The Adaptable, Perennial Warrior: the B-52

A B-52H from Barksdale AFB flying over the desert. (US Air Force file photo)

A B-52H from Barksdale AFB flying over the desert. (US Air Force file photo)

This nation should be very grateful to General Curtiss E. LeMay, for many reasons. First and foremost is his combat leadership in Europe, where he personally led formations of B-17s and B-24s against the toughest targets, creating new tactics as he did so. Then there is his combat leadership in Asia, where he exercised true air power in the firebombing of Japanese cities, a ruthless campaign that effectively decided the outcome of the war, if not the Japanese willingness to surrender. (It took two atomic bombs to do that). Less well known is his advocacy of research and development and his leadership in establishing the Scientific Advisory Board which guided the new United States Air Force’s research efforts for many years.

LeMay is most famous for his revitalization of a decrepit Strategic Air Command, changing it from a comfortable, well paid flying club into the most destructive force the world had ever seen. His high standards of performance, insistence on standardization, and refusal to accept anything but the very best results from his people, made SAC into the foremost air arm in history, and it became a model for the rest of the USAF.

In the process of molding SAC, he made another decision which has received far less publicity, for its effects were unknown at the time even to him. Just as the USAF was building an enormous fleet of Boeing B-47s, a six-jet, swept wing bomber force that would reach a peak of about 1,367 aircraft in service, he demanded a larger, faster, longer ranged bomber.

His demand provoked a storm of controversy, for there was equally great need for an air defense interceptor force, vast radar warning lines, and most of all, for the newest weapon, the intercontinental ballistic missile.

Despite briefings which showed that the B-47, modified to use four Pratt & Whitney J57s, meet the range and speed requirements for the new big bomber, LeMay refused to compromise. He insisted that he wanted a bomber big enough to do all the tasks that might be required of it later. He did not use the term “platform” but that is what he meant—he wanted a platform that could operate for years, and have room for any new equipment that came along.

He got what he wanted in the superb Boeing B-52, an eight-engine giant that flew first on April 15, 1952, with the legendary A. M. “Tex” Johnson and Lieutenant Colonel Guy Townsend at the controls.

But no one in 1952 would ever have predicted that the B-52 would remain a formidable, first line weapon until today, with a forecast future life of another thirty-five years at the minimum. It is not inconceivable that the B-52, perhaps equipped with new engines, might well be serving until near the end of the twenty-first century.

LeMay was continually reviled by cost cutters in Congress and in the media for the expense of the B-52 program. The aircraft, purchased in thirteen lots of varying sizes over the ten year period, cost an average of $4.5 million each. When you amortize that over a lifetime of (so far) forty years, you realize that LeMay, far from being extravagant, had selected a real bargain.

Development History

Just as it had done with the B-47, Boeing engineers worked on the concept of what became the B-52 for many years, but there were remarkable differences in the two development programs. The B-47 was intended from the start to be a jet aircraft, and while wing-sweep and engine placement changed over the time, it was always a jet. In contrast, the B-52 started out as the Model 462 which looked remarkably like a scaled up B-29 equipped with six Wright T35 turboprop engines. Wright promised to upgrade the horsepower of the T35s, and the next Model 464-17 had only four engines. But range remained a problem, as even with turboprops, the best Boeing engineers could promise was a radius of 3,260 miles. There followed a succession of turbo prop designs that featured a slightly swept wing, resulting in a configuration not unlike the later Tupelov Tu-95 Bear.

As these developments took place, Boeing engineers learned from the B-47 experience, and applied that knowledge to the new big bomber program. They found that the B-47 drag estimates had been far too high, and that they had placed far too much emphasis on designing the B-47’s wing to be thin. Experience and additional wind tunnel testing showed that a thicker wing mated to the fuselage with less drag, and would also be lighter and provide room for fuel storage.

The one constant in the equation was the difficulty in obtaining a suitable turboprop engine. By mid 1948, a successful turboprop for the new bomber was estimated to be at least four years from delivery.

