On this day in 1952, Boeing’s first B-52 prototype made its first test flight. Three years later, the Air Force added the first B-52 to its fleet at Castle Air Force Base near Merced, and the plane is still considered the backbone of the American bomber fleet.
The so-called Stratofortress was designed to be a long-range bomber that, unlike the B-29s that dropped atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II, would not need staging close to targets. The B-52 possesses a range of about 8,800 miles. The plane evolved over the decades from an aircraft with six turboprop engines on straight wings to one with eight turbojet engines on swept (angled) wings, adding numerous other technological upgrades as well.
Yet, while the B-52s are equipped to carry up to 70,000 pounds of ordnance, arguably its greatest value came as a Cold War-era deterrent. In 1962, the United States and Soviet Union engaged in a test of wills as the Soviets stationed in Cuba missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons that could obliterate much of America’s eastern seaboard. With nuke-carrying B-52s headed for Moscow, the Soviets blinked, turned their ships around, and the threat subsided, ending the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Of the 744 built under various upgrades since the 1950s, the Air Force still maintains 76 B-52H models – the last of which went online in 1962 – in its inventory (58 active, 18 reserve). They no longer carry nuclear gravity bombs, but still carry cruise missiles. The planes were instrumental during Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Entering the 66th year of continuous service, B-52s are projected to remain in use possibly through 2050. The plane is so versatile that it will outlast aircraft created to be its replacement including the B-2 Spirit and the B-1B Lancer.
The B-52 in its many adaptations has come far since taxiing out for its first test flight 69 years ago today. From all indications, it will be around for a long time to come.
Want to see one? B-52s are on display at air museums in California including March Field Air Museum in Riverside, Castle Air Museum in Atwater,and at Travis Air Force Base’s Heritage Center (open for now only to those with military ID cards). There also is a B-52 on display at the North Gate of Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert. (Click on the respective link before visiting as restrictions due to COVID-19 might apply.)