The B-52 has been a symbol of American power since the 1950s. The youngest one in the Air Force may be a half-century old, but it's still a fierce fighting machine.
B-52 in the air
The U.S. Air Force recently announced plans to send the legendary -- and intensely powerful -- B-52 Stratofortress bomber into battle yet again, this time against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria.
The airborne behemoth proves that old doesn't have to mean outdated, even in an era of rapid technological change.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, more expensive, more finicky next-generation designs.
The individual B-52s may be old, but many of the planes in the fleet have received some serious high-tech upgrades in recent years.
Here, team members from the 419th Flight Test Squadron, the Global Power Bomber Combined Test Force, and Boeing install a Conventional Rotary Launcher (CRL) on a B-52. This upgrade allows the plane to launch "smart weapons," including Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles.
The 419th Flight Test Squadron has also tested LITENING laser targeting technology on the B-52.
A special targeting pod provides pilots with infrared and TV imagery while lasers scan the ground underneath. The lasers can also be used to point out specific locations of interest for troops on the ground.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.