In those far off days, program officers had far more clout than they have today, and there was far less Congressional supervision of development programs. Colonel Pete Warden, somewhat outside the bounds of his authority, had been urging Pratt & Whitney to proceed with what became its J57 engine. Feeling that he had gained the engine company’s attention, he met with Boeing personnel on October 21st, 1948. This was Boeing’s “A” team, consisting of Edward C. Wells, George Schairer, H.W. Withington, Vaughn Blumenthal, Art Carlsen and Maynard Pennell, all veterans and respected in their respective fields of expertise. Warden advised them to scrap the turboprop design and instead proceed with a swept-wing pure-jet aircraft. It was music to their ears, for they had no way of controlling the engine development process, and the turboprop was proving to be very frustrating.

Thus it was that in one weekend, the original design for the B-52 was created in the Van Cleve Hotel in Dayton, Ohio. The group at Dayton was familiar with all the lessons learned from the B-47 and they were aware of Boeing’s research into in-flight refueling systems. In addition, they had telephone contact with specialist teams in Seattle who had worked on all of the series of projects leading to the B-47 and the projected turboprop bomber.

By Monday morning they had three-view drawings and a thirty-three page proposal, the famous Document No. 10,000 for the Boeing Model 464-49-0. In addition, they presented Warden with a silver balsa wood model of the new bomber, created by two engineering giants, Ed Wells and George Schairer. (The model still exists in the Boeing archives.)

The new design was an extraordinary step forward, far more revolutionary than it appeared. What became the B-52 had a huge 4,000 square foot wing that was still flexible enough to deflect through a thirty-two foot arc. The 185-foot wingspan dictated a top-secret cross-wind main landing gear that allowed landing in winds up to a direct cross wind of 43 knots. Perhaps the most radical system change was the adoption of pneumatic system as the primary power source for the operations of all auxiliary functions. The original electrical system was powered by four air turbine driven alternators. These were troublesome, and caused the fire that resulted in the lost of the first B-52 at Castle Air Force Base. They were later replaced by gear driven constant speed drives and hydraulic pumps.

Warden liked the new design and promised to get Pentagon approval almost immediately. Things were different in those days, when a Colonel could take action of this magnitude without clearing it through myriad offices, and with confidence that Congressional staffers would not second guess him.

In the desire to keep drag at a minimum, the proposed aircraft retained the tandem cockpit seating of the B-47. This ran into immediate trouble with General LeMay, who wisely demanded that production versions have conventional side-by-side seating.

Two prototypes were constructed, the XB-52 and the YB-52. The two aircraft were identical, but the slight change in designation permitted the expenditure of $10,000,000 production dollars on the prototypes. The XB-52 suffered damage when a full pressure test of its pneumatic system ripped out the trailing edge of the wing, and so it was that the YB-52 was the first to fly to the cheers of the crowd lining the hills and the streets bordering Boeing Field. To them the new airplane meant not only an advance in aviation, it meant jobs, salaries, house payments and the future. (Both the XB- and YB-52 were later scrapped as a part of Lady Bird Johnson’s base beautification program.)

Production approval preceded the first flight, however, and an initial thirteen B-52As were ordered on 14 February 1951. These differed from the prototype aircraft in a number of ways, the most obvious being a change from the tandem B-47 style cockpit arrangement into conventional side-by-side seating for the pilots. Only three B-52A models were built, the remaining ten being completed as RB-52Bs. (The RB-52 was a dual role aircraft, designed to have a reconnaissance capability gained from a two-man pressurized capsule installed in the bomb-bay.) The third of the A models, 52-003, would have a distinguished career as a mother-ship for the North American X-15 and many other test vehicles. Designated NB-52A, it served until almost 1970 and is now at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona.

