The Air Force’s newest B-52 turns 50

The Air Force’s newest B-52 turns 50

The Air Force’s youngest B-52 Stratofortress will turn 50 years old this October.

It’s the subject of a terrific writeup by Tech Sgt. Chris Powell, packed with great detail about the bomber, and also telling in what it doesn’t say: The Air Force’s forthcoming new bomber has enormous shoes to fill.

Wrote Powell:

“I don’t think anyone really knew this was going to be the last B-52 ever made,” said Robert Michel, the 5th Bomb Wing historian. “They expected it to be in service for probably about 20 years, (not close to) a hundred.”

With Tail No. 1040 and the rest of the Air Force’s B-52s scheduled to keep flying through 2040, there are several reasons why the B-52 has been flying for more than 50 years.

“I don’t think you can get a bomber that could replace the B-52 that will do everything the B-52 does,” Michel said.

That’s because the B-52 can perform nuclear deterrence and conventional operations, fly at both high and low altitudes while carrying nuclear and conventional bombs, cruise missiles or aerial mines, he said. “It’s like the Swiss Army bomber.”

To keep a fleet of aircraft flying for so long, it takes constant attention from maintainers to ensure the planes are every bit as airworthy as the rest of Air Force’s fleet.

“The aircraft has seen some really good maintainers through its years,” said Staff Sgt. Eric Thomas, a dedicated crew chief assigned to the 5th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. “I think it’s a compliment to the maintainers and the people who support the airframe because there aren’t many aircraft that are flying 50 years after it left the factory. It’s definitely not the prettiest plane out there, but it can take a beating and keep on kicking.”

However, even with highly trained maintainers, keeping the B-52 flying day in and day out is no easy task. Thomas said 1040 requires less maintenance than the rest of the B-52s at Minot AFB, which is surprising, considering it’s also the most active aircraft at the base. On average, the rest of Minot AFB’s B-52s have between 17,000 to 18,000 flying hours, while 1040 has more than 21,000, Thomas said.

Tail 1040 was the last of 744 bombers, Powell writes; they’d been in production since 1952. (Boeing delivered 100 BUFFs in Fiscal 1958 alone.) This armada of B-52s constituted the mailed fist grasping the lightning bolts on the Strategic Air Command emblem, though mercifully, the bombers’ combat career has involved delivering only conventional ordnance.

Comparisons are odious, but if you set the run of airplanes that ended with 1040 against the Air Force’s proposed new bomber, the difference could not be starker. Still, the Air Force hopes it can repeat history; here’s what service officials said in their budget submission this year: “By relying on proven technologies and by planning to evolve the aircraft over time as threats evolve, similar to the B-52 legacy fleet, the up-front acquisition costs will be reduced significantly from the B-2 experience. The average procurement unit cost is anticipated to be about $550 million in FY 2010 dollars for a fleet of 80–100 aircraft.”

That may not include the off-board systems the Air Force also wants to constitute “Long-Range Strike,” and the particulars of the new bomber itself are not for you to know, silly taxpayer — just keep signing those checks. So we can’t say yet where exactly the new airplane will fall on the spectrum from B-52 to to B-1 to B-2 in terms of actual cost, ease of manufacture, performance and so on. We can say that the Air Force needs to develop and buy it around the same time it’s going into full production of the F-35 Lightning II and the KC-46A tanker, so that could present another challenge the B-52 didn’t have back in its day.

There’s another big unanswered question about the future of the Air Force’s bomber fleet: Even though commanders think they can upgrade and maintain the B-52s so they fly until 2040, does that mean staying at today’s operational tempo, or spiraling down to account for their ever-increasing age and wear? If the fleet were called upon to log some major hours in an unexpected campaign or crisis, that could pull its sunset date much closer forward in time, or require still more investment to keep the airplanes around.

Then again, Tail no. 1040 has already served for so long — longer than most Navy warships, let alone aircraft — that it and its siblings might be able to just stay in the fleet forever.

Join the Conversation

Really good piece…right up until the “odious” comparison. Kudos for the forewarning though!

Do to that the B-52 is subsonic and is easy to maintain increased flight hours may not shorten its life span at all. Don’t forget they have flown mission in combat from Vietnam to Afghanistan today and still fly fine. The new bomber may replace the B-2 but not the BUFF, mostly due to that the Buff is the world premier ALCOM missile carrier and dose a cheap easy job delivering them to any target anywhere. the stand off missile allow B-52s to be used in any theater of war and remain safe distances away from targets which allows it to fly quickly to safety.

