B-52 in the air

It was at the vanguard of aviation technology in the 1950s, and it's still going strong today: meet the B-52 Stratofortress. Like the multipurpose C-130 and the high-flying, super-spying U-2, also products of the '50s, the B-52 heavy bomber continues to show that old doesn't have to mean outdated, even in an era of rapid technological change. Just the opposite: through good maintenance and occasional updates, vintage tech can hold its own against flashier but more expensive, and more finicky, next-generation (and next-next-next-generation, even) designs.

The very first flight of a Boeing B-52 took place 60 years ago this weekend. According to the company history on Boeing's Web site, pilots A.M. "Tex" Johnston and Guy Townsend on April 15, 1952, flew a B-52 prototype from Boeing Field in Seattle to Larson Air Force Base in Moses Lake, Wash. (The aircraft in the photo is a more modern B-52 cruising over the Pacific Ocean in July 2010.)

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Kamaile O. Long / Caption by:

B-52 and B-2

A B-52 flies side-by-side with the (relatively speaking) new kid on the block, the B-2 Spirit bomber, which was unveiled to the public in 1988 but which didn't really go into service until well into the 1990s. Over the decades, Boeing built more than 740 of the B-52 aircraft, the last one way back in 1962. By contrast, the U.S. Air Force has an inventory of only about 20 B-2s.

Here's another significant statistic: According to an excellent story in Wired's Danger Room blog recounting the history of U.S. long-range bombers, the cost of an individual B-52 ran to about $70 million (in today's dollars), while the B-2 carried an "eye-watering $3-billion-a-pop unit price."

And get this: the Air Force says the life span of the B-52 could extend to 2040 and beyond, and it's got the engineering analyses to prove it.

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Samuel Rogers / Caption by:

Bombs away

During a training run over Nevada, a B-52H lets loose a load of 750-pound bombs. The H model was the final one in the Stratofortress line, and it's the only one in the Air Force inventory today; 102 of them were delivered to the Strategic Air Command between May 1961 and October 1962. In recent years, B-52s were active in both wars in Iraq, and also have seen action over Afghanistan. In addition to bombs, the B-52 can carry cruise missiles; in one night mission in March 2003, the Air Force says, B-52s launched around 100 cruise missiles during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo / Caption by:

Prepping bombs for a B-52

Air Force personnel load bombs -- free-fall, unguided, general-purpose 750-pound bombs -- on a truck at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam for delivery to a B-52.

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vanessa Valentine / Caption by:

Nose fuzes

Nose fuzes get inspected before being inserted into bombs.

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vanessa Valentine / Caption by:

Show of arms

At Barksdale AFB in Louisiana, this display shows the variety of munitions a B-52 might carry. The B-52 has a wingspan of 185 feet, and its length from nose to tail is just under 160 feet. That tail stands just over 40 feet high. It can carry a payload of 70,000 pounds. The B-52's power comes from eight Pratt & Whitney TF33-P-3/103 turbofan engines, each providing up to 17,000 pounds of thrust.

Correction, April 17 at 7:25 a.m. PT: This caption originally gave the wrong figure for the B-52 payload. The B-52's payload is 70,000 pounds.

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Robert J. Horstman / Caption by:

Cockpit view

This view of and from the cockpit shows the pilots bringing a B-52 in for a landing at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma for depot maintenance. The B-52 has a crew of five: aircraft commander, pilot, radar navigator, navigator, and electronic warfare officer.

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo/Margo Wright / Caption by:

B-52 cockpit crew

Here's the view the other way, looking backward through the cockpit of B-52H in 2010. The aircraft can fly at 650 miles per hour and has a ceiling of about 50,000 feet. Its range is 8,800 miles, but that can be greatly extended with midair refueling. "The use of aerial refueling," the Air Force points out rather drily in its B-52 fact sheet, "gives the B-52 a range limited only by crew endurance."

In September 1996, to give an extreme example of that endurance, a pair of B-52s traveled from Barksdale AFB in Louisiana to Baghdad to launch cruise missiles at power stations and communications facilities as part of Operation Desert Strike. The round trip totaled 16,000 miles in 34 hours.

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz / Caption by:

Battle station

Two officers man a B-52's lower deck, also known as the battle station.

