The B-52 “Sratofortress” is massive and impressive. Its versatility and adaptability have extended its lifespan in an age when changes in technology often limit the useful life of equipment. Designed in the 1940s and first flown in April 1952, the B-52 is expected to fly well into this century. Most of its crewmembers today were not born when it began flying. Some sons of former B-52 crews are now in those same cockpits. Few aircraft remain operational that long. Will it be a warrior for 100 years?
When Boeing first introduced the design for the B-52, political opposition and governmental financial restrictions left the project in doubt for some years. Then the Berlin Blockade of 1948 and the Korean Conflict indicated that the post-WWII United States would still need a strategic bomber. In the 1950s the B-52 entered the Strategic Air Command
(SAC). It has been, and still is, one of the main strategic weapons for both conventional and nuclear warfare.
The Stratofortress has been tested in combat and has added another dimension to its list of capabilities ... that of survival. In Vietnam it proved to be equal to all tasks assigned to it. For eight years it carried bombs into that theatre of conflict. During the “Linebacker II” twelve-day operation over the Hanoi area in 1972, the then 20-year-old plane faced the heaviest concentration of anti-aircraft defenses any aircraft has ever met. Numerous B-52s were hit by surface to air missiles. Fifteen were shot down. Another twenty years passed, and in January 1991, the B-52 was called on again for conventional bombing duty for the 28-day war in the Persian Gulf, “Desert Storm.” It was called up for “Desert Strike” in the Gulf in September 1996 and Kosovo in 1998-1999.
After WWII the Air Force really wanted a large, fast, high-altitude, intercontinental bomber designed for the nuclear age. The first attempt at the XB-52 design came out of Boeing in 1946. Engine power proved to be a limiting factor, as jet engines were still in the design stages. The most likely aircraft candidate was powered by six turbine-propeller engines. This aircraft was still short of goals for power, speed, range, altitude capability, and load carrying capacity. Then in late 1948, Pratt & Whitney came out with the J-57 turbojet engine design. Finally, here was a propulsion system of sufficient power, i.e. 10,000 pounds of thrust, to make the B-52 what the Air Force wanted and needed. Engineering work then moved rapidly. The design with eight jet engines looked so good, Boeing was given a contract for 500 airplanes before a prototype even flew.
Two prototypes were
built, XB-52 and YB-52. The YB-52 made the first flight on 15 April, 1952. In addition to the extensive flight testing of these two airplanes, static torture tests of various airframe components and systems continued for two years until the Air Force was satisfied with the structural integrity and operating reliability of this machine. For example, in static tests, wings were flexed up 10 feet and down 22 feet. The entire test program was undoubtedly the most rigorous that any aircraft had been subjected to up to that time. The proof of the extensive design testing is in the decades of service since.
The first operational aircraft was delivered to SAC at Castle AFB, California, 29 June 1955. One noticeable difference over the prototype was that the cockpit was longer and wider for side-by-side pilot/copilot configuration rather than a tandem bubble as in the B-47. On 27 June
1962, the last of 744 planes rolled out of the factory. Through the years, eight models, “A” through “H,” were constructed. Model changes often corresponded with newer and more powerful engine changes. Here are the specifications of these eight models. Weight started out at 450,000 lbs and rose to 488,000 lbs in the H model. Top speed was 650 mph (.86 mach), and all had eight engines. The Pratt & Whitney engines increased from about 10,000 to 17,000 lbs thrust over those years. Unrefueled range increased from 6,000 to over 8,000 miles.
Altitude capability was over 50,000 ft. Defensive armament consisted of guns in the tail. All had four .50 caliber machine guns except the H model, which had a 20mm Gatling cannon. Wingspan was 185 ft., much longer than the 120 feet of the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Wing sweep-back was 35 degrees. Length ranged from 156 to 169 feet. Tail
height was originally 48 ft but was lowered to 40 feet 8 inches on the G and H models. The B-52 had a crew of six: pilot, copilot, navigator, radar navigator, electronic warfare officer, and gunner. The gunner was the only enlisted crewmember. His station was moved from the tail to the cabin on G & H models and then removed along with his weapon after the 1991 Gulf War. Bomb weight loads varied with the mission but could go over 60,000 lbs.
As one looks at a B-52, there are some features that differ from most other types of aircraft. The wing is attached to the top of the fuselage, because it is so long and flexible it would touch the ground otherwise. Outrigger retractable wheels on the wing tips keep the wings from touching the ground when loaded with fuel. Wings mounted at a high degree of incidence enable the plane to take off, climb, descend, and land in a relatively
level attitude. It gives a lifting sensation, more like an elevator, than a typical aircraft.
