The B-52 bomber is 70 years old. How is it still flying?

The B-52 First Took Flight Seventy Years Ago – The year was 1952. The Buick Roadmaster was the top-selling automobile that year, with a base price of $3,453. Jo Stafford’s “You Belong to Me Jo” topped the Billboard charts and I Love Lucy was the most popular TV show with a 67.3 rating share.

It was also that year, on April 15 that the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress first took flight. Seventy years later the bomber is still in service with the United States Air Force.

B-52: A Revolutionary Design

What would go on to become the biggest, heaviest and most powerful bomber ever to be built had been planned just a year after the Second World wᴀʀ ended – but as a straight-winged turboprop. The reason was that at the time no jet engine existed capable of propelling an intercontinental bomber, because the fuel consumption was too hit. The Soviet Union faced a similar problem, and instead of looking for a solution, developed the Tu-95 – an aircraft that would become the largest turboprop bomber ever built.

Interestingly, both the Tu-95 and the B-52 remain in service seven decades later, but the B-52 is clearly the more capable and versatile aircraft. That’s in no small part due to the efforts of Pratt & Whitney, which went on develop the highly efficient turbojet engine, the two-shaft J57.

Instead of being a merely evolutionary design that built on the bombers of World wᴀʀ II – notably the B-29 Superfortress – the Stratofortress was a revolutionary leap forward. It was redesigned in 1948 as a swept-wing heavy bomber. It would be too easy to dismiss it as a scaled up B-47, as it actually featured a wing design that was significantly different in section and in construction.

Keeping Them Flying

The first B-52s entered service in June 1955, and by the time production of the Stratofortress ended in 1962 a total of 744 had been built. There are currently 58 B-52 bombers in active service, with another 18 in reserve and another dozen or so in long term storage. The bombers have flown under various commands during those 67 years, beginning with the Strategic Air Command (SAC), until it was disestablished at the end of the Cold wᴀʀ in 1992, when its aircraft were absorbed into the Air Combat Command (ACC). Since 2010, all B-52 Stratofortresses fly under the Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC).

Those long-range, subsonic strategic bombers will also remain in service into the 2050s, with some reaching 100 years in service. To put that in perspective that would be akin to the U.S. military still relying on the French-designed Renault FT or FT-17 light tank today!

Though all of the aircraft are already far older than the crews flying them, the B-52s lifespan has been extended to the middle of this century through numerous upgrades.

Not Old – They’re Classics!

The B-52 has remained in service even as faster stealth bombers such as the B-2 Spirit entered service, and the reason is simple: the B-52 has a comparatively low operating cost. Moreover, the Rockwell B-1 Lancer and Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit may be newer aircraft, but they were pushed hard in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the B-52 airframes weren’t pushed to such extremes. That doesn’t mean the B-52 had it easy.

Rather it could be said the B-1 and B-2 are old beyond their years, while the B-52 is easier to maintain and upgrade. Like today’s “baby boomers” who were born when the B-52 was entering service, those upgrades and updates have kept it young – and not just young at heart.

Instead of hip replacements and cataract surgery, the B-52 has received new engines, improved flight controls, and last year a privacy curtain. It might be hard to believe, but for six decades the aircrafts have had to rely on a toilet that was in full view of the crewmates. That could be considered a team-building exercise of sorts, but the Air Force finally addressed the issue as increasingly mixed crews serve together on long-duration missions. B-52s are routinely deployed from bases in Louisiana and North Dakota to the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the Pacific as a show of strength.

Given all the other enhancements the bomber has received in recent years, an olive green curtain made of parachute material that is mounted with a bungee cord could seem to be a low-tech upgrade to add some privacy for when the crew must answer nature’s call, but apparently, it works.

New Engines

Last year, the Department of the Air Force also announced that it had awarded a $2.6 billion contract to Rolls-Royce Corporation, Indianapolis, Indiana, for B-52H Stratofortress military derivative commercial engines. The competitive single award contract was for 608 military derivative commercial engines, plus spare engines, associated support equipment and commercial engineering data, to include sustainment activities, to be used on the B-52H bomber fleet. The Rolls-Royce F130 engine will replace the currently used TF33-PW-103, which has powered the B-52 since the 1960s. The upgrade has been deemed necessary as the current engines will no longer be supportable beyond 2030.

By the time the B-52 retires in the early 2050s, the great-grandchildren of the original pilots who first took flight in the B-52 could be behind the controls of the final aircraft to take to the skies. And somewhere reruns of I Love Lucy will likely still be playing on TV.

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