B-52 Operational History

Three B-52Bs of the 93rd Bomb Wing prepare to depart Castle AFB, California, for their record-setting round-the-world flight in 1957

Although the B-52A was the first production variant, these aircraft were used only in testing. The first operational version was the B-52B which was developed in parallel with the prototypes since 1951. First flying in December 1954, B-52B, AF Serial Number 52-8711, entered operational service with 93rd Heavy Bombardment Wing at Castle Air Force Base, California, on 29 June 1955. The wing became operational on 12 March 1956. The training for B-52 crews consisted of five weeks of ground school and four weeks of flying, accumulating 35–50 hours in the air. The new B-52Bs replaced operational B-36s on a one-to-one basis.

Early operations were complicated by lack of spares and ground facilities while ramps and taxiways deteriorated under the weight of the aircraft. The fuel system was prone to leaks and icing, and bombing and fire control computers were unreliable. The two-story cockpit presented a unique climate control problem – the pilots' cockpit was heated by sunlight while the observer and the navigator on the bottom deck sat on the ice cold floor. Thus, comfortable temperature setting for the pilots caused the other crew members to freeze, while comfortable temperature for the bottom crew caused the pilots to overheat. The J57 engines were still new and unreliable. Alternator failure caused the first fatal B-52 crash in February 1956, which resulted in a brief grounding of the fleet. In July, fuel and hydraulic system problems again grounded the B-52s. To avoid maintenance problems, the Air Force set up Sky Speed teams of 50 maintenance contractors at each B-52 base. In addition to maintenance, the teams performed routine checkups which took one week per aircraft.

On 21 May 1956, a B-52B (52-0013) dropped its first live hydrogen bomb (a Mk-15) over the Bikini Atoll. On 24–25 November 1956, four B-52Bs of the 93rd BW and four B-52Cs of the 42nd BW flew nonstop around the perimeter of North America in Operation Quick Kick, covering 15,530 miles (13,500 nm, 25,000 km) in 31 hours 30 minutes. SAC noted that the flight time could have been reduced by 5–6 hours if the four inflight refuellings were done by fast jet-powered tanker aircraft rather than propeller-driven KC-97 Stratotankers. In a demonstration of the B-52s global reach, on 16–18 January 1957, three B-52Bs made a nonstop flight around the world during Operation Power Flite, covering 24,325 miles (21,145 nm, 39,165 km) in 45 hours 19 minutes (536.8 smph) with several in-flight refuelings by KC-97s. The 93rd Bomb Wing received the Mackay Trophy for their accomplishment.

The B-52 set many records over the next few years. On 26 September 1958, a B-52D set a world speed record of 560.705 miles per hour (487 kn, 902 km/h) over a 10,000 kilometers (5,400 nm, 6,210 mi) closed circuit without a payload. The same day, another B-52D established a world speed record of 597.675 miles per hour (519 kn, 962 km/h) over a 5,000 kilometer (2,700 nmi, 3,105 mi) closed circuit without a payload. On 14 December 1960, a B-52G set a world record by flying unrefueled for 10,078.84 miles (8,762 nm, 16,227 km). The flight lasted 19 hours 44 minutes (510.75 smph). On 10–11 January 1962, a B-52H set a world record by flying unrefuelled from Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan, to Torrejon Air Base, Spain, covering 12,532.28 miles (10,895 nmi, 20,177 km).

During this time, at the Strategic Air Command's peak strength in 1963, 650 B-52s were in operation in 42 squadrons at 38 air bases.

In informal circumstances, the official name Stratofortress is rarely used; personnel involved with the aircraft most commonly referred to it as BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fucker).

Vietnam War

With the escalating situation in Southeast Asia, in June 1964 28 B-52Fs were fitted with external racks for 24ื 750 pound (340 kg) bombs under project South Bay. An additional 46 aircraft received similar modifications under project Sun Bath. In March 1965, the United States commenced Operation Rolling Thunder, and the first combat mission of Operation Arc Light was flown by B-52Fs on 18 June 1965, when 30 bombers of the 9th and 441st Bombardment Squadrons struck a communist stronghold near Ben Cat in South Vietnam. The first wave of bombers arrived too early at a designated rendezvous point, and while maneuvering to maintain station, two B-52s collided, resulting in the loss of both bombers and eight crewmen. The remaining bombers, minus one more which turned back due to mechanical problems, continued on towards the target, which was bombed successfully.

B-52F releasing its payload of bombs over Vietnam.

