Meet the bomber the US sent 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 more than a half-century old, but it's still a fierce fighting machine.

Jon Skillings
Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET, where he's worked since 2000. A born browser of dictionaries, he honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS, AI and 5G to James Bond, aircraft, astronauts, brass instruments and music streaming services.
Fox Van Allen
Fox Van Allen is a Los Angeles-based writer for CBS Interactive covering technology, tech lifestyle and gaming topics for GameSpot, CNET, ZDNet and TechRepublic. He has previously worked as a news and feature writer for a number of other sites, including Techlicious, Tecca, WoW Insider (Joystiq) and Blizzard Watch. In his spare time, Fox is an amateur skydiver, retro gaming and arcade enthusiast, 8-bit pixel artist, podcaster and Twitch live streamer.
Jon Skillings
Fox Van Allen
B-52 in flight, seen head on
1 of 29 Ken Murray/ZUMA Press/Corbis

B-52 in the air

Introduced to the US military in the 1950s, the venerable B-52 Stratofortress has been taking to the skies for decades, including in the mid-2010s against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria.

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super-spying U-2, also products of the '50s, the B-52 heavy bomber continues to show that old doesn't have to mean outdated, even in an era of rapid technological change.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 high-tech updates, this vintage plane more than holds its own.

The Air Force says the life span of the B-52 could extend to 2040 and beyond.

A B-52 Stratofortress flies over the Pacific Ocean after an air refueling in support of exercise Rim of the Pacific, July 10, 2010.
2 of 29 Staff Sgt. Kamaile O. Long/USAF

Over the Pacific Ocean

The very first flight of a Boeing B-52 took place more than 70 years ago. 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, Washington. (The aircraft in this photo is a more modern B-52 cruising over the Pacific Ocean in July 2010.)

3 of 29 Staff Sgt. Jason McCasland, AFGSC

A powerful stand-in

In April 2016, six B-52 bombers were deployed to the Middle East as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. The planes replaced the B-1 Lancer in strike missions as the latter underwent maintenance and modernization. After two years and some 1,850 missions there, in April 2018 those B-52s wrapped up that tour of duty and made way for the return of the B-1. At the peak of operations, the Air Force said, B-52 crews logged 400 to 450 hours on average in a six- to seven-month deployment, significantly more than the 300 hours a year that B-52 crews traditionally had flown.

Between April 2016 and February 2017, B-52s carried out 729 sorties and dropped more than 3,000 bombs on ISIS targets in Iraq.

In January 2016, a B-52 flew over South Korea in a show of strength in response to North Korean nuclear tests.  

B-52 in a hangar undergoing maintenance
4 of 29 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.

The 419th has also tested Litening laser targeting technology on the B-52. A targeting pod provides pilots with infrared and TV imagery, while lasers scan the ground underneath. The lasers can also be used to point out locations of interest for troops on the ground.  

5 of 29 Staff Sgt. Jason McCasland, AFGSC

Inspecting the bombs

An officer 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.

B-52H Stratofortress drops a load of M-117 750-pound bombs
6 of 29 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.

In recent decades, 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 said, B-52s launched around 100 cruise missiles during Operation Iraqi Freedom.  

B-52 munitions
7 of 29 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.
8 of 29 Staff Sgt. Vanessa Valentine/USAF

Nose fuses

Nose fuses get inspected before being inserted into bombs.

Munitions on display at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana show the full capabilities of the B-52 Stratofortress.
9 of 29 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 -- a payload that can range up to 70,000 pounds. The B-52 has a wingspan of 185 feet, and its length from nose to tail is a bit under 160 feet. (The tail stands just over 40 feet high.) 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.

Pilots bring a B-52 Stratofortress to Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., for depot maintenance.
10 of 29 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.
11 of 29 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.

In May 2015, two B-52s flew a nonstop, 14,000-mile training mission from Louisiana to Jordan as part of the Eager Lion 2015 exercise.  

The lower deck of a B-52 Stratofortress.
12 of 29 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.
13 of 29 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.

14 of 29 Staff Sgt. Sarah E. Stegman/USAF

B-52 nighttime maintenance

According to the US Air Force, the cost of an an individual B-52 ran to about $84 million (in 2012 dollars; or $9.28 million in 1962). Meanwhile, the sleeker B-2 Spirit, a more modern design, had a $3 billion price tag.

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.
15 of 29 Staff Sgt. Samuel Rogers/USAF

B-52 and B-2

A B-52 flies side by side with a B-2 Spirit, 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 US Air Force has an inventory of only about 20 B-2s.

Strategic Air Command B-52 combat crew races to aircraft
16 of 29 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
17 of 29 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
18 of 29 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.
19 of 29 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
20 of 29 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.

21 of 29 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.

22 of 29 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.

23 of 29 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.

24 of 29 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
25 of 29 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.
26 of 29 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
27 of 29 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
28 of 29 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.

B-52 pilot gives thumbs-up
29 of 29 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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