By the 21st century, the Boeing B-52 was in its fifth decade of operational service. The eight-engine, 390,000-pound jet was the country's first long-range, swept-wing heavy bomber. It began as an intercontinental, high-altitude nuclear bomber, and its operational capabilities were adapted to meet changing defense needs.
B-52s have been modified for low-level flight, conventional bombing, extended-range flights and transport of improved defensive and offensive equipment -- including ballistic missiles that can be launched hundreds of miles from their targets.
It had a rocky beginning. The original XB-52 design, selected by the Army Air Forces in 1946, was for a straight-wing, six-engine, propeller-powered heavy bomber. On Oct. 21, 1948, Boeing Chief Engineer Ed Wells and his design team were in Dayton, Ohio, when the Air Force's chief of bomber development told them to scrap the propellers and come up with an all-jet bomber. Over the following weekend, in a Dayton hotel room, the team designed a new eight-engine jet bomber, still called the B-52, made a scale model out of balsa wood and prepared a 33-page report.
This effort impressed the Air Force's Air Material Command, and the design was approved. As the war worsened in Korea, the Air Force, in 1951, designated the B-52 the country's next intercontinental bomber and approved an initial production order for 13 B-52s. The first B-52A flew Aug. 5, 1954.
Production versions of the B-52A were B-52Bs, with more weight and larger engines. Some had photographic reconnaissance or electronic capsules in their bomb bays and were redesignated RB-52Bs. The B-52s increased in range, power and capability with each variant. The B-52H made its first flight March 6, 1961, and is still in service. In all, 744 B-52s were produced by Seattle, Wash., and Wichita, Kan., plants between 1952 and 1962.
Throughout the 1950s, the B-52 chalked up numerous distance and speed records. It cut the round-the-world speed record in half, and in January 1962, it flew 12,500 miles nonstop from Japan to Spain without refueling. This flight alone broke 11 distance and speed records. The B-52s saw active duty in the Vietnam War, were used in the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and over Afghanistan in 2001.
B-52 home page
||April 15, 1952
||157 feet 7 inches (B-52H)
||488,000 pounds (B-52H)
||650 mph (B-52H)
||More than 10,000 miles (B-52H)
||More than 50,000 feet (B-52H)
||Eight 17,000-pound-thrust TF-33 turbofan engines (B-52H)
||2 Hound Dog supersonic missiles and bombs, 20 mm cannon in radar-directed tail turret, 20 SRAMs or 20 ALCMs (B-52H)