50 Years of Exceptional Service Span Cold War to Enduring Freedom
April 15, 2002, marks the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the B-52 Stratofortress, a milestone in Boeing and aviation history.
The B-52 was America's first long-range, swept-wing heavy bomber. Now entering its sixth decade of service, it continues to be an important element of the U.S. Air Force bomber fleet. No bomber in U.S. military history has been called upon to remain operational as long as the B-52.
With a 185-foot wingspan, a length of more than 160 feet and a gross weight of more than 480,000 pounds, the B-52 earned the nickname BUFF, short for Big Ugly Fat Fellow.
Originally designed as a long-range, high-altitude nuclear bomber, the B-52 has upgraded its operational capabilities to meet changing needs.
Employees built a total of 744 B-52s, in eight different production versions, at Boeing facilities in Seattle and Wichita, Kansas. Of these, only the H model remains in service today. The last B-52H - tail number 61-040 -- rolled off the Wichita assembly line on June 22, 1962.
Over the years, Boeing has made major modifications to the B-52 fleet and expects to perform additional improvements to assure the Stratofortress will be a viable part of the U.S. bomber fleet well into the century. B-52s have been modified for extended-range flights, low-level flight, the launching of cruise missiles and delivery of precision-guided conventional bombs. Most of the modifications have been made -- and will continue to be made -- at the Wichita Development and Modification Center, part of the Boeing Military Aerospace Support business.
For the first 10 years of its operational service, the B-52's principal role was as a nuclear deterrent in the Cold War against Soviet communism.
It first entered combat in the skies over Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, when it was used to strike targets with conventional weapons. B-52s again saw action in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm, striking troop concentrations, staging areas and fixed installations. The aircraft demonstrated its flexibility during Operation Allied Force in the Balkans, where it first launched conventional cruise missiles, then transitioned to deliver general-purpose bombs. Today, in Operation Enduring Freedom, B-52s fly in support of U.S. and coalition forces, hitting ground targets with precision-guided munitions.
About 10 years ago, after the Gulf War, stories began circulating about grown-up children of B-52 pilots who were flying B-52s. More recently the stories say that current Air Force B-52 pilots are the grandchildren of early B-52 pilots. No matter that the Cold War the B-52 was designed to fight ended long ago. The role of the Stratofortess as a heavy bomber continues, as do the stories of BUFF's amazing adventures and the direct and proud lineage of those B-52 pilots.