First flight: 1952
Role: Strategic bomber
Designed to be the United States Air Force’s carrier of nuclear weapons for Cold War-era deterrence missions, the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress is the USAF’s largest bomber. In service since 1955, the B-52 is the most frequently used long-range, subsonic, jet-powered strategic bomber.
Boeing won the contract to build the B-52 on June 5, 1946 but the first flight was not until April 15, 1952 with “Tex” Johnston due to multiple structure and propulsion problems. The USAF wanted a bomber that could carry a very large payload while being able to remain in the air for extended periods of time. The B-52 went through several variations and numerous modifications such as wing position and proper engines. Another issue the B-52 had was once several of these issues were resolved. The plane was destroying runways due to its excessive weight and size. Boeing was finally able to refine the B-52 in 1955 to the plane we see today, an angled-winged, eight turbojet engine powered bomber with the ability to carry 60,000 pounds of various payloads. Between 1952 and 1962 there were 744 B-52’s built at the cost of $14.43 million per plane. This would be around $53.4 million per plane in today’s market.
World’s Largest Bomber
The B-52 is most likely known for being the world’s largest bomber, but not many know how important of a role it played. The bomber deployed its first live hydrogen bomb over the Bikini Atoll on May 21, 1956. It also displayed its global reach by flying around the world in 45 hours and 19 minutes on January 16-18, 1957. The B-52’s biggest roles however were in the Vietnam and Cold Wars.
During the Vietnam War the B-52 was a major part of Operation Rolling Thunder and Operation Arc Light. This plane was vital to both operations due to the fact that after modifications for cargo capacity, the B-52 was able to carpet bomb areas with 60,000 pounds of bombs. Thanks to the long range of the plane, these missions were able to last several hours without needing to land or refuel with a KC-135 Stratotanker. The largest attack the B-52 saw in Vietnam was Operation Linebacker II. This mission consisted of waves of bombers dropping 15,237 tons of bombs over a 12 day period.
Cold War Bomber
The Cold War saw great use of the B-52 but not a single bomb was dropped. Airborne alert duty was the main job of the bomber under various code names like Chrome Dome, Round Robin, and Giant Lance. While they only performed airborne alerts, each bomber was loaded with nuclear bombs and “loitered” outside the Soviet Union to act as a rapid first strike or retaliation in case of a nuclear war. Sadly, after the Cold War, many B-52 bombers were destroyed as part of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. They were sent to the “Airplane Graveyard” at the AMARG facility in Tuscon, Arizona where the wings were snapped off.