Moments & Milestones: 50 and Counting

Moments & Milestones: 50 and Counting


Stark images of bombs dropping on Afghanistan serve as an unhappy reminder of an otherwise celebratory event: the 50th anniversary of the introduction of Boeing’s B-52 bomber.

For almost all of the last half-century, the B-52 has operated on the frontier of America’s airborne defenses, beginning in the Cold War and followed by service in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Kosovo, and, most recently, the war on terrorism. In 2001 alone, the B-52 fleet accumulated over 23,000 hours, including 4,000 over Afghanistan.

Because bombers are most frequently flown at high altitudes (the B-52 can cruise at 50,000 feet), they rarely show up in the video footage aired on television news programs. Such aircraft are more familiar for the product they deliver. As the B-52’s name, Stratofortress, suggests, these complex machines are cloud-hugging heavy-lifters. According to Boeing, “The B-52 is capable of dropping or launching the widest array of weapons in the U.S. inventory. This includes gravity bombs, cluster bombs, precision guided missiles, and joint direct attack munitions.” With aerial refueling, the B-52 can carry approximately 70,000 pounds of weapons over distances “limited only by crew endurance.”

One reason the B-52 has enjoyed such longevity—and is expected to remain in service at least another 25 years—is its ability to adapt to the changing needs of the military. Afghanistan vividly makes the case. For the war there, the B-52 has flown close-air support missions—a role normally assigned to fighters. This means the B-52 can launch precision-navigation devices against specific targets on the ground in response to instructions from troop commanders, a task very different from traditional bombing.

The Air Force refers to such evolving capabilities of its equipment as examples of “transformation” and promotes them as part of its strategy for waging war in the future. Retired Air Force General John Loh, who assumed command of the B-52 arsenal in 1992, says the B-52’s performance in Afghanistan has made it “the poster child for the real meaning of transformation…in military affairs.”

The B-52’s birthday is April 15, 1952, the day Boeing first flew a prototype. Boeing celebrated the occasion last April with ceremonies at its Wichita, Kansas plant, where the aircraft was last built. Before closing the B-52 assembly line in 1962, Boeing produced 744 Stratofortresses in eight models, A through H.

It takes only five people to fly such a big warhorse: a commander, pilot, radar navigator, navigator, and electronic warfare officer. Over the years, the crews of the B-52 adopted, as aviators are wont to do, a nickname that translates to something like Big Ugly Fat Fellow. Happy Birthday, BUFF.

—Stuart Nixon

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