New models followed in quick succession, with procurement of a total of 50 B-52Bs, 35 B-52Cs, 170 B-52Ds, 100 B-52Es, 89 B-52Fs 193 B-52Gs and 102 B-52Hs. The last B-52H (61-040) was delivered on October 26, 1962.

While improvements were introduced continually, the greatest changes occurred with the G and H models. The G’s gross weight was increased to 488,000 pounds from the 450,000 pounds of all models from the B forward.

The later models came about when in March 1956, Boeing offered the prospect of a 30 per cent increase in range, a decrease in maintenance man hours of 25 per cent, a decrease in empty weight of 15,000 pounds and an improvement in electronic warfare capability of 70%. This was heady stuff, particularly the decrease in maintenance requirements, for as the B-52s aged, they naturally required more maintenance per flying hour. No one knew that the proposal carried with it the seeds of a later hazard.

The principal redesign was a totally new wing structure that included a conversion from the conventional bladder tanks to a “wet wing.” The aileron system was eliminated, saving an additional 12,000 pounds, but this induced some handling changes that were not liked by the pilots. Use of the spoilers induced a slight pitch-up and this made refueling difficult. This was remedied by a later modification.

The huge vertical fin was reduced from 48 feet to 40 feet—the most immediately identifying physical change for the G model—and the tail gunner was removed from the traditional “stinger” position to the front compartment, from which he operated the guns remotely.

The G was also fitted with the supersonic GAM-77 Hound Dog missiles, a powerful weapon that presaged later more sophisticated cruise missiles, but which had one advantage modern ALCM’s lacked—its 7,500 pound thrust Pratt & Whitney J52 engines could be used for takeoff, converting the B-52 into a ten-engine bomber. The Hound Dog’s tanks were subsequently topped up from the carrier aircraft’s fuel supply. The Hound Dog was a stand-off and wipe out missile, for it had a maximum range of 710 miles and a one megaton nuclear warhead.

But just as the J57 engine had cleared the way for the B-52, Pratt & Whitney’s brilliant TF33-P-3 turbo fan engine cleared the way for the greatest advance in Buff performance, the B-52H. Flat rated at 17,000 pounds of thrust, the TF33 gave the B-52H thirty percent more power than the B-52G using water injection. More important it vastly reduced fuel consumption. The new engines provided the B-52H with so much acceleration that fuel sloshing in tanks could cause a pitch up, and a mechanical stop had to be fitted to the throttle quadrant to avoid this.

The advances in the Soviet missile systems required that B-52s now undertake low level tactics, and the B-52H was the first to be fitted with terrain avoidance radar. The crews needed both skill and courage to fly the huge 488,000 pound aircraft at 300 knots only 300 feet above the ground in mountainous terrain, at night, under instrument conditions. Designed originally to penetrate the Soviet Union at high altitudes, flight at low altitudes was tough on the airplane and the crews, with tremendous buffeting occurring in mountainous areas, or when flying over terrain where thermals were being generated.

This new low-altitude regime imposed totally new stresses on the airframe. Boeing was investigating the problem of turbulence in mountainous areas when a gust of wind knocked 85 percent of the vertical surfaces of a B-52G. Only expert piloting by Boeing test pilot Charles E. “Chuck” Fisher, working with the full support of both Boeing and the Air Force, spent three harrowing hours before he was able to get the aircraft on the ground at Blytheville AF Base, Arkansas, where the wind was straight down the runway.

Modifications and Maintenance: The Secret of Longevity

The secret of B-52 longevity was the continuous maintenance and updating that the Air Force provided. All B-52s through the C model had been built in Seattle, but production was shared with the Boeing Wichita facility through the Ds, Es and Fs, with the Gs and Hs being made only in Kansas. “Lead the Fleet” aircraft were designated to accumulate more flying time than the average, in order to highlight problems. As the fleet aged, wholesale renovations, such as the “Pacer Plank” project engaged in major modifications of structure, including the replacement of huge areas of the “skin,” the aluminum covering of the wings and fuselage. Nor were only older, high time aircraft involved, for the wing redesign of the G and H models proved to be flawed. A new 7178 aluminum alloy had been used to save weight, and it had inadequate fatigue and damage tolerance, resulting in a wholesale modification of both the Gs and Hs. The crucial nature of the modification came to light when a B-52G, 58-187, with only 650 hours total flying time, suffered a massive fuel leak at altitude. The pilot brought the aircraft back in for a landing, but when full flaps were extended, the wing failed and the aircraft crashed, killing all aboard.

