Skip to comments.How the B-52 Became Immortal
Posted on 09/22/2013 6:31:05 AM PDT by Kaslin
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.
I could be wrong. but I believe you could mount one engine from a Boeing 737 to a B-52 and have more thrust than all of the engines they currently use combined.
Personally, I think the author is ill-informed. The comment “still has vacuum tubes” is indicative of little actual research for the article. In truth, most of the electronic systems in that aircraft have been replaced and/or upgraded.
Mount an engine or install an engine?
B-52engines = 37,000
737 engines = 27,500
That's been tried, with a 747 engine, IIRC. Worked fine, but why spend the money to change engines when there were thousands of spares available?
The B52, M2, and M1911 are the best investments ever made by the US Gubbmint. If everything worked as well my taxes would be 1% or less.
The B-52H has eight Pratt & Whitney engines that produce 17,000 pounds of thrust each.
Total thrust is 136,000 lb.
The two engines on the original Boeing 737-100 had a thrust of 14,000 each.
The two engines on the newest version, the 737-800, produce 27,300 pounds of thrust each.
Total thrust is 54,600 lb.
I wouldn't be surprised if there were vacuum tubes throughout the B-52 as they resist EMP much better than most modern electronic systems.
Add the C-130 (almost as old as the B-52 in original design) and the Voyager spacecraft please. Sometimes things just do click into place. Note, however the common root - military!
Two P & W 4068’s would work just fine or 4 of their new Geared Turbo-Fan
It was a test bed for the JT-9 that Pratt was getting ready for the 747. Got to see it fly as a kid over the Connecticut River ( at low altitude even ) flying out of Westover I think...
The writer implied the use of vacuum tubes as representative of dated technology. I maintain that the electronic systems don’t have to still be vacuum based to be EMP hardened.
If you were to look at the manufacturing base that would be required to maintain vacuum tube technology widely used in the 50s and 60s like the ones my daddy and me used to take to the tube tester at the drug store, the costs would be ridiculous and unsustainable.
The only type of tube-based technology left would only be those associated with transmitter tubes (klystrons, Traveling Wave Tubes, or CRTs), and even the CRTs would have been replaced with LEDs screens, etc....
The Air Force has been on a constant maintenance sustainment program for that and many other aircraft, just to keep it within the realm of keeping them flying at all.
I remember a report some years ago. that the Russians still maintained vacumn tube radios for post-nuclear exchange comms.
Our grandfathers had refined a lot of technology by the time the transistor appeared.
There is something to be said for sturdiness and reliability.
I spent 3 weeks working at Offutt AFB, Omaha, NE in August. The pilots I met flying the KC 135’s said they were all younger than the planes.
I Hope that electronic systems don't have to still be vacuum based to be EMP hardened. Otherwise, the first multi- megaton nuclear detonation occurring over this country will put us all back into the stone age.
It seems Democrats and Greenies want to take us there, regardless of EMP....
“In truth, most of the electronic systems in that aircraft have been replaced and/or upgraded.”
Several times. The B-52 is kinda like the ax George Washington used to cut down the cherry tree. “It’s the original ax you see laying there, just has three new heads and five new handles”. Well, I thought it was funny :)
That is true....outside of the frame and skin...it is not the same as before... (even those have been upgraded as needed)
That’s been tried, with a 747 engine, IIRC. Worked fine, but why spend the money to change engines when there were thousands of spares available? “
Agree. And, you’re right four 747 engines were indeed tried and as you stated worked fine, better fuel efficiency and performance actually. I don’t know why the conversion project was never implemented but glad it wasn’t. There’s something about that big ole honking BUF bellowing exhaust out of eight engines that gives it a certain bad @$$ image that I like. Just wish it could still burn 60’s vintage jet fuel. Let me tell you, that dude really looked bad bellowing all that black smoke out of those eight engines when taking off. There were no mosquitoes around the runways in those days, lol!