Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from April 15 through April 18.
April 15, 1952 – The first flight of the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. By the end of WWII, Boeing had earned a solid reputation for making large bombers with the rugged B-17 Flying Fortress and the state-of-the-art B-29 Superfortress. But with the coming of both the jet age and the nuclear age, the Air Force needed a new bomber with extreme range that could fly deep into enemy territory to deliver nuclear weapons. Initially, Boeing proposed the Model 462 in 1946, a straight-wing bomber that would be powered by 6 turboprop engines. It would be essentially a scaled-up version of a WWII bomber, with at least 5 defensive turrets and accommodations for two crews to fly long-range missions. But over the next year of development, the Air Force kept changing the requirements, and Boeing kept changing the design, and by the end of 1947 the program was on the verge of cancelation. Though the turbojet engine was clearly the powerplant of the future, the Air Force wasn’t so sure, and wanted to hedge its bets by sticking with turboprops. After all, range was a primary concern, and early engines were notoriously thirsty. Boeing proposed yet another turboprop design in October 1948 and, when the Air Force wasn’t impressed with its capabilities, a team of Boeing engineers working in a hotel room in Dayton, Ohio came up with the preliminary design of an eight-engine turbojet bomber based on the B-47 Stratojet and its 35-degree swept wing. Similar to the B-47, the engines on the Stratofortress would be housed in pods under the wings, and the landing gear would be centered on the fuselage with outriggers on the wings. To handle crosswind landings, Boeing came up with the innovative solution of having the main landing wheels pivot up to 20-degrees to stay aligned with the runway centerline. Like the B-47, the two pilots would be seated in a tandem configuration under a greenhouse canopy, but Air Force General Curtis LeMay, a veteran of WWII bombing campaigns, insisted that the pilots be seated side by side. Only three of the initial B-52A model were built, and the first production model, the B-52B, entered service with the Air Force on June 29, 1955. This aircraft featured improved avionics and engines that could achieve an extra 12,000 pounds of thrust by using water injection. As a product of the Cold War, the B-52's primary mission was to deliver nuclear weapons, and though it was never called on to carry out that mission, it still served as a powerful deterrent to Soviet aims around the world. When the advent of the surface to air missile jeopardized the B-52's high altitude mission, the bomber showed its tremendous flexibility by adapting to low level penetration missions. And, in a further testament to its flexibility, the bomber that was originally designed solely to drop nuclear munitions became one of the most powerful weapons of conventional warfare when it went into battle in Vietnam. Beginning with Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965, and following modifications to carry still more bombs, B-52 crews flew a total of 124,532 sorties throughout the war.
Following Vietnam, many of the older B-52s were retired due to their age, though newer G and H models were kept active for nuclear standby missions. Many were relegated to the Arizona desert, then destroyed as part of arms limitation treaties with the Soviet Union. When America went to war in the Persian Gulf, B-52s took part in Operation Desert Storm, flying from bases in England, Spain, Saudi Arabia and as far away as Louisiana to attack targets in Iraq. Despite efforts to replace the B-52, first with the Rockwell B-1 Lancer, the Buff soldiers on, providing capabilities in firepower and mission flexibility that simply can’t be matched by newer designs. When the B-1 is replaced by the proposed B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber, the B-52 will still be flying. In fact, the Air Force currently plans to keep the B-52 in service until 2045, an astonishing 90 years after it first entered service, and plans are currently underway to replace the 8 Pratt & Whitney TF33 low-bypass turbofans with 8 similarly sized regional jet engines. P&W are also offering an updated version of the TF33, saying new TF33s would require fewer structural modifications. (US Air Force photos)