Projecting Global Power

Strategic Air Command leaders knew that it was pointless to have devastating retaliatory power unless the enemy knew and took heed of it. The first major projection of B-52 capability came in January, 1957, when three 93rd Bomb Wing B-52s, commanded by Major General Archie Olds, flew 24,235 miles around the world non-stop. It continues to do so today, as witnessed by the March 30, 2004 return to Andersen Air Base, Guam of six B-52s from Minot Air Force, Base, North Dakota. The B-52s made a twenty-hour flight to project power once again from the base that was the heart of the bombing effort during the Vietnamese war.

By 1957, the rapidly growing Soviet intercontinental ballistic threat, in which missiles could strike U.S. targets within thirty minutes of being fired, forced operational changes on the Strategic Air Command. In the past, air crews generally had to be prepared to go to war with a twenty-four hour warning notice. On October 1, 1957 a new and far more rigorous alert concept was introduced, and B-52s were required to get airborne for a retaliatory attack within fifteen minutes of the order to take off.

This imposed a great strain on crews and families, particularly in the early days when there were no adequate alert facilities available. Crews had to stay together in close proximity to their aircraft, which were “cocked”, i.e. ready for engine start. When an alarm went off, SAC crews had their engines running within two minutes and were taxiing within five.

This introduced an entirely new factor in to U.S. warfare. For the first time in history, U.S. bomber crews were taking off to strike the enemy, fully aware that an incoming ICBM attack would destroy their base—and their families—after they departed. Chances were good that the B-52s would survive their mission, but a Soviet ICBM attack would put their families into the front line of danger. As a result, tension remained high with aircrews all through the Cold War. There were many training alerts called—but the crews never knew which one might be the real thing.

Alert duty practices varied from base to base and over the duration of the alert system, but typically, a crew might be on alert one week a month. This was in addition to their full load of training (the author frequently flew sixty to eighty hours a month in the B-47). Almost needless to say, the alert system wreaked havoc with marriages, as the husbands were either confined to the alert shack, or flying, or off on “TDY” (temporary duty).

Yet the system worked, and never more so than during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when all of the armed forces were ready to go to war. Their importance was emphasized by Nikita Khrushchev in his memoirs, where he noted that the he was always very aware of the presence of nuclear-armed B-52s on orbit outside the borders of the USSR. The B-52s first made him think—and then made him blink.

The Buff At War

There is both irony and validation in the fact that the B-52 did not go to war until more than ten years after it entered service, and when it did, it came not as the nuclear sword of SAC, but as the flying artillery of the ground forces in the Vietnam War.

The B-52 commenced its Vietnamese saga from Andersen Air Base, Guam, on June 18, 1965 when thirty B-52Fs of the 7th and 320th Bomb Wings were ordered to attack Viet Cong forces about forty miles north of Saigon in the very first Arc Light operation. (Arc Light operations were carpet bombings of enemy base concentrations and supply lines. B-52s would execute 126,615 Arc Light sorties before operations ceased in August, 1973.)

The initial results were very disappointing, for two B-52s collided in a mid-air, at the cost of eight crewmembers, including a general officer. Another aircraft was diverted and the remainder bombed an area from which the Viet Cong had just left. This would occur so often that the B-52 crews jokingly referred to themselves as “coconut knockers.” But the facts were different. The overwhelming power of the B-52’s ordnance, coming out of the blue without any warning, became the single weapon most feared by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese regulars. Arc Light missions reached a peak of 3,150 monthly by 1972, and the strategic nuclear bomber had been turned into an on-call tactical bomb deliver system.

