During more than five decades of operational service, the Boeing B-52 heavy bomber has been the backbone of the strike capability of the U.S. Air Force. Its long range, ability to operate at high altitudes and capability to carry nuclear or precision-guided conventional ordnance to any point on the globe, has made it a key component of nuclear deterrence and U.S. National Security Strategy.

See more B-52H photos on Flickr

The B-52 is a long-range, heavy bomber that can perform a variety of missions. The bomber is capable of flying at high subsonic speeds at altitudes up to 50,000 feet. It can carry nuclear or precision guided conventional ordnance with worldwide precision navigation capability.

Development and Design

Born of specifications for a new heavy bomber presented by Air Materiel Command in 1945, the first iteration of what would become the B-522, was the Boeing 464-40 created in 1946. This airframe was powered by turboprop engines, as jet engines were not yet seen as reliable or fuel efficient enough for long- range missions.

As development continued through the end of the decade, the project became the keystone for the fledgling U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command under the direction of Gen. Curtis LeMay. At his insistence, the XB-52 and YB-52, which had more operational equipment, featured 35-degree swept wings with eight Westinghouse turbojet engines.

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An X-15 rocket-powered aircraft is launched from under the wing of an NB-52A Stratofortress in1959. Because of the large fuel consumption, the X-15 was air launched from a B-52, which had fuel for the aircraft in its weapons bay. (NASA Photo)

The YB-52 first took flight in April 1952 and subsequent ground and flight testing lead the Air Force to order 282 of the new heavy bombers, beginning with the delivery of three B-52As and 10 B-52Bs by 1954.

During the rollout ceremony, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Nathan Twining described the B-52 as “the long-rifle of the air age.”

The B-52 has since received many upgrades to communications, electronics, computing and avionics on the flight deck, as well as engines, fuel capacity and the weapons bay. These upgrades enable the B-52H to integrate into the new digital battlefield and precisely deliver a large array of weapons, from conventional, nuclear and smart bombs to conventional or nuclear cruise missiles, on targets anywhere in the world.

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Test bomber aircraft flying in a black and white photo
Boeing YB-52 bomber in flight, with a bubble canopy, similar to that of the B-47.

Photo // U.S. Air Force

The use of aerial refueling gives the B-52 a range limited only by crew endurance.

Further development included a reconnaissance variant, as well as a model used as a launch platform for 93 NASA X-15 missions to explore the boundaries of space. A B-52H is currently used for launching other research vehicles by NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California.

A total of 744 B-52s were built with the last, a B-52H, delivered in October 1962.

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Bomber crew walks away from a large aircraft in an old photo
B-52 Stratofortress aircrew depart the flightline after returning from an Operation Arc Light mission over Southeast Asia. Just as in earlier wars, the bombs painted on the fuselage showed the number of missions flown.

Photo // U.S. Air Force

Operational History

In a conventional conflict, the B-52 can perform strategic attack, close-air support, air interdiction, offensive counter-air and maritime operations.

Throughout the Cold War, B-52s were a cornerstone of the Nuclear Triad, which was comprised of nuclear missile submarines, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and bombers capable of delivering nuclear bombs.

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B-52H Stratofortress graphic

U.S. Air Force Graphic // Maureen Stewart

Throughout the Cold War B-52s were continuously airborne on alert patrols armed with nuclear weapons should hostilities erupt with the Soviet Union. These missions ended in 1991.

During the Vietnam War, beginning with Operations Arc Light and Rolling Thunder in 1965 and concluding with Operations Linebacker and Linebacker II in 1972, B-52s carried out various bombing campaigns.

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Bomber aircraft drops a string of bombs from high altitude
U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress heavy bombers strike Viet Cong and North Vietnamese targets during operation Arc Light.

Photo // U.S. Air Force

During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, B-52s flew over 1500 sorties and delivered 40 percent of all the weapons dropped by coalition forces. They struck wide-area troop concentrations, fixed installations and bunkers, and decimated the morale of Iraq’s Republican Guard.

They also bombed targets in Yugoslavia during Operation Allied Force in 1999 and Operations Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraqi Freedom in 2003, providing close air support through the use of precision guided munitions. They have most recently engaged in missions against ISIL targets in Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve.

All B-52s can be equipped with electro-optical viewing sensors, a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) and advanced targeting pods to augment targeting, battle assessment, and flight safety, further improving its combat ability, day or night and in varying weather conditions utilizing a variety of standoff weapons, such as laser-guided bombs, conventional bombs and GPS-guided weapons.

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A B-52 Stratofortress from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., takes fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 100th Air Refueling Wing at RAF Mildenhall, England, Sept. 18, 2015, in the skies near Spain. The refueling was part of exercise Immediate Response, which included a three-ship formation of KC-135s delivering a total of 180,000 pounds of fuel to the sole bomber. The KC-135 was designed and built during the Cold War specifically to deliver fuel to the B-52. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Austin M. May)

Did You Know?

  • The B-52 is capable of dropping or launching the widest array of weapons in the U.S. inventory, including gravity bombs, cluster bombs, precision guided missiles and joint direct attack munitions.
  • Current engineering analyses show the B-52’s life span to extend beyond the year 2040.
  • B-52s also assist the Navy in ocean surveillance.
  • The lower deck crew of the B-52, the navigator and radar navigator, eject downward.
  • In 1972, a B-52 tail-gunner, Albert Moore, shot down a MiG-21 over Vietnam. It was the last recorded bomber-gunner to shoot down an enemy aircraft.
  • After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, 365 B-52s were destroyed under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The aircraft were stripped of usable parts, chopped into five pieces with a 13,000 pound steel blade and sold for scrap at 12 cents per pound.

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Inside the cockpit of a military aircraft
Capt. Lance Adsit, the 20th Bomb Squadron aircraft commander, and Lt. Col. Erik Johnson, the 340th Weapons Squadron commander, fly a B-52 Stratofortress above the Gulf of Mexico, Oct. 13, 2016. Two B-52s from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., and two B-1 Lancers from Dyess AFB, Texas, flew together and performed more than 200 simulated missile launches as part of a weapons school integration exercise.

Photo // Senior Airman Curt Beach

General characteristics – (source: AF.mil)

  • Primary function: Heavy bomber
  • Contractor: Boeing Military Airplane Co.
  • Power plant: Eight Pratt & Whitney engines TF33-P-3/103 turbofan
  • Thrust: Each engine up to 17,000 pounds
  • Wingspan: 185 feet (56.4 meters)
  • Length: 159 feet, 4 inches (48.5 meters)
  • Height: 40 feet, 8 inches (12.4 meters)
  • Weight: Approximately 185,000 pounds (83,250 kilograms)
  • Maximum takeoff weight: 488,000 pounds (219,600 kilograms)
  • Fuel capacity: 312,197 pounds (141,610 kilograms)
  • Payload: 70,000 pounds (31,500 kilograms)
  • Speed: 650 miles per hour (Mach 0.84)
  • Range: 8,800 miles (7,652 nautical miles)
  • Ceiling: 50,000 feet (15,151.5 meters)
  • Armament: Approximately 70,000 pounds (31,500 kilograms) mixed ordnance: bombs, mines and missiles. (Modified to carry air-launched cruise missiles)
  • Crew: five (aircraft commander, pilot, radar navigator, navigator and electronic warfare officer)
  • Unit cost: $84 million (fiscal 2012 constant dollars)
  • Initial operating capability: April 1952
  • Inventory: Active force, 58; ANG, 0; Reserve, 18

(Current as of December 2015)