By Mike Case
The B-52: it’s the plane that the Air Force just can’t say goodbye to.
With a long-range, subsonic, jet-powered strategic bomber with a 185-foot wingspan (that is the height of the Leaning Tower of Pisa!) the first Boeing B-52s became operational on June 29, 1955 at Castle Air Force Base in California, where they were assigned to the 93rd Bombardment Wing.
B-52s have played a key role from the Cold War and the Vietnam War, to Desert Storm and the Global War on Terror.
The Air Force has recently decided to extend the service life of the B-52 through the 2040s. At that point, some of the B-52 airframes will be approaching an incredible 90 years old, making the planes considerably older than anyone flying them. So, in honor of the stalwart B-52 and its crews’ over 60 years of service, here are some things you might want to know:
1. The official name of the B-52 is “Stratofortress.”
However it is more popularly known as “BUFF” or Big Ugly Fat F***** (or “fellow,” for the polite among you).
2. The B-52 has an incredible list of technical specs.
It’s powered by eight Pratt & Whitney turbofan jet engines (the only jet in active service with eight engines), has an unrefueled range of 8,800 miles and can carry a 70,000-pound payload.
3. The youngest B-52s still in active service are about 57 years old.
These are the “H” models, the last of which were delivered to the Air Force in 1962 – compare this to the fact that almost 40% of men and women serving in the Air Force are less than 26 years old.
4. In 2010, then-Lt. Daniel Welch became the third generation of his family to become a B-52 aviator.
His father, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Don Welch, was a B-52 flight officer – as was his grandfather, retired Air Force Col. Don Sprague. Col. Sprague flew combat missions in Vietnam, where he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross.
5. The B-52 has even had an influence on American pop culture.
In the 1960s, the “Beehive” hairstyle became incredibly popular and was also known as “the B-52” because of its cone-like appearance, which resembled the distinctive nose of the B-52 plane. The band “The B-52’s” is also named after the hairstyle and plane.
6. In 1972, the last enemy airplane shot down in the Vietnam War by a bomber’s defensive weaponry was recorded by a B-52 tail gunner over Vietnam.
Due to changing tactics and technology, the gunner’s position would be eliminated in 1991.
7. During Operation Chrome Dome, between the years of 1961-1968, Strategic Air Command (SAC) kept B-52’s armed with nuclear weapons airborne 24 hours a day in case of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.
Fortunately, these weapons were never used. However, these missions were not without hazard: plutonium leaks, 24 hour-long flight missions, accidental crashes and dangerous weather conditions were all part of the job of flying a B-52 during Operation Chrome Dome.
8. A B-52 was featured prominently in the classic 1964 Cold War film “Dr.Strangelove.”
9. Two B-52s have been returned to duty after being sent to the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), better known as the “Boneyard.”
The B-52H “Ghost Rider” returned to duty in 2015 and the B-52H “Wise Guy” returned in 2019.
10. In 1966, actor and World War II veteran Air Force Reserve Brig. Gen. Jimmy Stewart (also a USO tour vet!) flew his final combat mission on board a B-52 over Vietnam.
Stewart joined the Air Force Reserve in 1945 and later retired as a brigadier general in 1968.
- Danielle DeSimone contributed to this article.