If any bomber days are numbered the B-1 is the first to go. USAF planner want to cut most out of service to save money for KN-46 and F-35 programs anyway.

Can someone tell me why the B-1 cannot do all the same tasks as the B-52? Is it the engines?

The “Newest” is half a century old.. very very sad. Good thing we need to continue giving our politicians special privileges to “serve us”, like their A+++ healthcare. Yet when we get the same benefits they do, some (Republicans) want to outlaw it…

Weapon intergration cost, the money which simply doesn’t exist.

It just proves, that we need to get something done, we can always get a B-52 to do the job

And treaties. The B-1B is restricted to internal payload from one or another of our treaties with the Russians; also, no ALCM carriage is allowed.

Just for clarification, none of the current B-52 fleet flew in Vietnam. Those were B-52Ds and Gs. All have since been retired or destroyed in accordance with nuke treaties. The current B-52H fleet (built between 1961 and 1962) did the 24-hour SAC alerts during the Cold War. Plenty of wear and tear to be sure, but they weren’t in Vietnam.

Is that “sad” or a testament to a great weapons program? I think the airframe has proven it hasn’t needed to be replaced over the last 50 years. We’ve adapted the B-52 series to every conflict and era that it has lived in without too many headaches and it has done amazing work.

Oh, yes, explain to me how Obamacare is anything like Congress health care. In fact, the Democratic Congress that voted the fiasco in specifically excluded themselves from it.

its big its fat thats were its at long live BUFF!!!

The B-52 and the 707 were cousins. The same process should take place with the replacement for the B-52 in reverse. Use the 747 airframe fill it with modern electronics and harden as needed for military use. Low cost and efficient

So basically the B-1B is your linebacker bomber

Setting aside the curious ‘cousins’ metaphor, Pray tell– exactly what is it that the described ‘amped-up’ MIl-Spec 747 would be doing under the“low-cost”, “efficient”, and ‘military use’ descriptors? I mean other than what other 747s in military use do not already do?
Just asking,
But yes– It is a loaded question ;-)

I was at Minot when they delivered 1040. We failed our first three ORIs before the fired the entire Wing & Squadron senior staff. Ugly. As we were a new Wing/Squadron, SAC gave us a break on the first two. We passed the fourth one.

I do agree I was talking about Gs which saw service till the late 90s before Hs replaced them.

Don’t be foolish. Congress would always gets to keep their A+++ plans for life while us plebs get a much worse system.

I know that there is a lot of nostagia for the old B-52 and it is great for bombing the Taliban, but in a future war against a country with a real air force, the B-52 will be toast. I’m sorry but we have to face the facts here. We should be retiring the B-52 not the B-1, we should then build the B-1R immediately and retire the B-1B. The B-1R would be an excellent stop gap until the next Generation bombers could be on line. I realize that the B-1R is just a concept, but it is an excellent concept that could be easily built. The History channel had an awesome show for a while called Dogfights, one episode was Dogfights of the Future. If you haven’t seen it, google it and watch it.

The BUFF is still a great platform for delivering massive ordnance in benign airspace. Any fourth generation fighter or missile system could shoot one down, but that’s not the point. It can carry stand-off weapons in large quantities or penetrate deep with a heavy load of mixed weaponry when needed. I dropped a lot of iron in Iraq during the first war. It wasn’t a cake wake, but the BUFF proved it was still worthy. The PSYOP factor alone was worth bringing it to the war. Don’t let the enemy sleep at night!

I flew as a B-52 Nav/Radar Nav for 14 years. Not sure if I ever flew 1040, but it doesn’t really matter. They all left a lasting impression on me. (The smell of a B-52 cockpit will forever be burned into my memory :-) When I got assigned to B-52s I wasn’t at all happy. However, I quickly learned to love and respect the weapon system. There is no other weapon system in the world with the breadth of capabilities. None! The true heroes are the maintainers. Time and again I saw young men and women busting their a– to give us a safe and reliable jet to go fly and fight. Many many thanks to all B-52 maintainers and loaders alike. You are warriors and your efforts are nothing short of heroic on these beautiful ol’ blistered birds.