The main landing gear consists of eight wheels in four sets of two each. These trucks can be turned from the cockpit. Its primary use is to point the fuselage of the aircraft more into the wind for cross wind takeoffs and landings, while the wheels roll straight down the runway. Fuel is carried in the external tip tanks, in tanks within the wings, and a tank within the fuselage. There are eight engines in four pods with two engines per pod. The aircraft has an uncon-ventional flight control system on the wings. In place of ailerons to turn the aircraft, there are banks of finger-like spoilers that are activated as needed when lateral corrections are made. When a spoiler is raised, lift is reduced, and the wing lowers relatively, creating a turn. The spoilers are also activated by
another cockpit lever for use as dive brakes. The spoilers rise on both wings together to whatever degree desired by the pilot to reduce lift for rapid descents without changing the pitch attitude of the nose very much. Huge flaps at the trailing edge of the wings create added lift for takeoff and landing.
What can’t be seen from the outside are internal operating systems. The A to F models used hot bleed air from the jet engines at 750 degrees F and 250 lbs/sq inch to operate electrical generators, hydraulic pumps, heating and air conditioning, and de-icing. The G and H models changed to direct engine mechanical driven electrical generators and hy- draulic pumps as found in most other types of aircraft. Each system had its advantages and disadvantages. Design engineers and operators were surprised during the 1972 Vietnam twelve-day Linebacker II bombing offensive to find
that the older aircraft systems in the D models survived with air combat damage better than the newer G models. On the G models, when engines were shot up, components driven off those engines were also lost. With the D models, an engine loss did not mean corresponding system loss since hot air from any remaining engines continued to drive the system components.
What also cannot be seen from outside is the cockpit and four other crew stations. These stations were loaded with flight instrumen- tation, navigation, bombing, electronic countermeasures, and gun equipment. These have continually updated over the years as technology changed.
The B-52 was originally designed as a high altitude nuclear carrier. By the time it began operating, the requirements changed because in the Cold War, radar was used by both sides to detect aircraft and missiles. The solution was to drop the
aircraft down to treetop level for its runs into and out of enemy territory. This required low level terrain avoidance equipment for the pilots to fly day and night in any weather at 200 ft above the ground and acquire and bomb the assigned target. This is infinitely more difficult than high altitude bombing from 35,000-40,000 feet and considerably more stressful for the aircraft and crew. This stress was due to normal low-level air turbulence and the hazards of flying close to the terrain, especially mountainous areas. This became the primary strategic procedure during the Cold War. High altitude bombing was revived for the Vietnam War when conventional non-nuclear weapons were used.
A total of 744 B-52s were built of all models. The peak number operational in SAC at one time was in 1962 with 38 wings and over 700 operational aircraft. In the 1970s this was down to 400, as
earlier models were retired to storage in the desert near Tucson, Arizona. The 1980s began with about 350. Today in the Air Combat Command and Reserves there are about 94 based at Minot AFB, South Dakota, and Barksdale AFB, Louisiana.
The US military is controlled by our civilian government leadership. The weapons of war are a response to the international political tensions. The B-52 was a product of this environment, and since it was big, sturdy, and capable of changing with the times, it has served our country’s purposes well for decades.
For many years in SAC, the typical mission routine at US B-52 bases was something like this: The average unit supported about fifteen B-52 aircraft. About a third of these, with their crews, were on ground alert 24 hours a day. Crews were on alert at a special area of the base where they lived, ate, slept, and had their aircraft
parked. They operated there for a week at a time. Aircraft were fueled, loaded with nuclear weapons, and systems were checked and positioned every day for speedy response. The normal alert time requirement was to be airborne within fifteen minutes if an alert sounded. When national defense readiness conditions increased, this response time dropped to just five minutes. Individual B-52 aircraft sat alert thirty days at a time. They were then put back on the flight line for regular flying. Ground alert ended in September 1991.
A typical training flight in a B-52 was six to ten hours long. It could have been day or night. It included all the elements of what would be encountered on a real mission: navigation practice, aerial refueling practice, low level flying and low level bombing. This bombing was scored electronically by fixed or mobile bomb scoring sites, since no weapons
were carried on training flights. Occasionally high-altitude bombing was also accomplished, and at night, celestial navigation may have been practiced. The end of the training flights usually included a few practice instrument approaches and “touch-and-go” landings for the two pilots.
