With a length of 159 ft, a height of 48 feet and its 8 engines, the B-52 is one of the most iconic aircraft of the US Air Force.
Produced by Boeing in the 1950s, 740 B-52s were built in different versions until 1962. And it has been in service for more than 60 years within the US Air Force who plans to fly it until 2050, this would make a century of service!
B-52 history begins after WW2, during this time the US Air Force wanted to retire its old bombers and asked Boeing to build a plane capable of replacing the B-29 and B-36 Peacemaker.
To facilitate the development of the B-52, Boeing decided to reuse the general design of the B-47 it had built itself some time ago.
This new aircraft made its first flight in April 1952 under the name of YB-52 and was put into service in the US Air Force in June 1955. Its efficiency and versatility allowed it to replace the B-36 and the B-47 that quickly became obsolete.
A few year after, on January 10, 1964, an incredible event occurred to a B-52. Indeed, during a flight made to test the effect of strong turbulence on the B-52 structure, the rudder of the aircraft broke off in flight. Yet this accident did not prevent the B-52 from flying 5 hours without a vertical stabilizer before safely landing. All crew members were sound and safe.
Throughout its history, the B-52 has served as a launch platform several times, mainly for NASA experimental projects
For example, in 1955, NASA modified a B-52 to use it as a mothership. Nicknamed “Balls 8”, this aircraft was an integral part of the North American X-15 project.
The X-15 was an experimental hypersonic rocket that was built on behalf of NASA and the US Air Force as part of a research program on very high speed and very high altitude flights.
In practice, the X-15 was hanged under the right wing of the B-52 Balls 8, and the separation between the two aircraft took place at an high altitude so that the X-15 can perform its flights that were usually exceeding Mach 5.
In 1968, the program was stopped, following a severe accident that involved the X-15 some months earlier. But this disaster did not ended the Balls 8 career, which continued to serve as a mothership for many other projects.
Among these projects, there is the X-43 Scramjet, an unmanned aircraft powered by an atmospheric ramjet, which was created and tested on behalf of NASA as part of the “Hyper-X” program in the late 1990s. In 2004, the X-43 launched from the B-52 Balls 8, achieved a speed record of Mach 9.
Some years later, Boeing built the X-51, the successor to the X-43, which flew for the first time in 2010, but this time under the wings of another B-52. The X-51 achieved a top speed of Mach 5 in May 2013.
The B-52 is equipped with 8 Pratt and Whitney TF 33, installed in 4 pods located under the wings. These engines provide enough power to propel the plane up to Mach 0.8 maximum. And although they were produced more than 50 years ago, the US Air Force still plans to keep the engine TF-33 for many more year.
The B-52 has a wingspan so large that it needs stabilizing wheels installed at the ends of the wings to prevent them from touching the ground. These wheels retract once the B-52 is in flight.
To increase its range or avoid landing during a mission, the B-52 can be refueled in mid-air. But due to its huge size, the B-52 must slowly approach the tanker aircraft, and pilots of both aircraft must be cautious not to approach within 100 ft of each other, to avoid a dramatic collision.
And to land, the B-52 is equipped with a giant parachute to slow it down when it has to land on short runways, or during an emergency landing. With a length of over 90 feet, each time it is used this parachute must be packed for long hours, by several US Air force airmen who must pay attention to the slightest detail in order to have a perfect deployment of the parachute.
The crew of the B-52 consists of 5 members: the pilot, the copilot, the weapon systems officer, the navigator, and the electronic warfare officer. All of these members must share the cramped space inside the aircraft and have to climb inside the B-52 using a ladder located under the plane.
In 1991 it was decided to remove the tail gunner post that became obsolete because of the new missile technologies. Since that time, the guns located in the tails, have all been removed from the US Air Force B-52.
With its exceptional longevity, the B-52 has not only made the feat of always remaining in service against the B1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit aircraft that were supposed to replace it, but the B-52 could also be decommissioned after these 2 planes, yet more modern. A true living legend…
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