Big Ugly Fat Fellow
R. A. Hettinga
Fri, 26 Apr 2002 23:24:56 -0400
B-52 still 'BUFF' at 50
By Dave Moniz, USA TODAY
BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. - Throughout the history of military aviation,
the B-52 has no peer. For half a century, the massive jet, with its eight
gigantic engines and 185-foot wingspan, has been a symbol of American
might - and the only bomber to lend its name to a rock band.
The first B-52 lifted off April 15, 1952, for a test flight. Since that
time, the lumbering bomber played a major role in Vietnam, the Gulf War,
Kosovo and Afghanistan.
The B-52 owes its longevity to slide-rule-generation engineers who conceived
the design after World War II. Built before the advent of computer models,
the B-52's many structural redundancies - from landing gear to wing design -
keep it airworthy today.
The B-52 is challenging for pilots to fly, short on space and modern
comforts but nonetheless beloved by many who have climbed through its
cramped entryway in the bottom of the fuselage.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Tom Keck, who commands the 8th Air Force, has spent 3,000
hours flying the giant bomber. His dad, retired lieutenant general James
Keck, also flew B-52s. The younger Keck surmises that by the time the B-52
is retired, it will have been theoretically possible for four or five
generations from the same family to fly it.
Although the Air Force built more than 700 B-52s, only about 90 survive.
Boeing long ago shut down the productionline, leaving crews to scrounge
spare parts in the strangest places, including aviation museums and the Air
Force's "Bone Yard," a repository for aging aircraft in the Arizona desert.
Mechanics have literally scavenged repair parts by tearing up old B-52s with
chain saws to keep the current fleet flying.
B-52 officers "Wall Street," "Doogie" and "Splash," assigned to a Reserve
squadron at Barksdale Air Force Base, joined the military in the 1980s when
the United States still kept the bombers on nuclear alert. (During the war
on terrorism, the Air Force permits B-52 crewmembers to be identified only
by their first names or military nicknames.)
The three Barksdale crewmembers marvel at how the bomber morphed from Cold
War sledgehammer to its current role using smart bombs for surgical strikes.
All three say they feared for the B-52's survival in the 1990s, when many
officers thought it would be phased out in favor of newer B-1s and B-2
Now, they say, the B-52 has proved indispensable because it is so reliable
and can carry a huge store of smart bombs.
"When they gave us the coordinates, we'd kill whatever they told us to,"
says "Wall Street," a B-52 pilot who flew 19 missions over Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, the Air Force used B-52s to perform roles usually reserved
for smaller, sleeker and faster fighter jets. The success of B-52s in a
troop-killing role that the military calls "close air support" turned
conventional wisdom on its head. For one, it suggested the Pentagon can
modernize without spending billions on sexy new hardware. The aircraft's
rebirth also rekindled a debate over the role of the nation's bomber fleet,
which some say is too small.
Instead of flying dozens of fighter jets capable of dropping only one or two
bombs each, the Pentagon dispatched a handful of B-52s or B-1 bombers in
Afghanistan to visit destruction equal to an entire squadron of smaller
The practice of dropping large numbers of satellite-guided smart bombs from
high altitude, which one senior Air Force general has dubbed "mass precision
bombing," is certain to play a role in future U.S. attacks.
The effectiveness of the large bombers also has implications for U.S. basing
as the Pentagon ponders options against Iraq. Because the bombers can fly
thousands of miles farther than fighter jets without refueling, the United
States could be able to attack Iraq even if Arab allies don't allow the use
of their bases.
The United States has dropped about 12,000 guided bombs in Afghanistan.
Satellite-directed weapons are viewed by military planners as the new weapon
of choice. By using B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers with clusters of
satellite-guided bombs, the United States will put far fewer pilots at risk
while greatly increasing the pace of attacks.
"The bomber re-emerged in this war," says Tom McInerney, a retired Air Force
lieutenant general and Fox News military analyst. "People in the Pentagon
don't fully appreciate what we did and how we used firepower in
Army soldiers at Bagram air base near Kabul credited air cover provided by
fighters and B-52 bombers for helping rout dug-in al-Qaeda forces during
Operation Anaconda in March.
On at least two occasions, Air Force B-52s cruising high over Afghanistan
prevented the defeat of Northern Alliance and U.S. Special Forces troops
under siege. On Nov. 2, an Air Force Reserve B-52 from Barksdale came to the
rescue of about 10 Special Forces soldiers under attack from an estimated
1,000 Taliban fighters near Kandahar. Twenty minutes after receiving the
distress call, the B-52 was guided to the target by Army ground controllers
and destroyed a ridge line full of Taliban forces.