From 1958 to 1968 a portion of the B-52s were loaded and kept on airborne alert at various times to guarantee survivability of some aircraft in case of an undetected nuclear attack on the US. The typical “Chromedome” route was up the eastern edge of Canada, past Newfoundland and Iceland to Thule, Greenland, up in the Arctic Circle, then across to Alaska and back down to the western continental US. In addition, one B-52 was kept in orbit over Thule Air Force Base and radar site 24 hours a day. The author served at Thule “Iceman” control in 1962 and 1963. This airborne alert mission placed heavy
demands on crews and the aircraft. Maintenance and support services were large. These airborne alerts were stopped in 1968. Probably a significant factor in this decision was an accident involving a B-52. An interior fire started from a hole in a hot air duct on the aircraft orbiting Thule. The crew tried to land at Thule Air Base but crashed short of the runway. It went through the ice in the bay and sank. The US recovered the nuclear weapons, but Denmark, which controls Greenland, was concerned. The international political ramifications of a potential nuclear accident were brought to a head, and so flights of nuclear loaded bombers were suspended.
Discussion of the B-52 would be incomplete without touching on one stable mate, a plane that did a lot of work without much glory. This is the Boeing KC-135 “Stratotanker” that replaced the propeller driven KC-97. The KC- 135 is
a gas station in the sky and was an integral part of not only the B-52 mission but also the entire Air Force global response and deployment mission. This aircraft was designed for high speed and high altitude refueling. It is equipped with a telescoping boom. This workhorse of an aircraft was reskinned in the 1970s and re-engined in the 1980s. It will probably be around as long as the B-52, and maybe beyond, because dozens of other aircraft these days, especially tactical fighters, are refueled from tankers. The KC-10 is a newer tanker addition.
Most SAC B-52 training flights had a scheduled practice refueling with a KC-135. Refueling rendezvous times and places were prescheduled. The aircraft come in to the initial point from opposite directions, 1,000 ft apart vertically and offset a couple of miles. The radar operator on the bomber called the turn for the KC-135 which
then made a 180 degree turn to roll out a couple of miles ahead of the B-52. The B-52 gradually closed the gap and climbed up to the tanker’s altitude. Tucking that big B-52 up under the fuselage of the KC-135 so the boom could be attached was one tough, sweat producing maneuver. Pilots, even experienced ones, who were new to the B-52 refueling, thought they might never master it. By ten flights, however, they usually qualified by staying hooked on to the boom for five minutes without a disconnect. Soon, a pilot was expected to hold on for fifteen minutes, which is the time re- quired to transfer a typical combat load of fuel. That produced more sweat. Lights on the belly of the KC-135 gave positioning signals to the B-52 pilot. The acceptable envelope for this close formation position was only a few feet in any direction. Out of those limits the boom automatically disconnected
and retracted to prevent damage to either airplane.
The B-52 is not what one would call a pilot’s airplane. It’s not flown for fun because it’s basically a big military weapons platform crewed by trained professionals. Joy comes in doing the best possible job as part of a team. One pilot described the B-52 rather lightly in these words: “The aircraft has enough aluminum and steel to make 20,000 garbage cans. If all the wire and cable in it were laid end to end, it would stretch a hundred thousand miles. The combined power of the engines is equal to 12,000 locomotives. And it flies like 12,000 locomotives pulling 20,000 garbage cans on the ends of 100,000 miles of wire.” That’s an exaggeration. It may not be easy to fly, but it’s not that awkward. In fact, if you take away the bomb loads and reduce the huge amount of fuel on board, this B-52 will really perform. Here is a
164,000-185,000 lb empty weight machine that’s normally weighted with nearly twice that in fuel and weapons or another 300,000 lbs up to a total of 488,000 lbs. I think when it’s light, it will still out-climb and out-run many civilian and military aircraft put in the skies during the last 40 years.
In addition to bombs, the B-52 was retrofitted to carry guided missiles. In the 1960s & 1970s it was the nuclear “Hound Dog.” One AGM-28 was mounted under each wing. It was basically an unmanned aircraft powered by a large jet engine. Speed was 1,200 mph and range 500 miles. It had its own navigation and guidance to target after programming by the B-52 navigators. When carried for training, the pilots could start and operate those two jet engines in addition to the eight others. Later on, a nuclear missile called SRAM (short range attack missile) was carried. In the last decade
the B-52 has gone through extensive upgrades in weapons and systems to provide flexibility and increased capabilities for both nuclear and conventional use. These include both precision guided missiles and gravity weapons. Examples are the AGM-86 series of air launched cruise missiles and the JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition).