In December 1965, a number of B-52Ds underwent Big Belly modifications to increase bomb capacity for carpet bombings. While the external payload remained at 24ื 500 pound (227 kg) or 750 pound (340 kg) bombs, the internal capacity increased from 27 to 84ื 500 pound bombs or from 27 to 42ื 750 pound bombs. The Big Belly modification now created enough capacity for a total of 60,000 pounds (27,215 kg) in 108 bombs. Thus modified, B-52Ds could carry 22,000 pounds (9,980 kg) more than B-52Fs. Replacing B-52Fs, modified B-52Ds entered combat in April 1966 flying from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. Each bombing mission lasted ten to 12 hours with an aerial refueling by KC-135 Stratotankers. In spring 1967, the aircraft began flying from U Tapao Airfield in Thailand giving the aircraft the advantage of not requiring in-flight refueling. These missions lasted only 2 to 3 hours. On 15 April 1968, a Replacement Training Unit was established at Castle AFB which converted B-52E through B-52H crews to B-52Ds so they could participate in combat in Southeast Asia.

On 22 November 1972, a B-52D (55-0110) from U-Tapao was hit by a SAM while on a raid over Vinh. The crew was forced to abandon the damaged aircraft over Thailand. This was the first B-52 to be destroyed by hostile fire in Vietnam.

The zenith of B-52 attacks in Vietnam was Operation Linebacker II (sometimes referred to as the Christmas Bombing) which consisted of waves of B-52s (mostly D models, but some Gs without jamming equipment and with a smaller bomb load). Over 12 days B-52s flew 729 sorties, dropping 15,237 tons of bombs on Hanoi, Haiphong, and other targets. In total, 30 B-52s were lost during the war, including ten B-52s being shot down over North Vietnam with five others being damaged and crashing in Laos or Thailand.

Air-to-air victories

During the Vietnam War, B-52D tail gunners were credited with shooting down two MiG-21 "Fishbeds". The B-52's first aerial MiG kill occurred on 18 December 1972, when tail gunner SSgt Samuel O. Turner, locked onto an intercepting North Vietnamese Air Force MiG-21 during Operation Linebacker II. Turner's Stratofortress just completed its bomb run and was heading outbound when the enemy interceptor closed in on his bomber. Both the MiG and the B-52 locked onto one another, and when the interceptor was within range, Turner fired a burst of quad .50 caliber machine gun fire into the enemy plane causing a gigantic explosion aft of Turner's bomber. The aerial victory was witnessed by MSG Lewis E. Le Blance flying tail gunner in a nearby Stratofortress. Turner's B-52, tail number 55-0676, is currently preserved and on display at Fairchild AFB in Spokane, Washington.

On 24 December 1972, during the same bombing campaign, A1C Albert E. Moore, flying tail gunner in the B-52 Diamond Lil, acquired a fast approaching target as his bomber was headed to bomb the Thai Nguyen railroad yards. Maintaining target acquisition on the interceptor, Moore opened fire with his quad fifties at 4,000 yards, maintaining fire until the enemy aircraft disappeared from his scope. Moore's aerial victory was observed by TSG Clarence W. Chute, a tail gunner aboard another Stratofortress, who observed the MiG-21 to catch fire and fall away. The Diamond Lil is currently preserved and on display at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado. SSG Turner was awarded a Silver Star for his actions and Airman Moore has the distinction of being the last bomber gunner to shoot down an enemy aircraft with machine guns in aerial combat during war time. The last Arc Light mission took place on 15 August 1973 and all B-52s left Southeast Asia shortly after.

The downing of these MiG-21s makes the B-52 the largest aircraft to be credited with an air-to-air "kill" in combat.

Cold War

Southerly route of the 'Operation Chrome Dome' airborne nuclear alert

During the Cold War, B-52s performed airborne alert duty under code names such as Head Start, Chrome Dome, Hard Head, Round Robin, and Giant Lance. Bombers loitered near points outside the Soviet Union to provide rapid first strike or retaliation capability in case of nuclear war.

B-52Bs reached the end of their structural service life by the mid-1960s and all were retired by June 1966, followed by the last of the B-52Cs on 29 September 1971; except for NASA's B-52B "008" which was eventually retired in 2004 at Edwards AFB, California. Another of the remaining B Models, "005" is on display at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver, Colorado.

A few time-expired E models were retired in 1967 and 1968, but the bulk (82) were retired between May 1969 and March 1970. Most F models were also retired between 1967 and 1973, but 23 survived as trainers until late 1978.

The fleet of D models served much longer. Eighty D models were updated under the Pacer Plank program (ECP 1581) at Boeing's Wichita plant. Skinning on the lower wing and fuselage was replaced, and various structural components were renewed. Work was completed in 1977. The fleet of D models stayed largely intact until late 1978, when 37 un-upgraded Ds were retired. The remainder were retired between 1982 and 1983.

B-52H modified to carry two D-21 drones.

The remaining G and H models were used for nuclear standby ("alert") duty as part of the United States' nuclear triad. This triad was the combination of nuclear-armed land-based missiles, submarine-based missiles and manned bombers. The B-1B Lancer which was intended to supplant the B-52, replaced only the older models and the supersonic FB-111.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the B-52Gs were destroyed per the terms of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). AMARG was tasked with eliminating 365 B-52 bombers. The progress of this task was to be verified by Russia via satellite and first-person inspection at the AMARG facility. Initially, the B-52s were chopped into pieces with a 13,000 pound guillotine.

