- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Quarterback Tom Brady, at 43, won raves for capturing yet another NFL championship this month, but the Super Bowl included an even more astounding tale of longevity.

The B-52 Stratofortress that streaked over Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, just before the kickoff is a model that dates back to the earliest days of the Cold War and remains a critical if unflashy workhorse for the Air Force. The fabled B-52 is on course to be among the first military aircraft to fly and fight for an astounding 100 years before retiring.

The B-1B Lancer and a B-2 Spirit that flew alongside the B-52 as part of a “bomber trifecta” above the stadium are both decades younger but will be long retired when the last B-52 heads off to the boneyard. It was your grandfather’s bomber and could be your granddaughter’s as well.

“They designed the thing to last a while. They took very good care of the airplane,” said retired Col. Russell Stephenson, president of the B-52 Stratofortress Association. “It’s a very flexible, enduring airplane. It can take a lot.”

The B-52 was first deployed to be part of America’s nuclear arsenal under the Eisenhower administration. It later became one of the most recognizable symbols of U.S. military operations in Vietnam and played major roles in combat missions in the Balkans and the Middle East. More recently, B-52s have been used in aerial “show of force” missions over the disputed South China Sea, in the fight against the Islamic State group and in eastern Syria.

In 2021, the bomber marks its 65th year of continuous service, according to Air Force records. With design tweaks in 2013 and 2015, projections have the B-52 in service through the 2050s.

So what’s the secret to its longevity? There are several reasons why the 1960s-era B-52H — the current and final model — remains one of the most sought-after weapons in the nation’s aviation arsenal.

Part of the answer is its size. The B-52 Stratofortress is more than 40 feet high and 159 feet long, with a wingspan of 185 feet. It can haul 70,000 pounds of ordnance — bombs, mines and missiles. The weapons bays were spacious enough to carry a load of atomic bombs constructed before miniaturization. Each is powered by eight Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines.

It’s not the biggest thing in the skies. A Boeing 747 is 70 feet longer and nearly 23 feet taller than the B-52H. But the huge, easily retrofitted airframe has made the B-52 a reliable go-to craft for a wide range of missions, including serving as the “mother ship” for launches of storied smaller planes such as the X-15 and the X-43.

During the Vietnam War, its snub-nosed profile and cargo capacity earned it the nickname “BUFF,” which in the sanitized version stands for “Big Ugly Fat Fellow.”

“It has a very large internal volume inside. You can add a tremendous number of things to it — sensors, equipment, data links, radar,” said author and aviation historian Richard Hallion. “You have the space and you have the power to do this.”

‘Psychological impact’

Despite its advanced age, the B-52 displays the flexibility of youth by adapting well to every mission it has been given. It was initially deployed as a long-range, high-altitude nuclear bomber, but it was being used in conventional saturation bombing missions in Vietnam by the mid-1960s. The B-52 also was deployed to harass the Viet Cong and offer no respite from combat through continuous and devastating Operation Arc Light missions.

“The B-52 has always had a very powerful psychological impact,” Mr. Hallion said. “The psychological impact is sometimes even greater than the physical impact.”

The Air Force sent 68 B-52G models to the Middle East to help fight the Gulf War. The bombers dropped 27,000 tons of munitions during the air war, amounting to 30% of the overall Gulf War tonnage. The B-52 flew 1,741 sorties without a combat loss and had an 86.2 mission-capable rate, Air Force officials said.

During the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, U.S. Special Forces troops relied on B-52s flying at 40,000 feet for close air support against the Taliban. The rise in precision munitions, especially those guided by GPS coordinates, delivered the rounds to within 10 feet of the targets. As was the case in Vietnam, the B-52 proved to be intimidating to the enemy.

“The power of the B-52 is almost symbolic,” Mr. Hallion said.

Adding to its value and versatility, the B-52 is the only strategic bomber in the U.S. fleet that can carry both conventional and thermonuclear ordnance.

“It’s just a workhorse, and it’s a fun machine to fly,” said Col. Stephenson, who flew more than 1,400 combat missions as a B-52 navigator.

Its longevity and distinctive profile have even made the plane a cultural touchstone, particularly after the B-52 accepted a starring role in the 1964 Hollywood black comedy “Dr. Strangelove.” The new-wave rock band The B-52s took their name from a beehive hairstyle said to resemble the real bomber’s signature nose cone.

The B-52 went through a steady series of upgrades since the first one rolled off the plant at Boeing. The Air Force now wants to install new engines in the 76 B-52H models still in operation.

Unlike the B-21 Raider bomber, the eventual replacement for the B-1 and B-2 bombers, the B-52 is not particularly fast or stealthy. That could place them at risk for surface-to-air weapons. But the development of cruise missiles allowed B-52 crews to attack targets from well outside an enemy’s airspace.

“It doesn’t have to operate within the enemy threat range,” said Mr. Hallion. “It can fire a weapon from a hundred or thousand miles away and still get that same effect on target.”

Because it can carry such a large load of ordnance, the B-52 has a reputation in some quarters as little more than a “bomb truck.” But Mr. Hallion said it’s much more than that.

“We’re in an era now where every single airplane is becoming a sensor, an information exchanger and an intelligence-fusion system,” he said. “The fact is, this is an astonishingly adaptable and useful” aircraft.

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