The B-52 Stratofortress, the big-shouldered U.S. Air Force bomber, has inspired fear as a weapon and respect as a pillar of nuclear deterrence. It has inspired whimsy too: The band the B-52s took their name from the slang expression for a beehive hairdo that looks like the bomber’s nose. In Dr. Strangelove, the B-52 inspired satire as a symbol of Cold War excess.
What the B-52 has not inspired in a long time is technological awe. That’s because the B-52 is old. The youngest B-52 that is still flying was delivered to the Air Force on October 26, 1962. Most of the nation’s 94 active B-52s have been in service for more than four decades. In an era when a 9-month-old laptop already feels retro, when people who keep their cars for six years are considered quaint, the fact that the most powerful military in the world relies on a fleet of 40-year-old bombers is pretty astonishing. It would be hard to envision keeping something as common as a Honda Accord going for more than 20 years.
And the B-52 is not some creaky relic that the military keeps around for air shows. The planes have seen more combat in this decade than in the previous three decades combined. B-52s dropped one-third of the bombs that were loosed on Saddam Hussein during Desert Storm. They flew 33 out of 34 days during the bombing of Slobodan Milosevic’s capital, Belgrade. And on Sunday, October 7, 2001, B-52s flew in the opening wave of attacks on the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The Air Force remains so enthusiastic about its 40-year-old bombers that it has publicly declared that the B-52 will continue to be a crucial element of the nation’s war-fighting ability for another 40 years — until 2040. At that point, the B-52 will not only be older than all of the people flying it — it will have outlived most of the people who have ever flown it. If the B-52 does remain in service for 80 years, it will be like using a weapon from the Civil War to win World War II.
“It boggles the mind,” says retired Brigadier General Guy Townsend, who was one of two pilots on the very first B-52 test flight on April 15, 1952. “Right now, there are three generations of pilots who have flown that plane — grandfather, father, and son — in the same family. If it lasts until 2040, five generations will have flown the same plane.”
How the Air Force maintains and upgrades the B-52 — a plane designed during the Truman administration, using what was then the best vacuum-tube technology, to carry weapons that have long since been relegated to museums — is a story of persistence, steadiness, and patience. It’s an approach that is much out of fashion in our increasingly disposable business culture. But as the United States turns from an economy with a mild recession into one that is deeply troubled and operating through a war, and as capital budgets evaporate and companies look for ways to scrape by rather than buy new, the saga of the B-52 offers a window on what real adaptability requires. Forget making a fresh start. The B-52 is the plane that never stops.
Everything Old Is New Again
When you sit in the pilot’s seat of a B-52 and look around the cockpit, there is no confusion about the era in which the plane was made. The instrument panel is dominated by electromechanical gauges — the kind with white needles that vibrate and flutter when the B-52’s eight jet engines are running. There are black plastic knobs that might have come off of an old stove. Small warning lights poke up, many with explanations etched directly onto the panel: “Blinking amber light indicates ‘no flow’ condition.”
Maintenance chief Mike T. is giving a tour of a B-52 in a maintenance dock at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City; the plane is in the process of being dismantled and put back together again. (Editor’s note: Due to the war in Afghanistan, the Department of Defense has requested that those who are directly responsible for keeping B-52 bombers flying not be identified by last name.) In 1970, Mike started working at Tinker as an electrician’s helper, and he began working on B-52s in 1974. With occasional side trips to support other planes — including the B-1, which was supposed to replace the B-52 — Mike’s career has been dominated by B-52s. He is now in charge of the 353 men and women who do scheduled maintenance on them. “I love this airplane,” he says. “It’s been my life.”
The cockpit of the B-52, like the airplane itself, is a little misleading: It’s not quite as antique as it looks. Mike nods at a circuit-breaker panel to the right of the copilot. “That breaker panel is original equipment,” he says. “But see these two breakers near the bottom? We installed those in the ’70s, I guess. Those are for the eyes.” In the mid-1970s, each B-52 was upgraded with a pair of “eyes” that were mounted on the plane’s belly near the nose. The left eye is a low-light television camera; the right eye is an infrared imaging system.
