The venerable B-52: 50 years and counting
by Raymond Puffer
Air Force Flight Test Center History Office
EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The B-52 Stratofortress, considered by many to be the Air Force's workhorse bomber, celebrates its 50th anniversary April 15.
On April 15, 1952, Boeing Co. test pilot "Tex" Johnson and the Air Force Flight Test Center's Lt. Col. Guy Townsend took the first B-52 on its maiden flight, from the Boeing runway in Seattle.
Although few people realized it then, the nation gained a strategic weapon that would outlive the Cold War. The new bomber had a number of design features that would make modifications and upgrades simple, leading to the bomber's long service life.
Boeing designers, aware that their thoroughbred B-47 Stratojet had barely enough wing area, gave the new plane a generous 4,000 square feet. This made the wingspan so long that it was necessary to develop an ingenious swivel action for the landing gear trucks that allowed the plane to yaw during crosswind landings so the wingtips wouldn't contact the runway.
The boxy fuselage contained landing gear, bomb bays and most of the fuel cells, but still had space for equipment additions and modifications.
The first two prototype aircraft were configured with tandem seats for the pilot and co-pilot, who sat beneath a long, fighter-style canopy. Gen. Curtis LeMay, Strategic Air Command commander, directed a change to a side-by-side arrangement to improve communication between the pilots and provide space for more instrumentation. The XB-52 -- the first prototype aircraft but the second to fly -- arrived for evaluation Nov. 21, and was soon joined by the YB-52.
After that, the eight-engined bomber type never went away.
Townsend and Capt. William Magruder completed the flight test phase by the following June, and in July the YB-52 took off from Edwards' Rogers Dry Lake bed for an 11-hour basic radius test sortie. That flight confirmed the bomber's ability to take off with a heavy fuel load, fly more than 2,700 miles at combat altitude, conduct simulated combat maneuvers and return.
This capacity to project power on a global scale changed the entire strategic equation with the Soviet Union, and had immense effects on America's defense posture for the rest of the century.
A long series of airframe, engine and weapon system evaluations continued throughout the next two decades. These programs involved young AFFTC pilots and engineers such as Capt. Fitzhugh Fulton and Capt. Phil Conley Jr., who became AFFTC commander twenty years later.
The first three production B-52s were designated A models and arrived here for performance and stability testing March 3, 1955. One of these, tail number 003, was kept by Boeing for various test flight duties for the next ten years. In November 1958, it was modified to an NB-52A and began service as an X-15 mother ship. NB-52B, tail number 008, arrived at Edwards for the same duty on June 11, 1959, and began a career of flight test support that has lasted until today.
A total of 744 B-52s were built with the last, a B-52H, delivered in October 1962. Only the H model bombers are still in the Air Force inventory and are assigned to Air Combat Command and the Air Force Reserve.
The first of 102 B-52H's was delivered to Strategic Air Command in May 1961. The H model can carry up to 20 air launched cruise missiles. It can also carry the conventional cruise missile, the weapon that was launched in several contingencies during the 1990s, starting with Operation Desert Storm.
|The XB-52, the first prototype B-52 Stratofortress, takes off from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. (Courtesy Photo)
|An X-15 launches from a B-52 mothership (NASA photo)