Two notable battles justified the entire existence of the B-52, if it had done nothing else in its career. The North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen sought to do to the Americans at Khe Sahn what he done to the French at Dien Bien Phu: defeat them and capture many prisoners. He deployed two regular North Vietnamese divisions against a Marine force of 6,000, at Khe Sanh, and conducted a siege of more than 70 days. The Marines fought brilliantly, sustained by air power. The B-52 devastated the besiegers by dropping 59,542 tons of bombs, an act that General William C. Westmoreland said “broke the back” of the enemy resistance.

Even more important was the December 18 to 29, 1972, Operation Linebacker II, which clearly proved that air power, properly applied, could have won a victory in the Vietnamese War. When the North Vietnamese sought a military, not a negotiated, victory over South Vietnam, and pulled out of the Paris peace talks, President Richard Nixon responded by ordering an all-out air offensive. In twelve days, 729 B-52 sorties destroyed the defenses of Hanoi and Haiphong. The Buffs dropped 150,000 tons of 500- and 750-pound bombs, destroying or damaging 10 airfields, 500 rail targets, 1,600 structures and 80 percent of North Vietnam’s electrical power generating capacity. Surface to Air Missiles But success came with a stiff price. Surface-to-air missiles, shot down 19 American aircraft, including fifteen B-52s. Defenseless and aware that the B-52s could sustain the level of effort, the North Vietnamese hurriedly returned to the negotiating tables in Paris, where the U.S. promptly sold out its South Vietnamese allies to appease the vociferous anti-war groups in the U.S.

The B-52s, along with hundreds of other Air Force, Navy and Marine aircraft, had brought North Vietnam to its knees in Linebacker II, when, for the first time in the war, air power was used as it is supposed to be used. It is sad that a similar attack had not been made in 1965, when the North Vietnamese had virtually no defenses. There would have been no long Vietnam War, no prisoners in the Hanoi Hilton, and no sell-out of South Vietnam. Air Force officers, including General LeMay, had tried to avoid the war in Vietnam entirely, but once committed by President John F. Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, they offered a solution to winning the war: an all out air offensive. “Wiser” heads prevailed, and Secretary McNamara plunged us into the worst of all worlds, a land campaign on the Asian continent. His “all knowing” management style was a principal reason that the all-out bombing effort which could have led to victory was delayed for seven long years.

All during the Vietnamese War, and indeed to this day, the B-52 retained its capability as a “long-rifle”, able to penetrate enemy territory and drop nuclear weapons. It also added many other missions to its repertoire, including anti-submarine warfare, maritime reconnaissance and anti-shipping warfare. But the advent of new generations of precision guided munitions would add another chapter to its career, that of precision close air support. (The B-52s had been pretty precise at Khe Sanh, often dropping their weapons within 300 yards of U.S. lines.)

After the Vietnam War, the B-52 was modified to handle new weapon systems, including far more sophisticated air-launched cruise missiles and precision guided munitions, while retaining its ability to crush ground forces with tons of World War II type bombs. The B-52s’ defensive capability received comparable upgrades so that even in an age of stealth it continues to play a commanding combat role.

In Operation Desert Shield about eighty B-52Gs operated from the United States and four overseas locations including Diego Garcia, Moron, Spain, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and, briefly, from RAF Fairford, United Kingdom. For Operation Desert Storm, seven B-52Gs from the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana made history on January 17, 1991, by completing what was then the longest aircraft combat mission in history—thirty-five hours—attacking Iraqi targets. (The qualifier “aircraft” combat mission is used because of the spectacular 95 hour flight of the German Zeppelin L-59 in 1917, from Jamboli, Bulgaria, to East Africa and return.) The Buffs used thirty-five AGM-86B CALCMs (Conventional Air Launch Cruise Missiles), of which thirty-three hit their targets.

