Birthday of the B-52

April 15, 2002, will mark the golden anniversary of the B-52 Stratofortress. Fifty years earlier, at Boeing Field, Seattle, the YB-52 serial No. 49-0231, took off for the first time. No one, not even pilots A.M. "Tex" Johnston and Guy M. Townsend could have imagined that the eight-engine bomber would serve so well, so long, and in so many roles.

Certainly no one dreamed that the B-52 would be in action over Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. But it was.

The B-52 began projecting global air power with an epic, nonstop round-the-world flight of three aircraft in January 1957, and it continues to do so today. The original B-52 design was a triumph of engineering. Early in its eventful life, the B-52 was given the nickname "BUFF" which most say stands for Big Ugly Fat Fucker. Even the pilots of the BUFF call it that name, lovingly, of course. Despite being a marvel of engineering, its success has depended mostly on the talented individuals who built, flew, maintained and modified it over the decades. (Go Air Force!)

Through the years, the B-52 has proved to be an extremely versatile aircraft. In the early years, the plane was meant to overpower Soviet air defenses through a mix of high altitude (30,000 feet +), high speed (594 mph), and one of the most technologically advanced Electronic Counter Measures packages the world had ever seen. But as the Soviet air defense network grew, it was decided that instead of sending the bombers into Soviet airspace, they would launch the new generation of cruise missles developed in the late 1950's. When the United States committed to the war in Vietnam, the B-52 switched roles yet again. Now the bombers flew from 30,000 feet and provided close air support to troops on the ground. After the war ended, a polling of the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong guerillas showed that the B-52 was the single weapon most feared most by the soldiers. Why you ask? Because of the B-52's payload. The BUFF routinely hauled 50,000 pounds of bombs on missions, and when carpet bombing, it would tear 2 mile by 1 mile scars into the jungle in under a minute with such accuraccy that U.S. troops could call in strikes within half a mile of themselves. The next task for the B-52 came in Desert Storm, when the B-52 dropped small numbers of bombs with an attitude more toward precision than toward Carpet Bombing, a role which it was never intended for, but in which it performed admirably.

Called to combat once again in the War on Terror, the B-52 continues to give front line service in a variety of roles. What’s more, its career is assured for at least 20 more years as the mainstay of the U.S. Air Force's bomber fleet, and will probably survive the Rockwell B-1B Lancer, the aircraft which was designed as a replacement to the B-52.

Having never flown a B-52 myself, it is difficult to speculate how the giant flies, but pilots have nothing but good things to say about it. It pioneered technology that allows its wheels to twist up to 45 degrees for landings in crosswinds. This technology, first invented for the mighty B-52, is now being used again in the development of the commercial Boeing 777. The B-52 also has a two floor crew compartment, with the defensive and offensive systems operators sitting on a floor below the pilots, navigator and, on B-52A,B and C models, the tail gunner. Another oddity only to be found on the B-52 is the way it climbs, with its nose pointed down, as in, toward the ground. The angle of attack of the wings into the wind actually cause the bomber to climb with its nose pointed down. Yet, for all its strange features, and the smell of "50 year old coke and crewman's sweat" reported by the pilots inside the aircraft, it is one aircraft that is truly loved by its crews.

After 50 years and hundreds of thousands of sorties, B-52 crews have flown an airplane that just keeps going on, year after year, decade after decade, always taking on new tasks, and always on the first team.

Many significant scenes in the movie Dr. Strangelove occur inside a B-52 bomber. The aircraft, named "Leper Colony" was commanded by Major T.J. "King" Kong (played by Slim Pickens) and had amongst its crew a very young James Earl Jones, who played bombardier Lieutenant Lothar Zogg.

A critical aspect of the plot revolved around the plane's communication system, notably the CRM-114 encryption system, whose mechanism was destroyed during a Soviet attempt to shoot the plane down with a missile. Additional damage occurred to the plane's bomb-bay door gear, which is the reason Picken's character winds up riding a nuclear bomb down to its target. (he had to sit on the bomb to reach the damaged door electronics, and the bomb fell out with him still on it.)

The entire interior was so realistically done, darkly claustrophobic and technically impressive, that people thought it was filmed on an actual plane, or at least a set modelled after one. In reality, the U.S. Air Force read the script and wanted nothing to do with the project (gee, I wonder why?). So Stanley Kubrick built it based on what he and a few hired experts thought the interior should look like and what equipment should be in it. They never even got a look inside a real B-52, yet their resulting set is complimented to this day for its gritty reality.

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