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The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress; RAF Fairford, July 21, 2003

The Royal International Air Tattoo, part 3; Text and Photograph's by Alex van Noye

One of the aircraft which can regularly be seen at the RIAT is the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. The RIAT is usually the only place in Europe where you can photograph the B-52 on a structural base. Despite the fact this aircraft was designed in the 50s it still plays a major role in the modern United States strategic bomber fleet.

The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress is a long-range subsonic strategic bomber which was developed in the 50s. The only operator which used the B-52 is the United States Air Force. The Boeing B-52 is capable to carry a bomb load of more than 32,000kg. The Air Material Command issued a requirement for the specification of a new strategic bomber on November 23, 1945. The aircraft had to be able to execute all the strategic bombardments of the United States all over the world. The new bomber had to be able to carry a bomb load of more than 4,500kg. On June 5, 1946, Boeing introduced the model 462 which was equipped with six turboprops. This aircraft was initially chosen as the winning design in the competition. The chosen concept was discussed in October 1946, because the new fighters were faster in that age. The redesign of Boeing was designated as model 464 and was equipped with four engines. In Novem- ber 1946, the claim was quickly noted that the new bomber was able to carry a nuclear weapon. In 1947, Model 464-17 met all the requirements except the operational flight range. The aircraft was ultimately not chosen and the USAF made the choice to develop the Convair B-36. A requirement for an improved nuclear bomber was made in September 1947. Northrop entered the competition with the designs YB-35 and YB-49.

Boeing received the contract for the new strategic bomber; the B-52 design had some major changes. The aircraft evolved since 1946 from a conventional bomber with straight wings and turboprop engines to a prototype with arrow wings and eight turbojet engines. The design was from that moment referred to as the YB-52. The aircraft eventually made its first test flight in April 1952. The B-52 was completely built as a conventional strategic nuclear bomber. The aircraft eventually replaced the Convair B-36 which had fought despite his short career in several wars. The B-52 quickly received the official nickname Stratofortress, because the aircraft would operate on high altitudes. The airmen would soon use the nickname Big Ugly Fat

Fellow (BUFF). The Boeing B-52 entered service within the U.S. Air Force from 1955. The aircraft would serve in the Strategic Air Command (SAC). The USAF ordered an initial batch of 282 B-52 bombers. The first three aircraft which were delivered were all of type B-52A. The improved B-52B was quickly delivered to the U.S. Air Force; the air force received a total of 50 of these aircraft. There were only 35 B-52C aircraft delivered, because the B-52D followed soon. A total of 170 B-52Ds were delivered to the USAF. In the late 50s, there were 100 B-52E and 89 B-52F bombers delivered to SAC. A total of 189 B-52Gs were delivered to the USAF. The B-52G was the most produced variant of this bomber. The last variant of this bomber which was delivered at the beginning of the 60s was the B-52H. There were 102 aircraft delivered to the USAF of this type. In total, the USAF received 742 B-52 bombers in the 50s and 60s.

The first operational flights of the B-52 were problematic. The aircraft was too heavy and many airports were not designed to accommodate this aircraft. Also the runways were not strong enough for the weight of the B-52. In 1957, the B-52 was the first aircraft which made with the help of air to air refuelling a non-stop flight around the world in just over 31.5 hours. A B-52 dropped for the first time an Mk-15 nuclear bomb on the Bikini Marshall Islands under the codename Cherokee on May 21, 1956. This bomb was the first thermonuclear bomb which was dropped from an airplane. The B-52 played an important role during the Cold War with the Soviet Union as a mighty show of force. The bombers would be 24-hour stand-by to perform the doomsday scenario if the president of the United States would ask for this. The B-52s would make a one way trip during this scenario. The aircraft would bomb targets in the Soviet Union and would not return to the United States. The Surface to Air Missiles (SAM) of the Soviet Union were at the end of the 50s able to take down the bombers at high altitude. To counter this, it was decided to place the B-52 in the role of low-flying bombers. Despite the fact the aircraft is gigantic the B-52 was well able to operate on these low altitudes. The aircraft turned out to be a very flexible aircraft despite its size. This concept was never necessary in a real scenario. The B-52 has flown many patrols especially along the borders of the Soviet airspace during the Cold War.

During the Vietnam War, the B-52s would play an important role. The B-52s were during this war used as conventional strategic bombers. The aircraft were during this war fitted with extra bomb racks under the wings which increased the maximum payload capacity of the aircraft. The B-52s performed strategic carpet bombing during operation Rolling Thunder in March 1965. The big bombers were flying in large formations over North Vietnam during these operations and were shot down in large numbers by the modern anti-aircraft guns of the North Vietnamese Army. The highlight of these kinds of bombings was during the operation Linebacker II in December 1972. Operation Linebacker II, also known as the Christmas offensive, was ordered by the American government in retaliation for the failed political negotiations. After the Vietnam War, most aircraft of the B-52 fleet would be retired from service. The older models were at the end of their economic lifetime. Only the B-52G and B-52H variants remained in operational service. Between 1975 and 1978, all other models were being phased out. The B-52Gs were phased out after the fall of the Soviet Union as part of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The aircraft were chopped into pieces on AMARC and Russian spy satellites were able to see this. Today the USAF has still more than 85 B-52H bombers in service. The aircraft are assigned to the Air Combat Command (ACC) since the disbandment of the SAC in 1992. It is expected the B-52 will stay in service of the USAF until at least 2040. Perhaps the B-52 will become the first aircraft in history to reach 100 years in operational service of the USAF.

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