Boeing’s B-52 is a long-range, high subsonic, jet-powered strategic bomber. It has the longest range (in an unrefueled flight) among all U.S. bombers, and it can carry up to 32 tons (70,000 pounds) of weapons, overall operated by a 5-man crew and has the ability to carry and launch whole airplanes, including the X-43, which already set that way the world’s latest speed record.
Originally, the B-52 began its way in a project in 1945 which sought a replacement for the B-36 Convair. The project demanded an aircraft with the ability to carry nuclear weapons for Cold War-era deterrence missions, and have a large crew of at least 11 men. The other requirements were a cruise speed of 480 km/h (240kn, or 300mph), a combat radius of 8,000 km (5,000 statute miles), a number of 20 mm cannons, and the ability to haul 4,500 kilograms (10,000 pounds) of bombs. Up to the task stood Boeing, Consolidated Aircraft, and Glenn Luther Martin Company.
A year later, in 1946, Boeing’s model 462 was declared the winner. The 462 model was hefty (weighed 160,000 kg, or 360,000 pounds) and slow, with a combat radius of only 5,010 km (3,110 statute miles). In 9 years, Boeing’s aircraft was upgraded with better systems and new technological innovations, which in term allowed it to fly at the speed of 825 km/h (513mph), at a range of 11,125 km (6909 statute miles) while weighing only 125,000 kg (280,000 pounds).
The first operational variant was the B-52B, which was developed in parallel with the prototypes built between 1951 and 1954. It suffered from fuel leaks and icing, inaccurate fire control computers, and a ridiculous situation, when the cockpit used to overheat by the sun, and the lower decks froze in the cold. All problems were ironed out in the other variants that were made, except for the fuel leak problem, which was attended to only in the most advanced variant- the B-52H (today’s only operational B-52 variant). The B-52H includes updated ECM (electronic countermeasures), avionics and navigation systems, stronger (turbofan) engines, a larger capacity water injection system, new alternators, larger fuel capacity, new sitting arrangement for its crew, a new fire-control system, a rear defensive M61 Vulcan cannon (instead of the 20 mm cannon), and meanwhile, it managed to get rid of its old nasty unofficial nickname- the “BUFF” (“Big Ugly Fat Fucker”, or in the more polite version:” Big Ugly Fat Fellow”). It also managed to break flight distance records by circling the world in one (long) flight (it took 45 hours and 19 minutes), and also by flying 20,177 km (12,532.28 statute miles) without refueling.
The B-52 saw action for the first time in Vietnam War, as it carpet bombed countless targets in missions that lasted between 10 to 12 hours each. Surprisingly, the B-52 also managed to shoot down two MiG-21 "Fishbeds", thanks to its tail gunners.
During the Cold War, 2 crashes of nuclear-armed B-52 occurred. One in Spain, and one in Greenland. Both crashes caused nuclear pollution, but luckily, none of them triggered a nuclear explosion. It should be noted that although the B-52 was made in order to drop nuclear bombs, it only used conventional munitions during actual combat.
Since the beginning of its service in January 1955, the B-52’s superb performance at high subsonic speeds and relatively low operating costs kept it in United States’ service, despite the proposals to replace it with supersonic aircraft (the Mach 3 XB-70 Valkyrie and the Mach 2.2 B-1B Lancer), or stealth aircraft (the B-2 Spirit). The more influentive factor would be their cost, as these airplanes’ prices are multiple times bigger than the B-52’s (one XB-70 costs 750 million dollars, and one B-2 costs 737 million dollars, or 2.2 billion dollars if taking its program’s cost into account, while the unit price of a B-52 never went over 53.5 million dollars). By remaining in service for so long, the B-52 became one of the only five airplanes that managed to serve the same nation for over 50 years (the other 4 are the English Electric Canberra, the Russian Tupolev Tu-95, and the American C-130 Hercules and KC-135 Stratotanker).
Even today, 53 years after its deployment, the B-52 seems to lead United States’ other (2) bombers in reliability and efficiency. After modifying it to precision-strike bombing, the B-52 proved itself in Iraq and Afghanistan as an invaluable asset, especially because there is almost no anti-air resistance (its main undoing). Its unique ability to stay airborne for a long duration and reach great distances also contributes a lot. It also leads in mission capability rate- whereas the B-1 averages a 53% ready rate, and the B-2 achieved a 26%, the B-52 averages 80%! The B-52 doesn’t seem to have any competition! The USAF intends to keep the B-52 in service at least until 2040, and even make some of the B-52s capable of performing electronic jamming! Is the B-52 really too good to move on without?