With this background we’re ready to talk about the B-52 involvement in Vietnam. The US Air Force first became involved in Vietnam in 1950. B-52s began flying missions to South Vietnam out of Guam on 18 June 1965, a twelve-hour flight. These were F models converted to carry fifty-one 750 lb bombs (27 inside and 24 outside). The usual white nuclear anti-blast color underside was painted black. This made them less visible from the ground. In those days the top half of the plane was silver with the standard SAC and USAF stars & stripes markings. Later
all B-52s were painted camouflage colors on the tops with the Vietnam iron bombers given black bottoms and the nuclear carriers white. The current painting is solid dark. In 1966, older D models replaced the Fs at Guam. These older Ds were given a “big belly” modification that allowed them to carry 108 (84 inside and 24 outside) of the 500 lb and 750 lb bombs.
In two years, B-52s flew 10,000 sorties to Vietnam from Guam. In 1967, B-52s began flying out of Thailand. Missions were only three to five hours versus twelve hours from Guam, and heavier bomb loads could be carried since less fuel was needed. Workload on crews and maintenance were less. In-flight refueling wasn’t needed regularly. These daily schedules continued for another five years. The steady increase in US military involvement in Vietnam caused considerable unrest among people at home, and years of peace
negotiations were ineffective.
During the last half of 1972, there had been a buildup of B-52s on Guam to augment the B-52D models in Thailand. Whole wings of US based nuclear bombs, support people, and support equipment were deployed to Guam, including those from the author’s 97th Bomb Wing at Blytheville AFB, Arkansas. By December there were fifty-four B-52Ds in Thailand and 152 B-52s (53 D models and 99 G models) on Anderson Field in Guam for a total of 206 bombers avail-able in the theater. In addition, there were now 450 tactical support aircraft assembled in Thailand: F-4s, F-105s, F-111s, A- 7s and EB-66s.
In the fall of 1972, negotiations between the US and North Vietnam to end the war were being held in Paris. On October 8th, Henry Kissinger indicated finally that North Vietnam accepted virtually all American terms including a cease-fire and return of all US POWs.
On October 18, Kissinger flew to South Vietnam for coordination. On October 24th, he announced in Washington, “Peace is at hand.” On November 20th, both sides returned to Paris, but North Vietnam appeared to stall. Finally, on December 4th, the final session in Paris, the North Vietnamese rejected previous agreements on key issues, and negotiations fell apart. President Nixon then told Kissinger in the oval office, “If we renew bombing, it will have to be something new, and that means we will have to hit Hanoi and Haiphong with B-52s. Anything less will only make the enemy contemptuous.” On December 15th, the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Pacific Command to prepare for maximum effort strikes. This action at Guam and Thailand meant no more B-52 take-offs on routine missions. All aircraft were recovered, which took up to twelve hours, and they were loaded and prepared for a new
mission assignment. On December 16th, in Washington, Kissinger announced the talks failed to produce an agreement. The following message was sent from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Pacific Command on December 17th: “You are directed to commence at 1200Z, 18 Dec 1972, a three-day maximum effort, repeat maximum effort, of B-52 and tactical aircraft strikes in the Hanoi-Haiphong area on the authorized target list. Be prepared to extend operations past three days if directed.”
The “Linebacker II” plan was basically daylight low-level tactical aircraft strikes into North Vietnam coupled with high altitude B-52 strikes at night. Targets around Hanoi and Haiphong and its harbor were railroad yards, storage areas, radio communication facilities, power facilities, airfields, SAM (surface to air missile) sites and bridges. North Vietnam possessed the best air defense system in the
world, created from Soviet equipment. They had excellent radar, surface-to-air missiles with 200 launchers, 4,000 anti-aircraft artillery guns and 200 MiG fighters.