The B-52s carry a mother lode of weaponry, including 16 satellite-guided
smart bombs under their wings and 27 unguided "dumb" bombs in their bellies.
Air Force B-52s loitered for three to four hours at a time over Afghanistan,
where soldiers directed them to enemy soldiers during the heat of battle
using laser range finders and hand-held navigation aids linked to
The tactics, never before used in war, allowed the United States to destroy
the same number of targets as during the Gulf War by flying a tenth the
B-52 crewmembers describe their airplane as a '57 Chevy in a world of
late-model sports cars.
The cabin and cockpit are more cramped than a backyard tree house and have
about the same amenities. There are no bathrooms; instead, the five
crewmembers urinate into a tube with little privacy.
Inside the crew cabin, the jet is noisier than its namesake rock band, the
B-52s. The 120 decibels generated by its engines are, according to
crewmembers, louder than a typical rock concert.
The cockpit is crammed with buttons, dials and Vietnam War-era gauges and
wires. Until about a decade ago, the B-52 crew included a tail gunner, a
holdover from the days when U.S. bombers filled the skies over Europe during
World War II.
Just behind the cockpit, there's another telling sign of the B-52's age: an
opening in the top of the fuselage to navigate by sextant.
This month, the B-52, which made its maiden flight when Harry Truman was
president, celebrates its 50th birthday. That heady milestone is only a
marker for middle age, however. The bomber, whose lifetime spans 11
presidents, four wars and nearly every technological leap of the jet age, is
still a vital part of the Air Force fleet.
It is scheduled to fly until 2040. That would make it the longest-serving
military jet in history.
"It is quite a remarkable aircraft," observes Wayne Thompson, an Air Force
historian in Washington, D.C. "The interesting thing is, everything it does
today, it was never designed to do."
Though the youngest B-52 in today's Air Force fleet is 41 years old, the
giant bomber is anything but a Cold War relic. It proved its mettle once
again in Afghanistan by helping rout Taliban forces last fall. Lurking high
in the sky like airborne artillery guns, B-52s hunted their prey by dropping
smart bombs from 40,000 feet.
Linked to special operations soldiers on the ground by laptop computers and
satellite relays, B-52 crews flew higher than commercial passenger jets to
drop their payloads - satellite-guided bombs aimed at Taliban and al-Qaeda
troops who could neither hear nor see the origin of their destruction.
"The B-52 is the Air Force's answer to the Navy aircraft carrier in terms of
fear and morale," says Chris Bolkcom, an aviation analyst with the
Congressional Research Service. "Nobody wants 70,000 pounds of ordnance
dropped on them, and just the threat of B-52s flying overhead is enough to
make our adversaries run."
The B-52 is to bombers what Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., is to U.S. senators. By
the time the current B-52H models are retired, they will have served nearly
80 years. No other bomber or fighter has seen so much history pass beneath
its wings, or so much technology zoom past its tail.
Ugly, fat and ageless
Known to Air Force crews as the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fellow), it was for
nearly four decades an essential part of the United States' deterrent
against the Soviet Union. The brainchild of legendary Air Force Gen. Curtis
LeMay, the B-52 was dreamed up by Boeing engineers in a Dayton, Ohio, hotel
room in October 1948.
There was little glamour inside or outside the B-52 during its heyday in the
Bomber crews would rotate on alert status for a week at a time, confined to
Spartan barracks - known as "mole holes" - from which they would race to
their aircraft to get airborne before incoming Soviet missiles struck. The
B-52 played a major role in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as a nuclear
bomber, and later, in Vietnam, proved to be a symbol of American futility
despite an extensive and at times devastating bombing campaign in North
During its days carpet-bombing North Vietnam, B-52s turned triple-canopy
jungle into moonscape, gouging giant craters into the earth during more than
100,000 bombing missions there.
The B-52 is the monster truck of airplanes. It is the only military jet
still flying that has eight engines. The aircraft is so sturdy, 8th Air
Force commander Keck says, that even if it lost half its engines to enemy
fire it could still land safely.
"You could probably land with three," Keck says, adding, "it's just a large,
For all its archaic hardware, the BUFF remains the backbone of a bomber
force that includes 21 stealthy B-2s and 93 B-1s.
"People have a soft spot in their hearts for the B-52," says Air Force Gen.
Donald Cook, a former B-52 pilot who now heads Air Force training. "It's not
sexy, but the aircraft always does a good job."
R. A. Hettinga <mailto: email@example.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'