The Air Force's youngest B-52 Stratofortress will turn 50 years old this October.
It's the subject of a terrific writeup by Tech Sgt. Chris Powell, packed with great detail about the bomber, and also telling in what it doesn't say: The Air Force's forthcoming new bomber has enormous shoes to fill.
“I don’t think anyone really knew this was going to be the last B-52 ever made,” said Robert Michel, the 5th Bomb Wing historian. “They expected it to be in service for probably about 20 years, (not close to) a hundred.”Tail 1040 was the last of 744 bombers, Powell writes; they'd been in production since 1952. (Boeing delivered 100 BUFFs in Fiscal 1958 alone.) This armada of B-52s constituted the mailed fist grasping the lightning bolts on the Strategic Air Command emblem, though mercifully, the bombers' combat career has involved delivering only conventional ordnance.
With Tail No. 1040 and the rest of the Air Force’s B-52s scheduled to keep flying through 2040, there are several reasons why the B-52 has been flying for more than 50 years.
“I don’t think you can get a bomber that could replace the B-52 that will do everything the B-52 does,” Michel said.
That’s because the B-52 can perform nuclear deterrence and conventional operations, fly at both high and low altitudes while carrying nuclear and conventional bombs, cruise missiles or aerial mines, he said. “It’s like the Swiss Army bomber.”
To keep a fleet of aircraft flying for so long, it takes constant attention from maintainers to ensure the planes are every bit as airworthy as the rest of Air Force’s fleet.
“The aircraft has seen some really good maintainers through its years,” said Staff Sgt. Eric Thomas, a dedicated crew chief assigned to the 5th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. “I think it’s a compliment to the maintainers and the people who support the airframe because there aren’t many aircraft that are flying 50 years after it left the factory. It’s definitely not the prettiest plane out there, but it can take a beating and keep on kicking.”
However, even with highly trained maintainers, keeping the B-52 flying day in and day out is no easy task. Thomas said 1040 requires less maintenance than the rest of the B-52s at Minot AFB, which is surprising, considering it’s also the most active aircraft at the base. On average, the rest of Minot AFB’s B-52s have between 17,000 to 18,000 flying hours, while 1040 has more than 21,000, Thomas said.
Comparisons are odious, but if you set the run of airplanes that ended with 1040 against the Air Force's proposed new bomber, the difference could not be starker. Still, the Air Force hopes it can repeat history; here's what service officials said in their budget submission this year: "By relying on proven technologies and by planning to evolve the aircraft over time as threats evolve, similar to the B-52 legacy fleet, the up-front acquisition costs will be reduced significantly from the B-2 experience. The average procurement unit cost is anticipated to be about $550 million in FY 2010 dollars for a fleet of 80–100 aircraft."
That may not include the off-board systems the Air Force also wants to constitute "Long-Range Strike," and the particulars of the new bomber itself are not for you to know, silly taxpayer -- just keep signing those checks. So we can't say yet where exactly the new airplane will fall on the spectrum from B-52 to to B-1 to B-2 in terms of actual cost, ease of manufacture, performance and so on. We can say that the Air Force needs to develop and buy it around the same time it's going into full production of the F-35 Lightning II and the KC-46A tanker, so that could present another challenge the B-52 didn't have back in its day.
There's another big unanswered question about the future of the Air Force's bomber fleet: Even though commanders think they can upgrade and maintain the B-52s so they fly until 2040, does that mean staying at today's operational tempo, or spiraling down to account for their ever-increasing age and wear? If the fleet were called upon to log some major hours in an unexpected campaign or crisis, that could pull its sunset date much closer forward in time, or require still more investment to keep the airplanes around.
Then again, Tail no. 1040 has already served for so long -- longer than most Navy warships, let alone aircraft -- that it and its siblings might be able to just stay in the fleet forever.