That judicious mix of original and updated equipment is one element of the B-52’s longevity. Another is a simple stroke of luck: The remaining B-52s are all H-models, the most advanced of the eight versions that the Air Force bought. None of the H-models saw service in Vietnam; instead, they were standing “nuclear-alert” duty on runways in places like South Dakota. So the current fleet is old by the calendar, but young in terms of something more important: flying hours. What’s more, today’s B-52s average only 300 flight hours a year, about what an ordinary passenger jet does in a month. “At Boeing,” says Scot Oathout, the company’s B-52 project manager, “we like to say, ‘The only thing old about the B-52 is the name.’ “
But that’s not only not quite true, it’s also a disservice to Boeing’s plane. Most of the airplane — ribs, fuselage, wings — is original equipment. It’s the systems, from air-conditioning to weapons, that are new. In fact, the B-52’s survival would be less impressive if the plane had simply been rebuilt, chunk by chunk, into a modern version of itself. But it hasn’t.
The physical division of the crew compartment in the B-52 represents the balance of stability and adaptation in the plane. The crew area has two decks. The pilots sit on the upper one. Behind them, facing backwards, sits a defensive-weapons operator. Down a metal ladder, in a windowless chamber located directly below the pilots (nicknamed “the hellhole”), sit two more crew members: the navigator and the bombardier.
Any pilot from 1968, settling into the left seat of the cockpit, would have no trouble firing up and flying the same plane that he used to fly. He would find a few new toys, but nothing fundamental would have changed. Even the engines are the same. A defensive-weapons officer, a navigator, or a bombardier from that era, on the other hand, would very likely have no idea how to operate the equipment at his old station.
Indeed, during the 1980s, in one of the B-52’s major upgrades, all of the original bomb and navigation equipment was pulled out of each plane and replaced with advanced computers and avionics. “When it was empty, it was as big as a dance hall down there,” says Mike T. enthusiastically of the closet-sized space. “There were so many wires, I thought that we’d never get it back together.” The Air Force is preparing a similar upgrade that will replace the plane’s Commodore 64-era computers with those from the 400 MHz era.
Find a Flaw and Fix It
The Air Force has been relentless about taking care of the B-52. Every four years, each plane gets stripped down to bare metal and inspected for corrosion and fatigue. Engines, tails, landing gear, bomb-bay doors, wing flaps, and dozens of skin panels are removed. Mike’s technicians typically have six B-52s in indoor docks and another two or three outside. Work is planned two years in advance. The current cycle requires 30,000 work hours per plane; the one-page work orders for a single plane fill 21 loose-leaf notebooks. The work gets done in 180 days or less.
The Air Force has also been obsessive about keeping records of B-52 usage. Air Force fliers have a saying: “When the weight of the paperwork equals the weight of the plane, you can go fly.” The B-52, which weighs nearly half a million pounds when fully loaded, is an extreme example. During every B-52 flight, crew members must keep track of everything they do. Take-off weight, weapons carried and released, changes in altitude and speed, and every ascent, descent, in-flight refueling, and landing must be recorded. For years, the records were kept on bubble-in pages like those used for standardized tests. Now crews keep track of the information and record it on a PC after the flight.
The result of such patient accumulation of information is a priceless database, going back 30 years, of the performance of each plane. That database is a critical tool for analyzing what individual planes need and for spotting trends across the fleet. One group of engineers does nothing but try to see into the future of the B-52, imagine ways that individual elements might fail, and develop fixes. These engineers use hundreds of decommissioned B-52s, parked at an Air Force “boneyard” in Tucson, Arizona, as a lab, autopsying old planes to confirm theories about wear and to test new repair methods.
