They Just Keep On Ticking

Nearly six years ago on this blog, we noted the 50th anniversary of the production of the final B52 Stratofortress – a plane whose design processs kicked off as the rubble from World War 2 was still smoking, which first flew in the early fifties, went into series production in 1952, and whose final example rolled off the line before I was born.

The Air Force has been working to replace the B52 – the BUFF Big Ugly Fat Fella) or BMF (Boeng Multirole Flight-platform), as its crews and support staff call it – almost since it first rolled off the production line.

First came the =B58 Hustler – a sleek, fast, incredibly flashy plane that broke all sorts of world records, and lasted maybe five years in front line service due to mechanical and electronic bugs and cost overruns.

The FB-111 was intended to augment the B-52 rather than supplant it; it was part of the strategic bomber fleet for perhaps a decade and a half before being retired.

The B1 and B1A?   After a protracted, costly development dogged by systems issues and a left-leaning Congress that was drunk with pacifistic power after pulling the US out of Vietnam, the plane was downgraded into the more pedestrian but fairly successful B1B, currently gracing the skies of South Dakota from its home base near Rapid City – and will be for another fifteen years, according to the Air Force, retiring a decade or so before the original plan.

Same with the B2 “Spirit” – the first strategic “stealth” bomber, which will also be leaving service in the early 2030s.

But the B52?  It’s going to outlive them all:

“With an adequate sustainment and modernization focus, including new engines, the B-52 has a projected service life through 2050, remaining a key part of the bomber enterprise well into the future,” said Gen. Robin Rand, Air Force Global Strike Command commander, in a statement issued by the Air Force.

But today’s B-52 has evolved from the planes first flown in the ’50s. The Stratofortress has undergone numerous upgrades and modernization over the years, including the addition of an advanced communications system that displays real-time intelligence feeds overlaid on moving maps…The Air Force plan calls for the B-1s and B-2s to be “incrementally retired,” once enough [of the brand new, just-started-design] B-21s are operational. “If the force structure we have proposed is supported by the Congress, bases that have bombers now will have bombers in the future,” Wilson said. “They will be B-52s and B-21s.”

The B21, of course, will run into delays and overruns, and the B52 will (I predict) be in service through the 2070s.

15 thoughts on “They Just Keep On Ticking

  1. I’m shocked they haven’t done their best to get rid of it, like with the A-10. Then again, attack aircraft are for supporting ground troops. Totally not sexy.

  2. My shot-in-the-dark prediction is that drones will make most manned aircraft obsolete in 10-15 years. Sooner if a major war breaks out.

  3. As I pointed out before, the U.S. taxpayers have never received a better bargain on military hardware than the BUFF. Coincidentally, about a week ago, I was chatting with a couple of C-130 ramp rats at 5-8 Club. One of them told me that he was the fourth generation of his family to have either worked on or flew them. Incredible!

  4. My brother was a boom operator in a KC135 tanker, refueling the BUFFS out of Ellsworth AFB. He and his crew mates had a different take on the BUFF acronym reported in this family-friendly blog.

  5. 2070? Why not 2100? Considering there has been zero practical innovation in aviation in the past 50 years, and nothing on the horizon now. Lets first consider space vehicles. Falcon Heavy? Puhleese, it is still nowhere near Saturn V. Current commercial aircraft? C’mon, none are faster than 747 and Concord is deader than a doornail. What have we gained since 747 was introduced in 1969? The whole point of air travel is to get from point A to point B faster. Apparently Moore’s law does not apply to aviation. We are stuck. Hopelessly, miserably stuck with technology that did not progress since for almost 50 years.

  6. Pingback: In The Mailbox: 02.13.18 : The Other McCain

  7. The A380 is marginally faster than the 747. That said, the B-52 is faster than both–the speed of sound imposing something of a barrier, no? My take is that I’m told that modern jets use quite a bit less fuel than their predecessors due to improved turbofans and materials, and you could probably make a replacement that would be a bit smaller, but with longer range and smaller radar cross section and survivability.

    If, of course, you managed to persuade the DOD to accept “better than what we have now” instead of insisting on perfection, which I assume is the big problem.

  8. Also, the reason not to take it to 2100 is simple;metal fatigue. The question is when, not if, critical parts will start to go.

  9. The A380 is marginally faster than the 747. That said, the B-52 is faster than both–the speed of sound imposing something of a barrier, no?

    Actually, based on “how stuff works” data, 747 has a faster top cruising speed and is equivalent at long-distance cruising speed with A380. Concord broke the sound barrier. It can be done. It was done back in 1969 (commercial in 1976), same year as 747! But NOTHING had been done on a large commercial scale. Could not care less for better fuel economy or longer range or comfort and even less about smaller radar footprint for a commercial jet. Just get us from point A to point B FASTER! That is progress, not longer travel! I do quite a bit of intercontinental travel and I can tell you that I would be willing to sit on a milk crate if I could cut my travel time in half or better.

  10. BTW, B52 is slower than 747 based on official specs: 0.84M vs 0.85M.

    To address metal fatigue – just build more! I was thinking about the B52 as a platform, not the actual air planes.

  11. The innovation isn’t in airplanes but in telepresence. Other than intercontinental travel, why does anyone fly anymore? The comfort? The glamour? The sexy stewardesses?

  12. NW,

    LOL. I was going to use that term in my post, but, what you said.

    Those of us that worked on B-52s and KC-135s, referred to the FB-111 a bent wing bug sucker, C-130s as slow rides and any special planes that usually carried the high level brass, as seagull haulers. We called visiting generals seagulls, reasoning that they come in, sqwauk a lot, eat our food, crap all over us, then fly away.

  13. BB,

    Metal fatigue was pretty rare, but I saw it while I was working on the D models, which were the work horses of combat operations in Vietnam. The wing spars started to exhibit cracking, but that was largely due to the number of max weight missions they flew. Those wing mounted bomb racks, although permissible under Boeing’s specs, took a heavy toll. They were basically obsolete by the end, so they were flown back to the states and distributed to bases around the country, but we didn’t fly them. We just moved them around between the flight line and the alert pad to make the Russians think that we were. Their last flights were to the boneyard in Tucson for destruction.

  14. Boss; understood, but airframes wear out from routine use just as certainly as from overuse, no? Maybe make more of the same airframe, as JPA suggests, but I certainly hope we don’t just keep the same planes going another half century!

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