The Air Force’s youngest B-52 Stratofortress, Tail No. 1040, will hit a milestone this year, when it turns 50 years old. Of course, “young” is a relative term when you’re a long-range, heavy bomber that was created during the height of the Cold War.
Tail No. 1040, the last of 744 B-52s to be manufactured, was delivered to the Air Force, in October 1962.
“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.”
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.
When the aircraft was delivered to Minot, it looked much different than it does now. “I don’t think you would even recognize it as being a B-52H with the exception of the engines,” Michel said. “It would have been natural aluminum with maybe a tail number when it arrived. The B-52 has been continuously upgraded essentially since it came out.
“The only thing that’s original in our (H models) is the airframe itself,” he said. “Pretty much everything else has been gone through and updated.”
Like the mechanical and cosmetic changes the B-52 has undergone throughout its life, its mission has changed as well.
“The airplane, when it was originally delivered, was used solely for strategic deterrence — a nuclear mission — whereas today, it’s used both for the nuclear mission and conventional bombing operations,” the historian said.
Throughout its lifetime, the B-52H has taken part in five named operations: Desert Strike, Desert Fox, Allied Force, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, Michel said.
For the people who fly the B-52s today, many still have the same passion the aircrews had when the aircraft was originally brought into service. Airmen like Capt. Kim Brown, a 5th Bomb Wing B-52 navigator, learned about the aircraft from her father’s friend when she was a child.
“My father’s best friend was a B-52 navigator, and he told me stories when I was growing up about the B-52,” she said. “Back then, I never thought I’d join the Air Force, let alone fly B-52s. It was neat getting that perspective from him of what they were like.”
She said she still keeps in touch with her father’s friend over email. The two navigators trade stories and insight of what the B-52 was like over the course of several generations.
“He also jokes with me by saying, ‘back when we used to do it, we had to do it without computers,’” she said.
Today, there’s a saying within the B-52 community that the last Stratofortress pilot hasn’t even been born yet.
“It’s cool to think that one day my kids or grandkids could be flying this exact same aircraft,” Brown said.
Thirty years from now, when Tail No. 1040 and the rest of the B-52s are finally retired for good, the Air Force will have lost its most iconic aircraft, Michel said.
“The B-52 is a classic airplane; it’s one of those things that you instantly identify with America,” he said. “It will be a sad day when the B-52 finally goes away because it has been a cornerstone of deterrence. It’s hard to think of the Air Force without the B-52.”
For now, Tail No. 1040 and the rest of the B-52s at Minot will celebrate another birthday and yet another year of continued airpower.