Apparently, the Air Force gets B-52 bomber engines running using explosives.

The B-52 Stratofortress is a 93-ton strategic bomber, so you may need something more explosive to get you going in the morning. In order to maintain the aircraft running, Air Force maintenance crews practice using a small controlled explosive cartridge that can substantially reduce launch time.

According to a 2008 press release, Senior Airman Andrew Poole, a crew chief with the 36th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, stated that eliminating the need to bring out the ground equipment needed for normal takeoffs would speed up aircraft startup time.

“The charges basically jumpstart the engines, removing the need to bring out the aerospace ground equipment used on normal launches,” said Tech. Sgt. Andrew Poole, 36th EAMXS crew chief. “By removing these steps we increase the aircrafts startup time from more than an hour to less than 10 minutes.”

Gearheads have been using shotgun-like shells to get tank and aircraft engines going for generations, and it sounds crazy to start an engine by blowing it up. However, the technique was first introduced in the 1930s. According to Hemmings Motor News, it became a helpful alternative to electric starters in remote areas where electricity or backup battery power was unavailable.

Even before its engines are started, the B-52 requires an external generator and air cart to get moving. According to John Brehman, a former B-52 crew chief who served in the Global War on Terror, the B-52 does not have an auxiliary power unit, so the launch procedure begins by connecting a generator and air cart to two of the bomber’s eight engines. Next, the ground crew starts the engines, then the remainder follows, ensuring no fires or other abnormalities occur.

B-52 Takeoff
(Source: Balon Greyjoy/Wikimedia)

Brehman and his fellow airmen occasionally practiced cartridge starts, also known as cart starts. He said the cartridges were about 10 inches in diameter, weighed about eight pounds, and were always described as large shotgun shells.

A circuit activated the carts from the aircraft’s battery, and as such, had to be protected from static electricity as much as possible, lest they inadvertently fire,” he said.

“They simply supplied a large volume of pressurized gas into the engine in a short time to turn the compressor.”

Brehman remembered installing engines 4 and 5 for exercises, but each machine could be loaded with a cartridge if the jet had to get moving “very, very quickly,” he said. Air carts or external generators weren’t required on exercise days; the ground crew would start the engines.

Everything can be pre-set, and after large plumes of smoke are blown away quickly by engine exhaust, you can taxi out in minutes, he said.

On the other hand, training scenarios take much longer because of all the safety checks involved than regular starts, which is ironic because starts are supposed to save time. Having muscle memory in place in case of an emergency, however, is still helpful.

“During these scenarios we perform like we would in an emergency situation, the pilots run out of the vehicle to the aircraft, the maintainers load the cartridges as fast as they can, and we can get the bird airborne in less than 10 minutes,” said Poole.

Check out the video of a B-52 cart and start to watch one yourself: