Foreign Policy

How the B-52 Became Immortal

The combat aircraft that will not die.


If and when the U.S. attack on Syria takes place, it will be different in some ways from any previous intervention. But it will have one thing in common with every war the United States has fought in the past 50 years: B-52s will be available for the fight.

This bomber is the combat aircraft that will not die. In 1977, when Congress was debating whether to build a replacement called the B-1, the complaint was that the B-52 was older than the pilots flying it. This fact was supposed to capture its obsolete character and sagging decrepitude.

The pilots of the 1970s may no longer be fit for duty, and other planes of that era can be found only in museums. But the B-52, which began production in 1952 and stopped in 1962, has defied the actuarial tables. Air Force Capt. Daniel Welch is piloting a plane that his father flew during the Cold War and his grandfather flew in Vietnam, The Los Angeles Times recently reported.

Don't be surprised if another generation of the family is in the cockpit before it goes into retirement. The Air Force plans improvements that will keep the plane around till 2040.

It's not quite your grandfather's B-52. True, its onboard computers are pitifully underpowered antiques and some models still have vacuum tubes—Google that, kids. Barry Posen, director of the Security Studies Program at MIT, informs me that "there are dials in the B-52 cockpit that have not been connected to anything for years."

But the plane has been repeatedly remodeled and upgraded to assure its utility, with new engines and electronics. Soon it will be "getting modern digital display screens, computer network servers and real-time communication uplinks," according to the Times.

The B-52 is known in the Air Force by the profane acronym BUFF, whose first three letters stand for big, ugly, and fat. But it has survived innumerable attempts to phase it out in favor of flashier, more expensive models—many of which long ago ended up on the scrap pile. Its endurance is a testament to the value of being sturdy, cheap, and good enough for government work.

Originally designed to deliver nuclear bombs onto targets in the Soviet Union, it turned out to be ideal for raining havoc on communist positions in Vietnam—a tactic that became known by the immortal term "carpet bombing." It could carry up to 81 500-lb. bombs.

The plane was meant to soar above anti-aircraft fire, but when the Soviets developed missiles that could reach high altitudes, it was adapted for low-altitude penetrating missions. When the enemy devised technology to foil those, the Air Force turned it into a platform for nuclear-tipped cruise missiles—which could be launched from outside the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, it retains its value for bombing missions against adversaries who lack formidable air defenses—as in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Serbia.

One of its virtues is relatively low cost, which presumably makes the Pentagon more willing to use it. The high price tags on the B-1 and the B-2 Stealth bomber mean the Air Force can't buy as many of them and has to exercise more caution about putting them in harm's way.

Another factor is that while more advanced aircraft possess capabilities that are rarely needed, the B-52 is perfectly adequate for most real-world contingencies. MIT defense scholar Owen Cote told me that since the 1990s, "we've been essentially continuously at war against smaller powers with weak or nonexistent air defenses, against whom the range, persistence and versatile payloads of the B-52 can be invaluable."

The reason it might not be used in Syria is not that it wouldn't be helpful. If Syrian air defenses were knocked out, it could take on the same role it has in past wars. But the attack might be done entirely with missiles fired from Navy ships.

The B-52 has certainly been used in a lot of conflicts that the United States would have been wise to avoid. But it allowed us to fight them more effectively and less expensively than they could have been. It also dissuaded Congress from wasting even more money on unnecessary substitutes.

It is not about to stop serving those purposes anytime soon: Boeing says the aircraft may still be operating on its 100th birthday. The Air Force has another long-range bomber on the drawing board. But to the B-52, a drawing board is just another soft target.

NEXT: Brickbat: Unpardonable

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  1. Another fact to add to the pile, Humans have been flying heavier than air craft for 110 years, starting in 1903. The B-52 has been flying for more than half that time, having taken off 49 yers into the run. And since there is always at least one in there air somewhere in the world, that is quite literal.

    It ranks among my favorite aircraft for sheer stubborn bloody-mindedness.

    1. “And since there is always at least one in there air somewhere in the world”

      This isn’t a thing

    2. there is always at least one in there air somewhere in the world

      I’m not sure that’s true anymore. Maybe during the cold war, but considering there are currently only 85 in service, I highly doubt this.

  2. How the B-52 Became Immortal

    I blame Kate Pierson.

  3. Is it still a US Air Force standard that every B52 pilot has to talk like Slim Pickens and wear a cowboy hat?

    1. Only those based out of Texas. Those based in other states are forbidden from doing so instead.

      1. Only if you’re willing to bronco-bust it to detonation.

  4. And, on a kind of serious note, this does make me consider that maybe the B-52 should be considered a contender with the DC-3/C-47 as “most-awesome plane EVAR). The DC-3 also was indestructible and still flies somewhere. But I don’t think with the regularity or with the current level of function as a B-52.

    So – maybe the B-52 is the longevity king now? Long live the king, baby.

    1. You can throw the C-130 in there with them.

      First flew in 1954, still in service with the US and will be for at least the next decade, will be in active service with smaller countries for another 30 years past that at least.

      1. Not only is the C-130 still in service, it is still in production. They are talking about beginning development on a replacement sometime next year, to go in service around 2024. So yeah, I think we’ll be seeing that old bird around for a while.

        I had a couple of skydiving buddies who were in the Golden Knights. Apparently the C-130 is the greatest jump plane ever. The pilots needed to get their flights in for their jump rating, so the team would pack their parachutes on the way to altitude. They’d land pretty much simultaneous with the plane and then hop back on and pack on the way up. They could get several dozen jumps in a day. Made me jealous, but not jealous enough to join the army.

    2. Back in the mid-80s, I was working on communications systems out of Dallas. One of our customers was a contractor for the then cargo service, “Flying Tiger Express.” They flew DC-3s and puddle hopped to places like OKC, Tulsa, Amarillo, etc. They asked us to upgrade their Tulsa system, so I ended up flying out of DFW on one of their DC-3s. Amazing experience! We’re taking off into a strong crosswind, and seemed to move more sideways than down the runway, but get off the ground, in the midst of all that jet traffic. Then, while we were in air over Oklahoma, they let me get behind the stick for a bit. They weren’t worried, as they said it’s one of the most stable planes, ever (the wingspan is actually longer than the fuselage). I will say, it was a blast!

  5. Since that configuration seems to work so damn well, why aren’t they just making a B-52B instead of a totally new plane?

    1. Umm, they’re on the B-52H already.

      But those letters are upgrades of the airframe rather than new construction.

      The reason they don’t build new is because today’s engineers are convinced they can make it ‘better’ and won’t leave the overengineered original frame which is the key to it’s current longevity. They can’t help but meddle in the wrong areas on new builds.

      1. The reason they don’t build new is because today’s engineers are convinced they can make it ‘better’…

        I think you are probably wrong about that. It’s more of a procurement issue. Anytime you try and build a new airplane, everybody with a notable voice starts adding on requirements. The net sum is an airframe highly specialized for a specific task, ie. sneaking stealthily past air defenses or flying past them at a high rate of speed.

        If you told a talented group of engineers to build a plane just like the B52 with a per unit cost limit of twice the price of a current 787 and an engineering budget of $30 billion, you would have some pretty notable upgrade. Significant upgrades to durability, speed, range stealthiness, and reduced take off and landing speeds should be relatively trivial.

        1. “If you told a talented group of engineers to build a plane just like the B52 with a per unit cost limit of twice the price of a current 787 and an engineering budget of $30 billion”

          Unfortunately the congressmen and company owners would introduce feature creep and just generally blow up the bill and destroy the timeline.

          By the time you were done you’d have a plane that took 15 years to get off the ground and was 5 years behind cutting edge technology.

          And the nature of your conflicts would have changed making it too expensive to buy and too expensive to operate to be worth buying a lot of them (coughB2cough).

      2. I suspect the tooling doesn’t even exist to make B-52’s anymore just like Saturn V’s. That’s usually what the government does in its infinite wisdom. That way we get to stimulate with future billions to rebuild a capability we’ve already spent billions on. Brilliant.

  6. Look at the A-10 Warthog. Perfect for its application despite being decades old.

    1. Indeed, it really is a shame the Air Force is run by Fighter Jocks and hates the Ground Support role with a passion.

      The A-10 is pretty much a perfect pairing of mission and capabilities and the Air Force has been trying to kill it off with “multi-role” aircraft (multi-role means shitty ground attack plane that can be re-purposed for air superiority missions once it fails) since the 80’s.

      Rather than wasting money on Boondoggles like the F-35 they should have taken the Russian approach with the basic F-15, F-16, and A-10 airframes and make incremental improvements in each

      1. As much as I agree with you, I am pleasantly surpised by the competence, pragmatism, and charisma of this new CSAF

      2. I’ve always thought the A-10 should be turned over to the Marines (and they can dump the F-18).

        And a surprising number of military vehicles have long lives – I’ve served on ships built before Vietnam (my first ship was built during the Korean War).

        the M-1 came into service in 78, the M-113 in 1960, the M-2 in 1961 for example.

      3. More like bomber jocks with some fighter tagalongs. The Air Force has always been about dropping heaving iron bang sticks on the other guys and winning through strategic bombing.

        The fighter guys’ biggest success came when the fighter mafia managed to wrest control of the spec process of the F-15 after we freaked out over the (incorrectly) perceived capabilities of the M-25.

        But you’re right that close air support has never been a priority of the Air Force in spite of the incredible success (and ridiculously low cost) of the A-10.

    2. The A-10 is actually not that old at all. First service date is ’77

      1. Nearly 40 years is still a fair run. But the point is that the AF hates it with a passion. They’re all going to Air National Guard squadrons.

  7. Learned how to conduct aerial refueling as a boom operator (Boomer, get it?) in the USAF with the B-52 as the receiver of choice. Speaking of immortal aircraft, the BUFF isn’t alone

  8. I would have enjoyed it more, if it was in english some other language. one of my friend knew which language this blog was written in then he explained me and i liked it.

    1. Reason –

      Flag button, goddamnit!

      That is all.

  9. uptil I saw the bank draft that said $9401, I didnt believe that…my… friends brother had been truly receiving money part-time on their apple labtop.. there moms best frend had bean doing this 4 only about 17 months and just now cleared the dept on their cottage and bourt a brand new Fiat Multipla. go to website

  10. Don’t be too critical of the vacuum tube circuitry. The B52 was intended to deliver nuclear weapons and one of the products of nukes is an EMP pulse. Vacuum tubes are vastly more resistant to EMP damage than solid state circuits.

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