Another unique attack followed the ALCM mission, the first low-level combat attack in SAC history, when B-52s swept in at less than 300 feet above the ground to bomb four Iraqi airfields and an important highway. After that, three-ship cells of B-52s terrified the Iraqi troops by carpet bombing, dropping 150 bombs in a pattern that killed troops in the target area and demoralized those adjacent to it. Most of the ordnance was the conventional 750 pound bombs and cluster bomb units.

B-52s continued battered Iraqi’s elite Republican Guard. The around-the-clock hammerings became a powerful psychological weapon as ground forces gradually wore down and surrendered in droves. All total, B-52s flew 1,624 Desert Storm missions, delivered 72,000 weapons weighing 25,700 tons, and accounted for 29 percent of all U.S. bombs dropped and 38 percent of all Air Force bombs. It is a tribute to the enlisted force that despite being more than 30 years old, the B-52 had a mission capable rate of 81 percent – two percent higher than its peacetime rate. . No B-52s were lost to enemy action, but one crashed in the Indian Ocean on its way back to Diego Garcia, with the loss of three crewmembers.

The tremendous post-Gulf war draw down of the U.S. armed forces saw older models of the B-52 retired for economy reasons, leaving only the B-52H in active service. It has been continually upgraded, and retains both a nuclear and a non-nuclear capability. Its nuclear weapons could include some combination of twelve AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missiles (ACMS), 20 AGM-86A Air Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCM) and eight bombs. The conventional weapons payload is some combination of eight AGM-84 Harpoon missiles, four AGM-142 Raptor missiles, 51 x 500lb bombs, 30 x 1,000lb bombs, 20 AGM-86C Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missiles (CALCM), 12 Joint Stand Off Weapons (JSOW), 12 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) and 16 Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser (WCMD). WCMD was first deployed by the B-52 in 2002 in Afghanistan. JSOW entered service in 2003 and was deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The B-52 was the first aircraft to be equipped with the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), which was cleared for operational use in October 2003.

Further Combat

It was not until September 3, 1996, that the B-52H made its combat debut, during Operation Southern Watch. Two 2nd Bomb Wing B-52Hs, operating from Andersen AB, Guam, launched 13 CALCMs against targets in southern Iraq. The mission required the aircraft to refuel in flight four times.

Operation Noble Anvil, the U.S. portion of Operation Allied Force, saw B-52s from Barksdale and Minot Air Force bases commence combat operations in late March, 1999. The B-52s used both CALCMS and conventional weapons to hammer Yugoslav army units in Kosovo and help bring about a peace agreement between NATO and Serbia on 9 June. In the process, B-52s had flown 270 sorties and dropped 11,000 bombs.

The Buff began a new era on October 7, 2001 during Operation Enduring Freedom. B-52H bombers flying from Diego Garcia carried out daily and nightly missions against al Qaeda and Taliban targets throughout Afghanistan. For the first time, the Buff delivered pinpoint close air support on the request of friendly forces, using the JDAM. Operation Enduring Freedom also saw the B-52 first combat use of the Wind-Corrected Munitions Dispenser. A tail kit attached to a cluster bomb unit is used to adjust the bomb’s flight path to compensate for wind changes. B-52s also participated in psychological warfare operations by using their M129 leaflet dispensers.

Then, in March, 2003, the war horse returned to battle, as the B-52 entered Operation Iraqi Freedom not as a carpet bombing menace but now able to use precision guided munitions and air launched cruise missiles with the precision of a surgeon. The B-52 was, with the B-1, the primary aircraft fitted with the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) that proved so effective. And among the B-52’s portfolio of weapons was a new one, the Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser (WCMD) with Sensor Fuzed Weapon (SFW). On April 2, 2003, a B-52 bomber dropped six SFWs on a column of Iraqi tanks. The SFW deploys sub-munitions that sense the heat of individual armored vehicles. Using Global Positioning System signals, the WCMD automatically compensated for the wind, allowing the B-52s to strike accurately from high altitudes. Another remarkable demonstration of the adaptability of this remarkable aircraft was the inclusion of the LITENING Advanced Airborne Targeting and Navigation Pod. Developed in Israel, the weapon system was fitted on the B-52 almost literally as it went to war. (See Sidebar Three)

There will be more wars to fight in the future, and the B-52 will be there to fight them, maintaining its reputation as the greatest bargain in military history.

(Sidebar One)
The author is not a high-time B-52 pilot, but was checked out as an Aircraft Commander with the 4925th Test Group (Nuclear) at Kirtland Air Force Base. The 4925th was manned for the most part by an elite band of veteran instructor pilots from the B-47 training program at McConnell Air Force base, who had since accumulated several thousand hours in the B-52. I don’t think any of them would take offense if I noted that they were also a somewhat wild and crazy bunch, known to take a snifter of Jim Beam on occasion.

In 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union were close to signing an accord that would ban nuclear testing in the atmosphere. Both nations launched quick programs to do some final air-drops to test fusing and firing of existing weapons, and to experiment with new systems for future weapons. Thus it was that the 4925th was suddenly called upon to deploy to the Pacific to engage in Operation Dominic, a highly complex program for live testing of nuclear weapons delivered by both ballistic missiles and by air drops.

I was too junior to be a regular crew member, but acted as assistant operations officer and got to fly on mission in which we dropped a 4.5 megaton weapon, an experience no one could ever forget.
We took off from Barber’s Point, Hawaii, heading southeast to an area outside of Christmas Island, where a host of ground stations, surface vessels and orbiting aircraft awaited us. The aircraft were like gears in a clock, all moving around, all intended to be at a precise spot at the moment the huge weapon we carried detonated.

The procedure was fairly simple. The night was absolutely pitch dark from horizon to horizon as we entered the test range and were cleared for to drop. Our radar navigator was a World War II veteran, Major Blake White, no intellectual at all, and as profane and rambunctious man as you would ever meet. He was, however, a master of the radar set, and a brilliant bombardier.

The drop technique was simple—no breakaway maneuver was necessary because the bomb was parachute retarded. We did not even use the anti-glare shades that were provided or put on sunglasses.
Blake called “Bombs Away” then said “I’m coming up to watch.” He put his set on stand-by and came up the short ladder from his station to stand behind the pilot.

About forty-five seconds after “Bombs Away” the Mach meter gave a little shudder as the shock wave hit the aircraft. Then suddenly, the entire black world outside turned into brilliant daylight, brighter than the sun could do, when the bomb went off. It was incredible. What had been pitch black night was now intensely bright day, from horizon to horizon. And it was not a flash—the light persisted and persisted for what seemed minutes. It was an almost bewildering experience—and then Major Blake White came up with a remark that I’ll never forget. He said, quietly “Every head of state should be forced to see this.”

And he was so correct. Heads of states, and generals and admirals and congressmen and everyone in a position of power needed to see exactly what a nuclear explosion was like. In 1962, probably no head of state had ever witnessed a nuclear explosion on anything larger than a seventeen inch television set. There was no way to convey the awful power of an atomic weapon without seeing it. To this day, I remain convinced that it would be worth what ever harm it might do to the atmosphere to bring all the major leaders of the world to a place where they could witness a live nuclear explosion, and make them realize both the power and the danger of nuclear weapons.

(Sidebar Two)
People often ask me to compare flying the B-47 to the B-52, and I think a fair comparison (for a bomber or a transport pilot, certainly not for a fighter pilot) would be to say that if the B-47 is a sports car, the B-52 is a SUV. It’s just a little less maneuverable, and perhaps a little more difficult to fly in rough weather.

As big as the B-52 is, however, it is still a pawn to thunderstorms. When I was beginning to check out in the airplane, we went on a special high altitude mission which required us to wear pressure suits, which, as anyone who has worn them knows, are damn uncomfortable. (At least back in 1961 they were uncomfortable—they may be better now, but I doubt it.)

