Before Americans had the ability to watch color television, the Air Force had the ability to drop nukes on the Russians and fly back home, thanks in large part to the B-52 Stratofortress, also known as the BUFF.
The YB-52 (as the plane’s prototype was known) took its maiden flight on April 15, 1952, and hasn’t stopped since. Well, the original one has stopped, but not the program. And there is very little indication it will stop anytime soon. In fact, the B-52 Stratofortress is projected to fly until 2050, long after color TV will have been replaced by some other form of entertainment.
The Big Ugly Fat… Fellah
While the plane first flew in 1952, the B-52 program reaches back to 1946, when U.S. Army Air Forces requested a six-engine propeller-powered heavy bomber. Boeing designed the prop-driven bomber as requested, and was in Dayton to present the design when they were told to scrap it and come up with something new. The requirements had changed to an all-jet bomber, instead.
The story goes that Boeing engineers sketched out plans for the new B-52 on cocktail napkins in a hotel in Dayton, Ohio. They fleshed out the design specs into a 33-page report, then hastily carved a balsa-wood model to present to the Army. All over the weekend.
Now, I haven’t seen these cocktail napkins, but in 2017 I saw the balsa-wood model at Boeing’s Oklahoma City facilities. That model looks like a hand-carved kids’ toy from the ’40s or ’50s. Nevertheless, it changed the face of the bomber community forever.
Full production of the B-52 as we know it did not begin until 1952 when the Air Force ordered 282 of the aircraft. There were three B-52A models produced before performance specs were updated; then the B-52B began production in earnest. In all, eight models (A-H) were produced in response to overall aircraft modernization.
The B-52 in War Time
Altogether, Boeing produced 742 B-52 bombers, not counting the YB and XB prototype versions. Considering the bomber did not become operational in the Air Force until 1955, it didn’t serve in Korea, but it would be ready for the remainder of the Cold War and Vietnam. And it is still serving strong on the Global War on Terror.
A Unique Cold War Mission
The B-52 was the next-generation B-36. The B-36 offered long-range and heavy payload but was hindered by its low speed. With the change to eight jet engines, the B-52 now had the range, payload, reliability, and speed. Strategic Air Command would set the B-52 up with nuclear weapons, and the era of alert status would begin.
One of the B-52’s more well-known missions was Operation Chrome Dome, a nuclear mission that lasted for almost nine years. The operation was deceptively simple: load B-52s with nuclear weapons and keep them in the air near the Soviet borders. Always. At regular intervals, B-52s would leave airbases in the U.S. and Greenland to maintain a continuous bomber presence near Russian borders.
Thankfully, the nukes were never deployed, and the U.S. and U.S.S.R. stalemated it out until the late ’80s. The idea of continuous bomber presence was a good one, though, and was revived in the 2000s to project power into the Pacific theater.
The B-52 Goes to Vietnam
While built to take nuclear fire to our enemies, the B-52 was called upon in the mid-’60s to assume a conventional bomber role. Operation Arc Light in 1965 saw the B-52’s take on its first actual combat role. Flying above the clouds at 50,000ft, the B-52 was neither seen nor heard as it dropped its conventional warheads on North Vietnam.
Operation Arc Light bombing carried on throughout the Vietnam War, racking up over 126,500 missions between 1965 and 1973. During those years, a total of 31 B-52s were lost; 18 were lost to enemy fire and 13 to accidents or crashes. No other B-52s have been lost to enemy fire since.
This author’s father-in-law, with the 82nd Airborne, 3d Brigade (1969-70), has told him stories of grunts using Arc Light craters to bathe in. Out on patrol, they would come across huge swatches in the jungle where the B-52s had done their thing. He recalls,
“Near the Cambodian border, the craters would fill during monsoon and were basically giant swimming pools. They had to have been 30ft round and 15ft deep. The water would be crystal clear. First time we came on one, one of the guys found a Vietnamese mortar at the bottom. From then on, me and another grunt would have to swim down and check any others for munitions before anyone else could jump in.”
They would post up guards, break out the soap, and go for a swim. Humping through all that destruction sucked, but at least they got a bath!
The B-52 in the Gulf War
On January 17, 1991, the B-52 dropped the first of many bombs on Iraqi targets. This was the beginning of the first Gulf War. Launched from stateside bases, these B-52s flew high and fast to get to Iraq, then low and fast to beat radar and put munitions on target.
B-52s flew hundreds of missions over Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait during the Gulf War. With F-4G “Wild Weasels” and F-15E “Strike Eagles” running interference, the B-52 bombed targets, and also picked up battlefield air interdiction missions. These were targets identified when the bomber was already in the air, then passed on to crews who could then update navigation systems and go where needed.
With B-52s almost constantly in the air, Iraqi troops had no idea when or where the bombs could drop. Though they tried, Iraqi ground troops were never able to bring one down. There were a couple of close calls involving surface-launched missiles, but no planes were brought down.
Post-9/11 and the Global War on Terror
This author was at the end-of-runway on the night of October 6, 2001 — when the first B-52s and B-1s took off from Diego Garcia to take the fight to al-Qaeda — as part of an AMC package, with C-5s shuttling in personnel, equipment, and bombs. It was an awesome sight, with both bombers lined up, taking off in intervals. Even B-2s would make brief appearances for fuel, but we were told not to even look at them so I can’t be sure they were real.
From then until mid-December, B-52s flew an average of five missions a day, each mission lasting 12-15 hours. That doesn’t include pre- and post-flight briefings, which can easily tack hours onto the missions. B-52s dropped hundreds of tons of conventional munitions over Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria during the war. None of the B-52s involved in the Global War on Terror have been lost to enemy fire.
Looking Into the Future
With upgrades to the engines and communications systems, the B-52 will likely be flying until 2050. Plans are in place to re-engine the aircraft, likely starting in 2027. This is about the same time the B-21 is slated to come online.
Communications upgrades will include the Combat Network Communication Technology (CONECT) program, which provides real-time intelligence streaming, and Link-16 standard NATO communications systems to be in line with our NATO allies.
The B-52 was built to be America’s air arm of nuclear deterrence. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the need for all these nuke bombers dwindled.
Thankfully, the BUFF can carry more conventional munitions than either the B1 or B2. Further. testing of hypersonic weapons is already taking place to be used on the aircraft, and the Long-Range Standoff Missile (LRASM), currently in production, will be used on the BUFF as well.
Cool BUFF Stuff
The “H” model B-52s are the only ones still in service. The final “H” was delivered to the AF in 1962, so the youngest BUFFs out there are almost 60-years-old. Considering the BUFF is so old, it makes sense that even three generations of the same family have flown it: Col. Don Sprague, Col. Don Welch, and Capt. Daniel Welch are grandfather, father, and son, all of whom were BUFF operators.
Actor Jimmy Stewart, a B-24 bomber pilot during WWII, flew his last AF bomber mission in a B-52 over Vietnam. It sounds like he was pulled from the boneyard to fly. This is interesting in another way: In 2015 and 2019, two B-52s were pulled from the boneyard at Davis-Monthan, AZ, and regenerated back into the force. This was done to bring BUFF levels to the congressionally mandated level of 76.