Boeing B-52 Stratofortress
Operational History

Although the B-52A was the first production variant, these aircraft were used only in testing. The first operational version was the B-52B which had been developed in parallel with the prototypes since 1951. First flying in December 1954, the B-52B number 52-8711 entered operational service with 93rd Heavy Bombardment Wing at Castle Air Force Base, California, on 29 June 1955. The wing became operational on 12 March 1956. The training for B-52 crews consisted of five weeks of ground school and four weeks of flying, accumulating 35-50 hours in the air. The new B-52Bs replaced operational B-36s on a one-to-one basis.

Early operations were complicated by lack of spares and ground facilities while ramps and taxiways deteriorated under the weight of the aircraft. The fuel system was prone to leaks and icing, and bombing and fire control computers were unreliable. The two-story cockpit presented a unique climate control problem – the pilots' cockpit was heated by sunlight while the observer and the navigator on the bottom deck sat on the ice cold floor. Thus, comfortable temperature setting for the pilots caused the other crew members to freeze, while comfortable temperature for the bottom crew caused the pilots to overheat. The J57 engines were still new and unreliable. Alternator failure caused the first fatal B-52 crash in February 1956, which resulted in a brief grounding of the fleet. In July, fuel and hydraulic system problems again grounded the B-52s. To avoid maintenance problems, the Air Force set up Sky Speed teams of 50 maintenance contractors at each B-52 base. In addition to maintenance, the teams performed routine checkups which took one week per aircraft.

On 21 May 1956, a B-52B (52-0013) dropped its first live hydrogen bomb (a Mk.15) over the Bikini Atoll. On 24–25 November 1956, four B-52Bs of the 93rd BW and four B-52Cs of the 42nd BW flew nonstop around the perimeter of North America in Operation Quick Kick, covering 15,530 statute miles (13,500 nm, 25,000 km) in 31 hours 30 minutes. The SAC noted that the flight time could have been reduced by 5-6 hours if the four inflight refuellings were done by fast jet-powered tanker aircraft rather than propeller-driven KC-97 Stratotankers. In a demonstration of the B-52s global reach, on 16–18 January 1957, three B-52Bs made a nonstop flight around the world during Operation Power Flite, covering 24,325 statute miles (21,145 nm, 39,165 km) in 45 hours 19 minutes with several in-flight refuelings by KC-97s. The 93rd Bomb Wing received the Mackay Trophy for their accomplishment.

The B-52 set many records over the next few years. On 26 September 1958, a B-52D set a world speed record of 560.705 miles per hour (487 kn, 902 km/h) over a 10,000 kilometers (5,400 nm, 6,210 mi) closed circuit without a payload. The same day, another B-52D established a world speed record of 597.675 miles per hour (519 kn, 962 km/h) over a 5,000 kilometer (2,700 nmi, 3,105 mi) closed circuit without a payload. On 14 December 1960, a B-52G set a world record by flying unrefueled for 10,078.84 statute miles (8,762 nm, 16,227 km). The flight lasted 19 hours 44 minutes. On 10–11 January 1962, a B-52H set a world record by flying unrefuelled from Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan, to Torrejon Air Base, Spain, covering 12,532.28 statute miles (10,895 nmi, 20,177 km).

During this time, at the Strategic Air Command's peak strength in 1963, 650 B-52s were in operation in 42 squadrons and 38 air bases.

Vietnam War

With the escalating situation in Southeast Asia, in June 1964 28 B-52Fs were fitted with external racks for 24× 750 pound (340 kg) bombs under project South Bay. An additional 46 aircraft received similar modifications under project Sun Bath. In March 1965, the United States commenced Operation Rolling Thunder, and the first combat mission of Operation Arc Light was flown by B-52Fs on 18 June 1965, when thirty bombers of the 9th and 441st Bombardment Squadrons struck a communist stronghold near Ben Cat in South Vietnam. The first wave of bombers arrived too early at a designated rendezvous point, and while maneuvering to maintain station, two B-52s collided, resulting in the loss of both bombers and their eight crewmen. The remaining bombers, minus one more which turned back due to mechanical problems, continued on towards the target, which was bombed successfully.

In December 1965, a number of B-52Ds underwent Big Belly modifications to increase bomb capacity for carpet bombings. While the external payload remained at 24× 500 pound (227 kg) or 750 pound (340 kg) bombs, the internal capacity increased from 27 to 84× 500 pound bombs or from 27 to 42× 750 pound bombs. The Big Belly modification now created enough capacity for a total of 60,000 pounds (27215 kg) in 108 bombs. Thus modified, B-52Ds could carry 22,000 pounds (9,980 kg) more than B-52Fs. Replacing B-52Fs, modified B-52Ds entered combat in April 1966 flying from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. Each bombing mission lasted ten to 12 hours with an aerial refueling by KC-135 Stratotankers. In spring 1967, the aircraft began flying from U Tapao Airfield in Thailand which had the advantage of not requiring in-flight refueling. These missions lasted only 2 to 3 hours. On 15 April 1968, a Replacement Training Unit was established at Castle AFB which converted B-52E through B-52H crews to B-52Ds so they could participate in combat in Southeast Asia.

On 22 November 1972, a B-52D (55-0110) from U-Tapao was hit by a SAM while on a raid over Vinh. The crew was forced to abandon the damaged aircraft over Thailand. This was the first B-52 to be destroyed by hostile fire in Vietnam.

The zenith of B-52 attacks in Vietnam was Operation Linebacker II which consisted of waves of B-52s (mostly D models, but some Gs without jamming equipment and with a smaller bomb load). Over 12 days B-52s flew 729 sorties, dropping 15,237 tons of bombs on Hanoi, Haiphong, and other targets.

