The Buzz

The B-52 Bomber: America's Cold War Workhorse (That's Still Flying)

The United States Air Force fields a force of three heavy strategic bombers: the B-2 Spirit, the B-1 Lancer and the B-52H Stratofortress. In service for more than fifty years, the B-52H has remained remarkably relevant for a half century and fought in wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan. The aging bomber, originally designed to drop nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union and other intercontinental targets, could very well fly on into the 2030s and beyond.

The B-52 bomber arose from a U.S. Air Force requirement for a long-range jet-powered bomber. The rapid deterioration of relations between the United States and Soviet Union made the USSR a threat and potential enemy, and the USAF needed a bomber capable of flying to targets in Eurasia and back again.

The B-52 first flew on April 15, 1952. The five-man bomber was the largest ever, with a wingspan of 185 feet and a height of forty-eight feet with the landing gear down. The B-52 originally had a tandem cockpit for the pilot and copilot, which was switched in later versions to a side-by-side cockpit arrangement. 744 B-52s of all types were produced, with the -D, -G, and -H versions the most successful.

The big bomber had eight J-57 jet engines (later replaced with TF-33 engines in the B-52H) in four pairs of two engines each, giving it a top speed of 575 to 630 miles an hour and a range of more than ten thousand miles. On December 10, 1962, a B-52H flew unrefueled from Kadena Air Base, Okinawa to Torrejón, Spain, a distance of 12,532 miles. This satisfied the Air Force’s range requirement, putting all of Eurasia in range with midair refueling.

The B-52 was heavy, too: the B-52H model had a maximum takeoff weight of 488,000 pounds, including bombs and fuel, and could top off its tanks with aerial refueling, bringing its in-flight weight to 566,000 pounds. That included tens of thousands of pounds of conventional bombs, as the B-52—particularly the -D model with the Big Belly modification—could comfortably carry eighty-four five-hundred-pound Mk 82 or forty-two 750-pound M117 conventional bombs in the bomb bay and another twenty-four bombs on external pylons, for a total of 89,100 pounds of bombs.

Nuclear deterrence, however, was the B-52’s most important mission. Depending on the version, B-52s carried nuclear gravity bombs and or cruise missiles. The bomber carried the full range of Cold War nuclear gravity bombs, from the 1.45 megaton B28 hydrogen bombs to the relatively modern B61 bomb. Cruise missiles ranged from the Hound Dog nuclear-tipped cruise missile of the late 1950s to today’s Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM).

As the mainstay of the B-52 force, the -D, -G and -H models have served from the early 1960s to the current day. The -D model was rebuilt for high-density bombing, and performed the majority of B-52 missions over North Vietnam between 1965 and 1973. B-52s “carpet bombed” strips of land 1.2 miles long. At one point 210 B-52s were in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, more than half of Strategic Air Command’s force, and so many it was said thirty had to be in the air at any one time because there wasn’t enough room for them on the ground. Ultimately, the Air Force would lose seventeen B-52s in combat over Vietnam and another fourteen to noncombat incidents.

After Vietnam the B-52 force narrowed to the -G and -H models. The Air Force expected to replace the B-52 many times, starting with the XB-70 Valkyrie, then the B-1 bomber and the B-2 bomber. Each time the planned replacement was either canceled or the numbers of aircraft cut, necessitating keeping the old bomber in service. The bombers flew on until 1991, when B-52Gs participated in the bombing campaign to eject Iraq from Kuwait. B-52s again dropped long sticks of high-explosive bombs on enemy troop concentrations, headquarters and other targets. B-52s flying from Saudi Arabia, Diego Garcia, the UK and Spain flew 1,741 missions and expended twenty-seven thousand tons of munitions—nearly twice as much TNT equivalent as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

B-52s again flew against Baghdad in 1996, flying from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and launching thirteen Conventional Air-Launched Cruise Missiles against regime targets. The resulting thirty-four-hour, sixteen-thousand-mile mission was, at the time, the longest combat mission ever flown. B-52s were among the first aircraft to strike targets in Afghanistan after 9/11 and proved unexpectedly effective as close air-support platforms, owing to their large bomb bay and long loiter times. B-52s also flew missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom, particularly in the opening days of the war.