Meet the bomber the US is sending to crush ISIS

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.


Jon Skillings

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Fox Van Allen

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1 of 37 Ken Murray/ZUMA Press/Corbis

B-52 in the air

Introduced to the US military more than 70 years ago, the venerable B-52 Stratofortress bomber has again taken to the skies -- this time against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria.

The behemoth proves that old doesn't have to mean outdated, even in an era of rapid change. Just the opposite: Through good maintenance and recent high-tech updates, this vintage plane more than holds its own against newer designs.

2 of 37 Staff Sgt. Jason McCasland, AFGSC

A powerful stand-in

Six B-52 bombers were first deployed to the Middle East in April 2016 as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. The planes replaced the B-1 Lancer in strike missions as the latter underwent maintenance and modernization.

Barksdale Airmen deploy to Qatar to combat ISIS
3 of 37 Senior Airman Curt Beach

Barksdale Airmen deploy to Qatar to combat ISIS

In this photo, airmen from Barksdale Air Force Base board a plane bound for Al Udeid Air Base in the country of Qatar, where the B-52s are based.

B-52 operations
4 of 37 USAF/Lance Cheung

B-52 operations

It's the B-52 Stratofortress's job to drop bombs -- lots of bombs. Between April 2016 and Feb. 20, 2017, B-52s have carried out 729 sorties and dropped 3,419 weapons on DA'ESH (ISIL) targets in Iraq.

5 of 37 USAF

The B-52 is a psychological weapon, too

But the B-52 doesn't just drop bombs. Airmen from the 419th Flight Test Squadron completed a pair of successful sorties that dropped PDU-5/B leaflet bombs, instead.

The repurposed cluster bombs are designed to rain up to 900,000 pamphlets down on enemy troops, with messages urging surrender.

6 of 37 USAF/Bobbi Zapka

B-52 gets a weapons upgrade

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.

7 of 37 USAF/Edward Cannon

B-52 gets a laser upgrade, too

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.

8 of 37 Staff Sgt. Jason McCasland, AFGSC

Inspecting the bombs

The job of the B-52 is to drop bombs -- lots and lots of bombs.

In this photo, 1st Lt. Joshua Stephens inspects a B-52's payload of 500-pound Mark 82 general purpose bombs. The plane can drop up to 51 of these particular bombs in a single run.

A B-52 Stratofortress flies over the Pacific Ocean after an air refueling in support of exercise Rim of the Pacific, July 10, 2010.
9 of 37 Staff Sgt. Kamaile O. Long/USAF

A 14,000 mile training mission

Make no mistake: Our nation's B-52 fleet is ready for action.

In May 2015, two B-52H stratofortress bombers flew a non-stop, 14,000-mile training mission from Louisiana to Jordan as part of the Eager Lion 2015 exercise.

10 of 37 Transtock/Corbis

B-52: Ready for action

More recently, in January 2016, the B-52 was flown over South Korea in a show of strength in response to North Korean nuclear tests.

A B-2 Spirit and B-52 Stratofortress fly in formation over Shreveport, La., during the open house and air show at Barksdale Air Force Base.
11 of 37 Staff Sgt. Samuel Rogers/USAF

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.

12 of 37 Staff Sgt. Sarah E. Stegman/USAF

B-52 nighttime maintenance

According to the U.S. Air Force, the cost of an an individual B-52 ran to about $84 million (in 2012 dollars; or $9.28 million in 1962). The B-2, meanwhile, carries a $3-billion price tag.

13 of 37 Airman 1st Class Micaiah Anthony

Sunrise over the B-52

The Air Force says the life span of the B-52 could extend to 2040 and beyond, and it's got the engineering analysis to prove it.

B-52H Stratofortress drops a load of M-117 750-pound bombs
14 of 37 USAF

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.

15 of 37 Senior Airman Alexandra M. Longfellow


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.

B-52 munitions
16 of 37 Staff Sgt. Vanessa Valentine/USAF

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.

Airman inspects nose fuzes before inserting them into bombs for B-52.
17 of 37 Staff Sgt. Vanessa Valentine/USAF

Nose fuzes

Nose fuzes get inspected before being inserted into bombs.

Munitions on display at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana show the full capabilities of the B-52 Stratofortress.
18 of 37 Tech. Sgt. Robert J. Horstman/USAF

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.

Pilots bring a B-52 Stratofortress to Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., for depot maintenance.
19 of 37 Margo Wright/USAF

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.

An aircrew flies a mission in a B-52H Stratofortress, April  2010, at Eielson AFB, Alaska.
20 of 37 Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz/USAF

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.

The lower deck of a B-52 Stratofortress.
21 of 37 Master Sgt. Lance Cheung/USAF

Battle station

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

B-52 Stratofortress navigators track mission progress during an Operation Iraqi Freedom bombing mission.
22 of 37 Tech. Sgt. Richard Freeland/USAF

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.

Strategic Air Command B-52 combat crew races to aircraft
23 of 37 USAF

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.

B-52D drops bombs over Vietnam
24 of 37 USAF

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.

Bomb strike from a B-52
25 of 37 USAF

Bomb strike from a B-52

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

Boeing XB-52 Stratofortress 1953 in flight.
26 of 37 USAF

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.

B52-A Stratofortress
27 of 37 USAF

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.

28 of 37 NASA

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.

29 of 37 NASA


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.

30 of 37 NASA

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.

31 of 37 Mike Cassidy/USAF

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.

B-52 Stratofortress simulator
32 of 37 Lance Cheung/USAF

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.

Managing the training inputs for a B-52 Stratofortress simulator at Barksdale AFB.
33 of 37 Lance Cheung/USAF

Running the simulator

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

Training on a B-52 Stratofortress simulator
34 of 37 Lance Cheung/USAF

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.

USS Schenectady
35 of 37 Tech. Sgt. Richard Freeland/USAF

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.

36 of 37 Ken Murray/ZUMA Press/Corbis

B-1 Lancer

This is the B-1 Lancer, the plane the B-52 will be replacing.

B-1 Lancer bombers have flown 490 sorties against ISIS during their six-month deployment in the Middle East. In December 2015, B-1 bombers supported the Iraqi army in their attempt to retake Ramadi.

B-52 pilot gives thumbs-up
37 of 37 Tech. Sgt. Richard Freeland/USAF

Thumbs up

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

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