B-52 First Flight: Drama Equals Broadway Opening
National security concerns brought about by the Cold War led the U.S. Air Force to set up unusually tight security restrictions around its new bomber. But when the Air Force demanded that the first flight of the B-52 be made at night, Boeing officially complained.
Boeing and Air Force officials met, and logic prevailed. All restrictions were lifted, the plane was uncovered, and it would make its initial flight during the day.
The first flight of a B-52 Stratofortress (the YB-52 prototype) was publicly announced for Tuesday, April 15, 1952, which turned out to be an unusually warm and sunny Seattle day.
Boeing employees crowded office windows, the ramp and the roof of Plant 2. Some likened the tense excitement to that of a Broadway opening. The roadways, hills and rooftops near Boeing Field also were lined with spectators.
The pilot for that first flight was Alvin M. "Tex" Johnston, one of Boeing's top test pilots. Johnston got his nickname because of his fondness for wearing fancy cowboy boots, even during test flights. He became an aviation legend in 1954 when he put the 707 jetliner prototype into a complete 360-degree barrel roll over Lake Washington - not once, but twice during the plane's first public display.
The co-pilot was Lt. Col. Guy M. Townsend of the U.S. Air Force flight test center. During World War II, he had flown Boeing B-17s and B-29s. After a long Air Force career, Townsend retired as a brigadier general and joined Boeing.
Both pilots had extensive experience with Boeing's first jet bomber, the B-47.
Just before 10 a.m. the pilots in the cockpit began a final check of all instruments and controls. At 10:45 a.m. the big plane's eight jet engines came to life with an ear-piercing roar.
"This guy, Tex Johnston, isn't a fellow to sit around and play with the engines," a mechanic told the person standing next to him. "If they look all right, he'll go."
At 11:03 a.m. the B-52 headed down the taxiway, turned onto the main runway at the north end of Boeing Field and stopped. Johnston advanced the eight throttles to full power and released the brakes.
At 11:09 a.m. the wheels started to roll.
The April 17, 1952, edition of "Boeing News" described the takeoff this way:
"This was it. The tremendous roar of the engines grew louder and louder as the plane gained speed. It raced down the runway with deceptive speed, past the other bombers that had made history taking off from here: the smaller B-47s, the B-50s, the B-29s and an old but proud B-17, nearly two decades of history-making bombers. The huge crowd that had gathered to watch the takeoff let out a spontaneous cheer."
One of the happiest people to watch the YB-52 climb into the air was Boeing President Bill Allen. The normally reserved Allen, standing with other executives and Air Force officials, waved his arms like a cheerleader. "Pour it on," he shouted. " Pour it on, boy."
Johnston and Townsend kept the plane over the Seattle area for about 40 minutes as they checked the landing gear, flaps and ailerons. They then climbed to 25,000 feet and headed for Larson Air Force Base at Moses Lake, Washington.
Arriving around noon, the YB-52 flew over the Moses Lake area for the next two hours as the pilots continued to perform a series of tests. Johnston radioed back to Boeing Field that the plane's performance appeared to be just as predicted by the engineers.
At 2 p.m. the YB-52 touched down on the 10,000-foot runway at Larson Air Force Base. The flight had lasted two hours and 51 minutes. At the time, it was the longest and most successful first flight in Boeing history.
Co-pilot Townsend knew the B-52 was well built. But he never imagined the plane would still be around 50 years later.
"None of us ever dreamed the airplane would stay in service this long," Townsend, 81, said recently in an Associated Press interview. "Three generations have flown the B-52. By the time it's retired we ought to have two more generations.
"If you would have told me that then, I would have said you were out of your tree."