I’m glad to hear someone say good things about the Maintainers and Loaders, but we also have to thank the thousand of people who have served with or along the B-52 no other aircraft in the world has done so much for liberty. Yes we can retire the B-52 but we will never forget them they are the pilar of SAC when the Cold War was hot and they are the pilar of our war against terrorism. Thank you B-52

Actually, the B-1 can be configured to do all those things. ALCMs, sea mines, all of it… politics keep it from performing the mission, as mentioned. But… all the hardware exists (although you have to take out the forward weapons bay divider to fit the ALCM launcher into the aircraft.

As one who was part of the team at IBM that upgraded the Bom-Nav System from analog to digital and later worked for Big B to upgrade and add a lot of the current systems on this fine old bird, I am proud of the B-52 and its contribution to world peace! I hope some of the current H models like 1040 find a nice place to retire some day.

While that is true, the first B-52 to be used in combat were the B-52Fs. So Vietnam used 3 models of the B-52, the D, F, and G.

But why no mention of the B-52’s stablemate, the KC-135. It was built from 1955 to 1964, the last delivered in 1966. While all the KC-135 ‘55 and ‘56 models are retired, there are still plenty of 1957 models still flying everyday for the USAF. They are doing everything from training, to hauling cargo around the world, to still flying combat refueling missions. In fact the KC-135As entered combat long before the first B-52F did.

A flight of B52s will do the fly-by at the B1 retirement ceremony. B1, B2, and B52…what do you have? A strategic bomber and two Bingo numbers.

I was assigned to the 416 AMS in 1973 when they were fitting the “teats” (IR and TV cameras) to the front of the BUFs. I spent many hours running the wiring for that project, and later gained flying status as an airborne nav technician flying in B-52Gs and KC-135 tankers. Many fond memories. I think the only ones left flying are the H models which had turbofan engines and a bunk in the upper level.


I agree that the B-52 is a great platform for delivering massive ordnance in benign airspaces. Still going strong for this remarkable aircraft.

@ BuffNav

What made you unhappy when you assigned to the aircraft?

Way to go LANCE! MK

OK-Here we go–First, if the temp is 42 or less and there’s visible moisture in the air, the B-1 can’t start engines cause those big air inlets make ice and the engines shell out. Second, you load a B-1 full up and it has a service ceiling of 18K feet–it can’t even get out of controlled airspace. A Buff can climb to 50K feet fully loaded. Third, at cruise altitude the good old Buff is as fast as the sleek B-1–true, it CAN go fast in a dash, but it uses up all of its fuel. Finally, the B-1’s ECM suite might be able to open your garage door, but that’s about the best it can do. The B-1 is an expensive piece of junk and should be retired quickly!!

Jerry, I also worked for the Big B on the OAS testing the Boeing developed software for the Navigation and Weapon Delivery systems. The IBM computers were programmed by Boeing. Initially there were two “tower” computers (NAWD & CAD) later there was a third added — the “hot” Spare. I also came to the program after retiring from the USAF where I had been an EWO on the B-52D during the 63–68 time. Only the G and H got the OAS although the D’s got a “poor mans” version which lasted only a short while before the D’s were phased out. Only the Ds & Gs flew in Vietnam, as I recall. The D’s flight to return from Vietnam was at block altitude 41–43 thousand feet. Very quiet up there and the pressurization system gave us a 14,000 foot cabin altitude on some birds. The maintainers and loaders can never be praised enough! Old engines on the Ds just kept thrusting away! Jim Bradley

Actually, the service ceiling for the B-1 is 18000 METERS, not feet. It has a higher ceiling than the B-52. Also, the inlets are heated, 42 degrees is the point you have to turn inlet heat on.
I will however agree that it has a limited advantage overall compared to the B-52.

Went to tech school at Chanute AFB on the B-52 in 1967. When I first saw the D model outside and the E model inside which was used for power on, I was totally awed by its presence. They were going to teach me the aircraft in 16 weeks! No way I thought. Well 16 weeks later I graduated and it was amazing what we learned. Maintained B-52’s at March AFB for two years and then moved to MAC on C-141’s at Norton AFB. Needless to say quite a change. Everytime I hear a jet engine I look up to see if BUFF is passing by!

Would like to see the plan to replace engines on the B-52 revived. Simplest would be to install JT8D-200 series, similar to the JStars. Would extend range by reducing fuel burn vs. the original engines.

I worked on 1040 as an avionics technician (autopilot and compass systems) while assigned to the 17th Bomb Wing at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio. It was the designated “leader of the fleet” aircraft and flew more hours than any other H model. The years were 1969–1971. It’s good to know she’s still flying!


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