Thirty-one B-52s were lost in Vietnam, in the course of flying 126,615 combat sorties. Of these, 18 were shot down or damaged beyond repair by ground fire (including surface-to-air missiles). Two B-52Fs were lost in a midair collision during the first Arc Light mission. Seven B-52Gs were lost during Linebacker II, six to SAMs and one to structural failure.

B-52D tail gunners were credited with shooting down two MiG-21 "Fishbeds"; one on 18 December 1972, by SSgt Samuel O. Turner, and one on 24 December 1972, by A1C Albert E. Moore. Turner was awarded a Silver Star for his actions. The last Arc Light mission took place on 15 August 1973 and all B-52s left Southeast Asia shortly after.

Cold War

During the Cold War, B-52s performed airborne alert duty under code names such as Head Start, Chrome Dome, Hard Head, Round Robin, and Giant Lance. Bombers loitered near points outside the Soviet Union to provide rapid first strike or retaliation capability in case of nuclear war.

On 17 January 1966, a fatal collision occurred between a B-52G and a KC-135 Stratotanker over Palomares, Spain. The four B-28 FI 1.45-megaton-range nuclear bombs on the B-52 were eventually recovered. Two of the four bombs had a minor detonation, as the warheads' conventional explosives were set off, with serious dispersion of both plutonium and uranium. The main fuse safety withstood the violent impact and explosion, preventing a nuclear disaster. After the crash, 1,400 tons of contaminated soil were sent to the United States. The crash and the decontamination were too expensive to risk again and ended the airborne alert program. In 2006 an agreement to investigate and clean the pollution after the accident was made between the U.S. and Spain.

On 21 January 1968, another B-52G with four nuclear bombs aboard crashed on the ice of the North Star Bay while attempting an emergency landing at Thule Air Base in Greenland. The resulting fire caused extensive radioactive contamination the cleanup of which lasted until September of that year.

The Yom Kippur War in October 1973 saw the Soviet Union threaten to intervene on behalf of Egypt and Syria. To stop the Soviets, President Richard M. Nixon called on the military to raise its alert level to DEFCON 3. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird ordered the B-52s to an immediate war footing. Fully armed and fueled B-52s were circling Greenland. The Soviet Union did not become directly involved in the war.

B-52Bs reached the end of their structural service life by the mid-1960s and all were retired by June 1966, followed by the last of the B-52Cs on 29 September 1971; except for NASA's B-52B "008" which was eventually retired in 2004 at Edwards AFB, California. Another of the remaining B Models, "005" is on display at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver, Colorado.

A few time-expired E models were retired in 1967 and 1968, but the bulk were retired between May 1969 and March 1970. Most F models were also retired between 1967 and 1973, but 23 survived as trainers until late 1978.

The fleet of D models served much longer. Eighty D models were updated under the Pacer Plank program (ECP 1581) at Boeing's Wichita plant. Skinning on the lower wing and fuselage was replaced, and various structural components were renewed. Work was completed in 1977. The fleet of D models stayed largely intact until late 1978, when 37 were retired. The remainder were retired between 1982 and 1983.

The remaining G and H models were used for nuclear standby ("alert") duty as part of the United States' nuclear triad. This triad was the combination of nuclear-armed land-based missiles, submarine-based missiles and manned bombers. The B-1B Lancer which was intended to supplant the B-52, replaced only the older models and the supersonic FB-111.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the B-52Gs were destroyed per the terms of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). AMARG was tasked with eliminating 365 B-52 bombers. The progress of this task was to be verified by Russia via satellite and first-person inspection at the AMARG facility. Initially, the B-52s were chopped into pieces with a 13,000 pound guillotine.

In 1991, B-52s ceased continuous 24-hour SAC alert duty.

Gulf war and later

On 16 February 1991 a flight of B-52Gs launching from and returning to Barksdale AFB, in Louisiana, struck targets inside Iraq. This was at the time the longest distance combat mission in history: 35 hours and 14,000 statute miles round trip. Over the next months, B-52Gs operating from bases in the United Kingdom, Spain and on the island of Diego Garcia flew low level bombing missions. The B-52s moved to high level missions after Coalition forces ensured air superiority and were able to suppress air defense systems capable of reaching bombers at a higher altitude. B-52s were an important part of the air war during Operation Desert Storm as they could be employed with impunity. The conventional strikes were carried out by three bombers dropping 153 750 pound bombs at a time, covering an area one and a half miles long by one mile wide. The bombings demoralized the defending Iraqi troops, and they could be induced to surrender rather than be destroyed. Flying approximately 1620 sorties in the Gulf War, B-52s delivered 40% of the weapons dropped by coalition forces, while suffering only one aircraft loss, with several receiving minor damage from enemy action.

On 2–3 September 1996, two B-52H struck Baghdad power stations and communications facilities with 13 AGM-86C air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) as part of Operation Desert Strike, a 34-hour, 16,000 statute mile round trip mission from Andersen AFB, on Guam—the longest distance ever flown for a combat mission. Only two days prior, the crews had completed a 17-hour flight from Louisiana to Guam.

The B-52 also contributed to the US success in Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 (Afghanistan/Southwest Asia), providing the ability to loiter high above the battlefield and provide Close Air Support (CAS) through the use of precision guided munitions, a mission which previously would have been restricted to fighter and ground attack aircraft.

B-52s also played a role in Operation Iraqi Freedom, which commenced on 20 March 2003 (Iraq/Southwest Asia). On the night of 21 March 2003, B-52Hs launched at least 100 AGM-86 ALCMs.

The B-52H, the only variant still in service, is currently active in:

– 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana
– 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota
– 917th Wing (Air Force Reserves) at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana
– an additional airframe is used by the Air Force Flight Test Center.

Wikipedia: B-52 Stratofortress