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!
***and have more thrust than all of the engines they currently use combined.***
When I worked on these aircraft back in 1966-67, when we ran one for maintainance on the ground, at full throttle you could see the air condense to fog in the intake.
If there was water from rain on the flightline, the engine could pick up water from the ground and pull it up in the intake. It looked like a small tornado. We hd a “bull pen” in front to keep someone from walking in front of the engine and being pulled in.
The noise was so loud your whole body vibrated with the sound vibrations, and when we tested the water injection, the vibs and noise increased so much that ear defenders and ear plugs were about useless. When the engine was shut down, you tingled for hours afterward.
Analog computers boot fast.
Our Dictator should just ban all US defense aircraft and it is not needed in George Soro’s new world era.
Back in the USSA. America had changed to Obama’s aMeriKa.
With the B-52H the problem isn’t thrust - it’s the airframe’s ability to handle the thrust in various flight envelopes.
We would set take off power and take off and later we would set climb power and advance the throttles.
There is one minor error in the basic article. At the end of Vietnam there were two BUFF variants in use - the B-52D and B-53G. Most of the B-52Ds had the “big belly” modification. They carried 84 internal (3 clips of 28 each) and 24 external iron bombs. Those 108 iron bombs could be dropped (armed) in a half second or spread out over several seconds. Either way the “BUFF Print” was impressive.
I agree, I've been futzing with computers since the birth of the BUFF and the only vacuum tube computer I've ever run across was an analog model. It was well suited for solving differential equations and little else. It was/is more likely that vacuum tubes might be found in radio comm gear or perhaps radars. I was given to understand that Russian avionics was largely vacuum tube, not because they didn't have semiconductors but VT gear was more rugged on a nuclear battlefield (EMP!). The advent of "hardened" semiconductors negated that advantage.
That is a rather silly statement.
I do believe, correct me if I'm wrong, that the military did not build one damned thing in your list.
The military is, quite simply, a gigantic government procurement program, with tons of failures and a few successes.
Ok, so lets keep a few things in mind here.
First, the total # of B-52s currently in-service are a fraction (less than 10%, I think) of the total produced.
The model currently in service, the B-52H, spent the majority of its career carrying nukes and standing ground alert. The earlier models had their wings flown off serving on airborne alert and flying combat missions in Vietnam.
The B-52H was also optimized for a low-level penetration mission profile. Compared to other B-52s it was over-engineered and over-built for brutal, aggressive low-level flying. It has a VERY strong and robust airframe compared to the other models (iirc the early B-52G was something of an interim step between the D’s and F’s and the H), and while the fleet HAS flown a lot more since the end of nuclear ground alert, it does so at high altitudes that doesn’t put a lot of stress and fatigue on the airframe.
I’ve been wondering where the B-52’s thrust was at these days. I recall reading that the original B-52 engines had 12,000 lbs each.
That really sounds like a blast. (I suppose the pun is intended)
I do not believe that I said that the military built them so do not go putting words in my mouth please!
I said common root and in that I meant that, unlike the civilian world, the military has certain elements in what they buy, how they buy and how they keep things. Take the smallest of the specified items, the Browning M1911 Automatic. It was developed through a 10+ year purchase cycle as the US Army sought a large caliber automatic. John Moses Browning and the Colt Firearms Company won that contract in 1911 and that gun has never been out of productions since.
What I was making a point on was that the US Military, in many of its procurements, is as much the developer as the companies that manufacture these items. Their long-term use is by the feedback from the military to make these items better over time. And the constant maintenance cycles kept to by the military keeps these items functional.
Yes it is not impossible to do the same thing in civilian production but I cannot point out a similar case there, can you? So since I was commenting upon these items as being amongst the best investments made by the US Government I think I will stand on this 'silly' statement that you are DAMNING! Frankly, the only better investments that I have seen from our government are the various land purchases but that is hard to characterize as a physical item.
“Gee Sarge” said the new 2LT, “This is the same serial number B-52 that my great grandfather flew during the Cold War.”
***That really sounds like a blast. (I suppose the pun is intended)***
Even the jackrabbits behind the blast fence at Walker AFB in Roswell NM were deaf.
“...Air Force Capt. Daniel Welch is piloting a plane that his father flew during the Cold War and his grandfather flew in Vietnam...”
“... 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. ...”
LA Times, at least, is in error.
B-52D,E,F, and G went into action at various times during the involvement in SE Asia.
H models - only variant still in active inventory - did not deploy overseas until December 1979.
The photo posted with the article is a little disingenuous. It was taken of an H model that lost its vertical fin not in action but in a tussle with mountain-wave clear air turbulence over Colorado, in the 1960s: peacetime training. The aircraft landed without further serious incident.
And the H model can still cruise above most anti-aircraft fire; only the very largest systems can loft anything so high (50,000 ft or higher). No one has developed anti-aircraft systems that can reach the lowest low altitudes at which the aircraft can cruise for hours and hours (if it cannot be seen because it’s below horizon, no one can hit it).
Not even manned interceptors can do it reliably, despite what the average fighter pilot claims. They’re scared of descending so low.
When Nixon sent the B-52’s over Hanoi in 1972 I was happy to see the devastation but I also thought the Pentagon wanted to use up the bombers before they became obsolete. About 10 were lost in the raids. That was more than 40 years ago.
Excellent! Makes it easier to sneak up on them!
The B-52 is part of our cultural history...that may be the only poem I remember in its entirety from grade school.
My father used to work on the analog computers on the tail guns. I used to live in the flight line a couple of miles from the end of the runway of Larsen AFB in Moses Lake, WA and the B52-s came over our place first in silver and white and, as the Vietnam war ramped up, in Green camo on top and black on the bottom. To this day the B-52 is my favorite airplane ever made.
I also love Dr. Strangelove. ;-)
I'd sooner place the credit on an earlier time of design and budget constraints. Sometimes [I think of poetry when it was poetry], limitations and restrictions can lead to ingenious results.
C130 is a great addition! (although I might have argued while riding in the hot, noisy, flying hydraulic leak (that reminds me we might have to add the $#!^hook, too))
The C5A Galaxy was just rolling off the production line at the Lockheed plant a few miles away.
Seeing that behemoth roll into a low level turn as it lined up with the runway was a sight you NEVER forget.
Remember, this is 1969, and most people, me included, had not even seen the Boeing 747 yet.
The C5A looked like a building with wings on it!
That singing group, The B52’s have lasted because they were true originals who could sing and perform, not just Twist and Shock like nowadays. I loved The Luv Shack and Rock Lobster, good clean ridiculous fun.
***and black on the bottom.***
The ones I saw were white on bottom.
I am amazed that those floppy wings have lasted this long, but as someone pointed out, the H model birds were built super-strong to survive the bouncing of low-level flight.
Even though the lead singer is queerer than a 3-dollar bill.
The B52 must have been put together in a fantastic way due to the WW2 geniuses who won the war for us and who were still employed by our aircraft manufacturers. There must have been an effective disciplined military like organization in this effort to build the B52. With a minimum of corruption.
So great architecture. That can be be kept going with new engines and new electronics and computers. Cadillac fins and all
I could care less if he is a queer as a 4 dollar bill. Love Shack is the best and hilarious.