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung / Caption by:

Navigators at work

Navigators keep tabs on a bombing mission during Operation Iraqi Freedom in the first decade of this century. Although the last B-52H was delivered to the Air Force in 1962, the aircraft have been updated. In 1989, for instance, GPS was incorporated into the navigation system.

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Richard Freeland / Caption by:

SAC crew makes a dash

This photo from the 1960s captures the sense of urgency that underlay the mission of the Strategic Air Command during the height of the Cold War. According to the Air Force, 50 percent of the SAC bomber and tanker force was on continuous ground alert and ready to take to the air immediately if early-warning systems were to detect ballistic missiles launched from the Soviet Union.

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo / Caption by:

Bombs over Vietnam

Fortunately, the Cold War came and went without those ballistic missiles leaving their silos in anger. But tensions between the superpowers boiled over in other ways -- as in the Vietnam War, where B-52s first saw combat in June 1965. Among the missions were carpet-bombing runs against enemy combatants under the dense jungle canopy. Here, a "Big Belly" B-52D -- modified to carry a greater number of bombs -- unleashes a 60,000-pound bomb payload over Vietnam.

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo / Caption by:

Bomb strike from a B-52

Bombs from a B-52 hit ground positions in Vietnam during Operation Arc Light.

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo / Caption by:

XB-52 in 1953

Way back when: This is the prototype XB-52 Stratofortress, used as a test aircraft for all of its service life, in flight in 1953. It featured a canopy-type cockpit, rather than the side-by-side cockpit of the production models.

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo / Caption by:

B-52A at Boeing Field

Also from the Eisenhower years, this is the B-52A, the first production model, on the occasion of its maiden flight on August 5, 1954. The locale is Boeing Field in Washington.

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo / Caption by:

B-52 ferries X-15 aloft

B-52 aircraft have carried more than bombs and cruise missiles. They've also served as a mothership to ferry test aircraft aloft, as with the X-15 here, to help conserve the fuel that the experimental planes would need to reach great speeds and great altitudes.

Updated:
Photo by: NASA / Caption by:

X-15

The X-15 launches at 45,000 feet, already moving at 500 mph or better, in this photo from 1959. The X-plane typically was propelled by its rocket engine for about 1 to 2 minutes, then flew for 8 to 12 minutes without power before coming to Earth in a 200-mph glide landing.

Updated:
Photo by: NASA / Caption by:

Test pilot Milt Thompson

This brave soul is NASA test pilot Milt Thompson, and the test aircraft attached to a pylon under the wing of the B-52 is an M2-F2 lifting-body aircraft.

Updated:
Photo by: NASA / Caption by:

X-51A Waverider

The mother ship tradition continues into this century. Here, an unmanned X-51A Waverider catches a ride on a B-52 for a test flight in 2009.

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Cassidy / Caption by:

B-52 simulator

It isn't always practical -- or cheap -- to take aircraft into the air for training. The next best thing for B-52 crew members could well be this simulator at Barksdale AFB. Fitted around the simulated cockpit is a big projection dome; hydraulic actuators provide what the Air Force says is realistic motion.

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung / Caption by:

Running the simulator

This gentleman is managing the training inputs for the simulator as aircrew members run through an aerial refueling.

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung / Caption by:

View from the simu-cockpit

So how much cheaper is it to use the flight simulator? The Air Force says that the cost of an hour's flying time in an actual B-52 is about $16,000. The simulator comes in at just $400 an hour.

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung / Caption by:

USS Schenectady, after bombing

In November 2004, in part to demonstrate the continuing relevance of its long-distance bombers (the B-1 as well as the B-52), the Air Force participated in exercise Resultant Fury. Could a B-52 hit a ship at sea? Yes -- witness the remains of the USS Schenectady, a decommissioned tank landing ship used as a training target.

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Richard Freeland / Caption by:

Thumbs-up

A B-52 pilot gives the thumbs-up before taking off on a bombing mission over Iraq sometime in the last decade.

Updated:
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Richard Freeland / Caption by:
Hot Galleries

CNET's Holiday Gift Guide

Tablets that put your TV to shame

Binge-watch your favorite episodes on these portable screens.

Hot Products