I was flying pilot for an aircraft commander whom I won’t name, out of respect, for he was truly one of the best pilots I’ve ever known. (Lets call him “Buster.”) Buster was envied by all (including me) because he was the real rarity, a “natural pilot.” Flying was effortless for him, he anticipated everything, and it was a joy to watch him.

But he did tend to be a little irascible and short tempered, and this quality had been exacerbated by our relatively short, four hour flight in pressure suits. We were returning to Kirtland on a summer day, with summer storms skirting through the area. You could clearly see individual thunderstorms moving through what was largely clear, if bumpy air.

He told me to call for a straight-in approach, which was reasonable, as we were short on fuel (you couldn’t get to pressure suit altitudes in our B-52C if you had any sort of a fuel load.) As we continued our approach, a thunderstorm was moving from north to south, across the west end of the field, about a half-mile out from the runway. We got the usual warnings from ground control, and closer in, from the tower, but I didn’t worry about it, for it would either clear out of the way by the time we got there, or we would go break off and make another approach.

To my amazed horror, the A/C kept boring in. We’d completed the check list, and there was no one ahead of us on the runway, but the thunderstorm had stopped right off the end. I looked over at him, waiting for him to do something.

There is no doubt in my mind today that I should not have watched, but instead, grabbed the control column and made a ninety-degree turn. Instead, I stupidly watched us plunge right into the thunderstorm.

We didn’t go far. That storm spat us out in a vertical bank to the left, roaring over the hangar where base operations’ aircraft were kept. “Buster” didn’t say a word, just manhandled the airplane back to straight and level, made another 90 degree turn and re-entered the pattern. By this time the thunderstorm had moved off, and he made his usual smooth touch down. Not a word was exchanged as we left the cockpit, and no one on the ground, knowing Buster’s temper, mentioned it either. But no one on the aircraft ever forgot it; there’s something about looking out the side window, straight up, in a B-52 that is memorable.

(Sidebar Three)
LITENING is an advanced airborne infrared targeting and navigation pod that improves both day and night targeting capabilities. It enables the B-52 radar navigator to positively identify dynamic targets in a continually changing battlefield environment. The radar navigator sees real-time images rather than just receiving relayed data points, thus greatly increasing the aircraft’s flexibility. The B-52s use LITENING to designate targets with pinpoint accuracy for laser-guided munitions, and do not require an outside target source either on the ground or in the air .

LITENING was used by B-52s to target facilities at an airfield in northern Iraq at April 11. A B-52H manned by reservists from the 93rd Bomb Squadron, Barksdale Air Force Base, La., and active duty airmen from the 23rd Bomb Squadron, Minot AFB, N.D., flew from a forward operating location to attack a radar complex and a command complex at the Al Sahra airfield northwest of Tikrit. They successfully dropped laser-guided GBU -12 PAveway II munitions using the LITENING system. (The Paveway II munitions are conventional 500 pound Mk 82 bombs equipped with a laser guidance system.)

9 Responses to The Adaptable, Perennial Warrior: the B-52

  1. Thanks, Peter, good to hear from you!

  2. And I remember reading how many times in the 70s and 80s that the B-52s were obsolete and had to be replaced by B-1s and B-2s, and yet the B-52 turned out to be so adaptable.

    • Yes, Charles, there used to be a joke that when the last B-1B went to the graveyard, a B-52 would pick them up for the flight back. That could easily be true about the B-2 as well!
      Take care

  3. Don Joyce, Sr.

    I had theof flying the BBUF for 27 years and thought it was (and IS) an excellent aircraft! LeMay did that!
    But times have changed. With Fighter Generals and liberals running the show, we may never get a “new” Heavy Bomber to replace the aging BUFFalos now flying. …And, rootin’ tootin’ Putin is quickly rebuilding the Russian (“Soviet”) Air Force!

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