In 1991, B-52s ceased continuous 24-hour SAC alert duty.

Gulf War and later

Retired B-52s are stored at the 309th AMARG (formerly AMARC), a desert storage facility often called the 'Boneyard' at Davis-Monthan AFB near Tucson, Arizona

On 16 February 1991, a flight of B-52Gs launching from and returning to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, struck targets inside Iraq. This was at the time the longest distance combat mission in history: 35 hours and 14,000 miles round trip. Over the next months, B-52Gs operating from bases at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, RAF Fairford in the United Kingdom, Moron AB, Spain and on the island of Diego Garcia flew low level bombing missions. The B-52s moved to high level missions after the first three nights. Coalition forces ensured air superiority and were able to suppress air defense systems capable of reaching bombers at a higher altitude. B-52s were an important part of the air war during Operation Desert Storm as they could be employed with impunity. The conventional strikes were carried out by three bombers dropping up to 153 750 pound bombs at a time, covering an area one and a half miles long by one mile wide. The bombings demoralized the defending Iraqi troops, and they could be induced to surrender rather than be destroyed. Flying approximately 1620 sorties in the Gulf War, B-52s delivered 40% of the weapons dropped by coalition forces, while suffering only one non-combat aircraft loss, with several receiving minor damage from enemy action.

On 2–3 September 1996, two B-52H struck Baghdad power stations and communications facilities with 13 AGM-86C air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) as part of Operation Desert Strike, a 34-hour, 16,000 mile round trip mission from Andersen AFB, Guam—the longest distance ever flown for a combat mission. Only two days prior, the crews completed 17-hour flights from Louisiana to Guam.

A B-52H Stratofortress of the 2d Bomb Wing lands at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.

Since the mid-1990s, the B-52H has been the only variant remaining in military service; it is currently stationed at:

  • Minot AFB, ND - 5th Bomb Wing
  • Barksdale AFB, LA - 2nd Bomb Wing & 917th Wing (Air Force Reserve Command)
  • One B-52H is assigned to Edwards AFB and is used by Air Force Material Command at the Air Force Flight Test Center.
  • An additional B-52H is controlled by NASA as part of the Heavy-lift Airborne Launch program.

The B-52 also contributed to Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 (Afghanistan/Southwest Asia), providing the ability to loiter high above the battlefield and provide Close Air Support (CAS) through the use of precision guided munitions, a mission which previously would have been restricted to fighter and ground attack aircraft.

B-52s also played a role in Operation Iraqi Freedom, which commenced on 20 March 2003 (Iraq/Southwest Asia). On the night of 21 March 2003, B-52Hs launched at least one hundred AGM-86C CALCMs.

In August 2007, a B-52H ferrying AGM-129 ACM cruise missiles from Minot Air Force Base to Barksdale Air Force Base for dismantling was mistakenly loaded with six missiles from which the nuclear warhead was not removed. The weapons did not leave USAF custody and were secured at Barksdale.

As of April 2008, 94 of the original 744 B-52 aircraft were still operational within the U.S. Air Force. Four of 18 B-52Hs from Barksdale AFB that are currently being retired are in the "boneyard" of 309th AMARG at Davis-Monthan AFB as of 8 September 2008.

Future of the B-52

Even while the Air Force works on new bombers scheduled for 2037 it intends to keep the B-52H in service until at least 2040, nearly 80 years after production ended. This is an unprecedented length of service for a military aircraft. B-52s are periodically refurbished at the USAF maintenance depots such as Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma.

The USAF continues to rely on the B-52 because it remains an effective and economical heavy bomber, particularly in the type of missions that have been conducted since the end of the Cold War against nations that have limited air defense capabilities. The B-52's capacity to "loiter" for extended periods over (or even well outside) the battlefield, while delivering precision standoff and direct fire munitions, has been a valuable asset in conflicts such as Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The speed of the B-1 Lancer and the stealth of the B-2 Spirit have only been useful until enemy air defenses were destroyed, a task that has been swiftly achieved in recent conflicts. The B-52 boasts the highest mission capable rate of the three types of heavy bombers operated by the USAF. Whereas the B-1 averages a 53% ready rate, and the B-2 achieved a 26%, the B-52 averages 80% as of 2001.

Additionally, a proposed variant of the B-52H was the EB-52. This version would have modified and augmented 16 B-52H airframes with additional electronic jamming capabilities. This new aircraft would have given the USAF an airborne jamming capability that it has lacked since retiring the EF-111 Raven. The program was cancelled in 2005 following removal of funding for the stand-off jammer. The program was revived in 2007 but funding was again canceled in early 2009.