The B-52 Stratofortress Bomber Transformed the U.S. Air Force Into a Superpower

November 10, 2023 Topic: military Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: B-52B-52HB-52 StratofortressAir ForceU.S. Air Force

The B-52 Stratofortress Bomber Transformed the U.S. Air Force Into a Superpower

A total of 744 B-52s were produced in Seattle, Washington, and Wichita, Kansas, culminating with the B-52H model last delivered in 1962. It served as the main long-range heavy bomber of the Air Force during the Cold War and continues to be a critical part of the bomber force today.


The B-52 Stratofortress is on Track to Fly for 100 Years - In our consumer-driven world, we're used to the latest and greatest. Since being introduced in 2007, there have been around 400 iPhone models (actually 42 but it sure feels like a lot more). Likewise, there have been concerns in recent years that "fast fashion" – the trend to introduce new clothes constantly – is literally killing the planet.

There is also a common misconception that the U.S. military and the nefarious industrial complex that supports it are constantly trying to roll out new killing machines.


However, one only needs to be reminded that the backbone of the United States Air Force's bomber fleet today is an aircraft that entered service when "The $64,000 Question" was America's top-rated TV show. That would be the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress and the year was 1955!

In fact, the long-range strategic bomber first took flight at a time when fewer than half of Americans had a TV set, and when rock and roll music was the hot new thing (not to mention considered a potential danger to the youth). More importantly, by the time the bombers are finally retired, which is now scheduled for sometime in the 2050s, the B-52 will have been in service for around a century.

By the time it retires, it could be operated by the grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of those who were originally at the controls.

Enter the Stratofortress

Designed and built by Boeing in the early stages of the Cold War, the B-52 was developed to be a strategic bomber "capable of carrying out the strategic mission without dependence upon advanced and intermediate bases controlled by other counties."

As conceived it would have been an evolution of the bombers that saw service during the Second World War, but the decade between the end of that conflict and when the B-52 entered service saw radical and rapid technological advancement. The first design proposal saw six propeller-driven engines and a straight wing – and that quickly progressed to the final prototype YB-52 with eight turbojet engines and swept wings.

The Stratofortress took its maiden flight in April 1952 and entered service less than three years later in February 1955. Built to carry nuclear weapons, the B-52 replaced the Convair B-36 Peacemaker. Due to its massive size – its length is 159 feet, four inches and it has a wingspan of 185 feet – and the fact that it can't be described as a "handsome" aircraft; it quickly earned the nickname "BUFF" (Big Ugly Fat Fella).

A total of 744 B-52s were produced in Seattle, Washington, and Wichita, Kansas, culminating with the B-52H model last delivered in 1962. It served as the main long-range heavy bomber of the Air Force during the Cold War and continues to be a critical part of the bomber force today.

During its nearly seven decades in service, the BUFF had set numerous records – including on January 18, 1957, when three B-52Bs completed the first non-stop round-the-world flight by jet aircraft, lasting 45 hours and 19 minutes and requiring only three aerial refuelings. It was also a B-52 that made the first airborne hydrogen bomb – the Mk-15 – drop over Bikini Atoll on May 21, 1956.

The B-52 Goes to War

The B-52 is the veteran of numerous wars, and while it was designed to carry nuclear weapons it has only dropped conventional munitions in combat – beginning in June 1965 in Southeast Asia. 

A number of B-52Ds underwent "Big Belly" modifications to increase bomb capacity for carpet bombings – the modification created enough capacity for a total of 60,000 pounds using 108 bombs, an increase of 22,000 pounds more than the B-52Fs.

During the war in Vietnam, B-52s originally flew from Andersen Air Force Base (AFB), Guam, with each mission lasting 10 to 12 hours including aerial refueling. In the spring of 1967, the BUFF began to operate from U Tapao Airfield in Thailand so that refueling wasn't required.

During the Battle of Ia Drang in November 1965, the aircraft served in its first tactical support role. By August 1973, the Stratofortress had flown 126,615 combat sorties with seventeen B-52s lost to enemy action. In addition, it was during the war that B-52D tail gunners were credited with shooting down two MiG-21 "Fishbeds."

Following the end of the Cold War, the B-52s played an important role in Operation Desert Storm in Iraq in 1991, hitting numerous Iraqi targets. 

In Operation Desert Strike the bomber was involved in a 34-hour, 16,000-statute-mile round trip from Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, to strike the Baghdad power stations and communications facilities with 13 AGM-86C Conventional Air-Launched Cruise Missiles (CALCMs). At that time, this was the longest distance flown for a combat mission.

In the skies over the former Yugoslavia during Operation Allied Force, the heavy bomber was employed to bombard Serb targets in March 1999 – including the Battle of Kosare. BUFFs also contributed to 2001's Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, where the aircraft dropped a third of the bomb tonnage; and Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, where B-52Hs launched at least 100 AGM-86C CALCMs at targets within Iraq.

According to the U.S. Air Force, in a conventional conflict, the B-52 can perform strategic attack, close-air support, air interdiction, offensive counter-air and maritime operations. It can be highly effective when used for ocean surveillance and can assist the U.S. Navy in anti-ship and mine-laying operations – and in two hours, a pair of B-52s can monitor 140,000 square miles (364,000 square kilometers) of ocean surface.

Just 58 Remain In Service

Though 744 were built, with the final aircraft being delivered in October 1962, there are currently 76 in the United States Air Force’s inventory. Of those 58 are active with the 2nd Bomb Wing and 5th Bomb Wing, while 18 more are in reserve with the 307th Bomb Wing. 

Another dozen are in long-term storage at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (AFB) "Boneyard."

Its operational capabilities have been adapted over the past seven decades to meet changing defense needs. This included modifications for low-level flight, conventional bombing, and extended-range flights. The current fleet of B-52s can launch ballistic and cruise missiles hundreds of miles from their targets, and there have been efforts to develop hypersonic weapons that can be employed with the bombers.

The Air Force expects the B-52Js with new engines and radars to be ready for service by the end of the decade. Thanks to these and other upgrades, the legendary B-52 could reach 100 years in service by the time the platform is finally retired.

Author Experience and Expertise

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

Image Credit: All Images Creative Commons.