On the first night, December 18th, 129 B-52s attacked military targets in three waves about four hours apart to provide the psychological impact of continuous bombardment. Each wave had 40-50 bombers. The B-52 flew in three-ship cells with 500 ft vertical and a one-mile horizontal separation between aircraft. Two to three minutes separated the three ship-cells. The first casualty of Linebacker II was a B-52G from Blytheville, Arkansas, (the author’s home base) in wave one. At the bomb release point two SAMs hit it simultaneously. The aircraft nosed down, crashed and exploded ten miles northwest of Hanoi. The pilot, Lt Col Rissi, and gunner, MSgt Ferguson, lost their lives due to the SAM detonation. The copilot,
1Lt Thomas, was missing in action (MIA). Radar navigator, Maj Johnson; navigator, Capt Certain; and electronic officer, Capt Simpson, successfully ejected, were captured, and became SAC’s first POWs. Their pictures were publicized by the North Vietnamese and were reprinted in both Time and Newsweek a few weeks later. They were released when POWs were returned. Through the course of the next ten nights of combat, fourteen other crews shared this crew’s fate in varying degrees. The first night’s 129 sorties ended with three B-52s downed and two badly damaged. This was a two and a half per cent loss rate. SAC planners had expected higher losses. Over 200 SAMs were fired.
The second night, 19 December, consisted of 93 bombers. None were shot down in the 180 SAM firings. Two were damaged but limped home OK. On night three, 20 December, it was a different story. Four B-52Gs and
two B-52Ds were downed with one more “D” damaged. Again, over 200 SAMs were fired. One of the aircraft shot down was the lead B-52G in wave three. It was hit by a SAM while in its high bank turn after bomb release. Three of seven on board ejected successfully: pilot, navigator, and wave commander, Lt Col Keith Heggen, the author’s roommate. The first two were returned after the war as POWs. Lt Col Heggen died in captivity after ten days from injures due to the SAM explosion.
Two cells behind Heggen’s aircraft was a B-52G from Blytheville AFB which was hit by a SAM in the forward fuselage. The pilot, Capt Craddock, struggled with the aircraft after a brief dive and was able to regain control when a second SAM hit it. Bailout was ordered, but the aircraft exploded. The gunner, SSgt Loller, was the only one to eject successfully. He was taken prisoner. The other five were MlAs.
Things improved the next three nights with changes in tactics for support and B-52 aircraft, and reduction in North Vietnam capa-bilities. No B-52s were shot down those three nights, and only one was damaged.
At Christmas time, President Nixon called a 36-hour cease-fire as a goodwill gesture and observance of Christmas Day. Aircrews needed the rest, and maintenance needed the extra time to fix the aircraft. The December 26th offensive plan was different. One hundred twenty B-52s were massed into a single wave formation to strike ten target complexes from different directions and altitudes at the same time. This was the largest formation of B-52s ever, and nothing like it had been done since WWII. The bombing plan was done by computer at SAC headquarters, Offutt AFB, Nebraska. B-52s dropped 9,932 bombs that night. Two aircraft were shot down by 68 SAMs.
support for December 26 was noteworthy. There were 194 KC-135s in the theatre. In 24 hours they made 763 refuelings. The majority, or 607, were in support of tactical aircraft.
The 9th, 10th, and 11th nights saw lighter assaults. Only one aircraft was lost on the ninth night, December 27th. The last B-52 of Linebacker II landed at Guam shortly after noon, 30 December 1972. In those twelve days, with eleven nights of bombings, we lost fifteen B-52s from over 1,000 SAM firings and AAA. Thirteen tactical aircraft were also lost. The total number of SAC B-52 crewmembers involved in the shoot-downs was 92. Fifty-nine (two-thirds) were recovered right away or as POWs. The rest were killed or were MIA. Other non-B-52 aircrews shot down totaled 29 with 17 recovered and the remainder killed or MIA.
What was the political result? A British expert on Asia, Robert Thompson said, “In
my view, by 30 December 1972, after eleven days of those B-52 attacks on Hanoi, you had won the war, and it was over. They fired 1,242 SAMs and had none left. They and their rear base at that point were at your mercy. They would have taken any terms. And that is why, of course, you actually got a peace agree-ment in January which you had not been able to get in October.”
One member of the US delegation to the Paris peace talks said: “Prior to Linebacker II the North Vietnamese were intransigent, buying time and refusing to discuss even a formal meeting schedule. After Linebacker II they were shaken, demoralized and anxious to talk about anything.” Henry Kissinger said, “There was a deadlock in the middle of December, and there was rapid movement when negotiations resumed on 8 January.” These facts have to be analyzed by each person for himself. The talks swiftly produced an
agreement that ended the role of the US in Vietnam and brought the POWs home as well as most of the deployed aircraft and people. But of course, there was a price, not only in lost aircraft and tax dollars, but also in lost crewmembers who are still remembered by their fellow fliers, their families, and friends.
Linebacker II happened 29 years ago. It was just one chapter in the B-52 Stratofortress story. Who knows when the last chapter will be written on this amazing aircraft?