm to have operated it, from the B-52B up to the final production variant, the B-52H.

744 B-52s were constructed overall, with the last airframe rolling off the Boeing production line in late 1962. Now, there are 78 left in service – B-52H models all. They are used by two Bomb Wings – the 5th at Minot Air Force Base and the 2nd at Barksdale Air Force Base. Each of these wings is part of Global Strike Command.

B-52 At Barkside Air Force Base

B-52 Roles

The B-52 is fundamentally a bomber, armed with either conventional or nuclear munitions. However, it can also perform in the strategic attack, close air-support and air interdiction roles, to name but three. According to the USAF, no other of its aircraft can carry such a variety of weapons. They include Mk84 and Mk84 bombs, GBU-10 and GBU-12 laser-guided bombs and AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles. The B-52’s maximum payload is 70,000 pounds – approximately 15 per cent of its maximum 488,000-pound take-off weight.

B-52s have also seen extensive NASA use, supporting various flight test programmes. Among the most significant was the X-15 hypersonic aircraft project. Two NB-52B models were drawn on for this purpose, carrying North American’s revolutionary rocket-powered design aloft before releasing it at extremely high altitude. The X-15 went on to set both world speed and altitude records (Mach 6.7 and 354,200 feet, respectively) while one of the NB-52Bs (that serialled ’52-0008’, which NASA reduced to ‘008’) ended up extremely widely-tasked, carrying out countless space shuttle development sorties and, later on, those involving early-generation UAVs. It was retired only on 17 December 2004 – the 101st anniversary of powered flight.

B-52 Operations

In (Global Strike Command predecessor) Strategic Air Command’s hands, the B-52 was much employed for airborne patrols, undertaking routine flights around the USSR’s edges. Its frontline combat debut occurred in Vietnam, starting with June 1965’s attacks on South Vietnamese targets. Missions in this part of the world continued until 1973. Next came Operation Desert Storm- the first Gulf War. The B-52’s participation in this was on several fronts remarkable. Not only was a new long-range bombing flight record established (see ‘B-52 Records’ section) but also – according to the USAF – the type released 40 per cent of all weapons unleashed by Allied coalition assets during the conflict. Around 1,620 B-52 Desert Storm missions were flown in total. B-52s thereafter took part in operations Allied Force, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.

B-52 Bomber over Afghanistan

B-52 Records

The B-52 has several times established new aviation records. In January 1957, three examples flew around the world. Their circumnavigation was a jet-powered aircraft first, took them 45 hours, 19 minutes and was designed to demonstrate – in no uncertain terms – the USAF’s global reach. Named Operation Power Elite, the 24,325-mile sortie was carried out at an average speed of 525 mph. Five years later, an example flew 12,532 miles from Japan to Spain without refueling to set a new endurance record. Almost three decades on, in 1991, a group of B-52s was in the air for 35 hours to perform the longest bombing mission in history. Starting and ending at Barksdale Air Force Base, the 14,000-mile flight saw numerous Baghdad targets hit.

USAF B52H Stratofortress

B-52 Upgrades

Each successive B-52 model – from B to H – represented a capability advance over the previous one but much more recently-implemented upgrade programmes are now in motion that’ll ensure the aircraft’s continued dominance on the worldwide air power scene. One such is the CONECT (Combat Network Communications Technology) programme. This is revitalizing the USAF’s B-52s to make them more mission-efficient, more situationally-aware and more able to interface with other US military elements. In other words, it’s digitizing the B-52 fleet to bring it fully into the modern age. Previously, for example, mission changes needed aircrew to manually input the required data. Now, it all happens automatically: a massive step-up from before. The first CONECT-fitted B-52 entered flight-testing in 2009 and the USAF got its first example, equipped with this technology, in April 2014.

B-52 Future

With CONECT and other new components in place, the B-52’s retirement date is now 2044. By that point, the aircraft will have been in military use for almost nine decades: a record few if any other types will likely challenge. Prior to that, the next-generation bomber ultimately scheduled to replace it should have been built, test-flown and drafted into the USAF. Now being worked-on by Northrop Grumman, provisionally, that design will enter service during the 2020s. 

B-52: Key Facts


Role: Strategic Heavy Bomber
Length: 160 ft 11 in (49.05 m)
Wing span: 185 ft 0 in (56.39 m)
Engines: Eight Pratt & Whitney TF33-P-3 turbofans, producing 17,000 pounds thrust each
Maximum speed: 595 mph (957 km/h)
Maximum range: 10,000+ miles (16,093+ km)
Maximum height: 55,000 ft (16,764 m)
Crew: Five (commander, pilot, navigator, radar operator, electronic warfare officer)
Weapons: AGM-86B and AGM-86C cruise missiles, AGM-84 Harpoon missiles, AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon
First flown: 15 April 1952 (YB-52 prototype)

All images copyright USAF – courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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