The B-52’s original design was forward-looking enough to give the plane adaptability. In 1946, the military’s original request specified a plane that could carry enormous atomic bombs from the United States deep into Europe and then back. The result: The B-52 has a bomb bay that is almost as spacious as a boxcar. Each wing is 2,000 square feet — the area of a three-bedroom house — and has enormous lifting power. Fully loaded, the plane carries enough fuel to go 8,800 miles.
Atomic bombs got smaller, but the bomb bay made the plane an intimidating way to deliver conventional weapons. The B-52 is the original “carpet bomber.” The bomb bay is big enough that it is fitted with rotary launchers that can carry eight cruise missiles. The B-52, in fact, can deliver a wider variety of weapons than either of its younger counterparts, the B-1 or the B-2.
The B-52’s generous dimensions also mean that it is relatively easy to work on, compared not just with cramped fighters but also with the B-1 and the B-2. There is room in the B-52 for all kinds of “black boxes” (computers that control weapons systems) and room for the cabling to connect those boxes. Mike T. uses the air-conditioning system to illustrate the plane’s agreeable nature. The B-52’s air-conditioning unit is located in the forward wheel well, bolted to the left wall. You can stand underneath the plane and see it. Walking along the right wing of the swept-wing B-1, Mike points into the slot where the wing slides against the body. “See all of that structure in there? Those ribs and the cabling on top of them? You have to remove all of that before you can even get to one-half of the air-conditioning unit. You can have the unit out of the B-52 before you can even see the one on the B-1.”
There’s No Substitute for Experience
Al C. is an engineer and an American Indian with a silver ponytail that reaches below his shoulder blades. Al has been thinking about B-52s since 1976, and he has been in charge of B-52 airframe engineering for the Air Force since 1992. That kind of longevity is typical among the plane’s staff. More than 80% of those who work on B-52s are civilian defense employees with 15 to 20 years of experience.
And although the people who work on B-52s regularly list one of the plane’s appealing qualities as its “simplicity,” that experience is crucial. The B-52 is simple only on a relative scale. Inside the big hangar where B-52s are worked on, Building 2121, is a display case of fasteners that are used on the plane. Actually, there are four cases. Each has 38 rows of fasteners; each row has about 14 different fasteners. That’s 2,128 fasteners, just for this one plane. And those are just the ones kept in stock.
So the kind of experience that Al C. brings to thinking about where new problems might develop pays big dividends. On a hunch a couple of years ago, he went to the B-52 boneyard. “We tore down the cockpit, looking for corrosion,” he says. “It turned out that a sealant had failed at the top of the cockpit, and moisture was working its way down the window pillars. We found corrosion at the bottom of the window post where it joined the fuselage. Condensation was getting down there, and there was nowhere for the moisture to go.” Al and his colleagues examined dozens of retired B-52s and found that 80% of them had the same corrosion. “If that window post failed in flight,” says Al, “well, that would be catastrophic.”
Back in Oklahoma, in Building 2121, they peeled back the skin over every similar window post on every B-52, fixed the ones that had corrosion, and drilled a carefully designed drain hole so that the moisture wouldn’t be trapped anymore. “We had just never looked there before,” says Al.
Such intuition is impressive — and cost-effective. Sustaining the B-52 was not the military’s first choice. Until very recently, the Air Force wanted to have enough B-1s and then enough B-2s produced to allow it to retire the B-52. When Congress wouldn’t provide the money, the Air Force was left with little choice but to re-embrace the B-52.
But as weapons become smarter — with flying and guidance capabilities that allow bombers to stay out of harm’s way — the economies imposed on the Air Force make the B-52 not only a viable way to deliver bombs, but also an inexpensive one. It costs $4.1 million to overhaul one B-52. The Oklahoma City B-52 facility costs $80 million a year. The Air Force pays Boeing another $100 million a year to provide upgrade support. The Air Force has spent $5 billion on hardware to upgrade B-52s since 1980. But with a much-reduced fleet, that cost is now running $70 million a year. So keeping 94 B-52s flying costs about $250 million a year — less than half the cost of one new B-2. (The last B-52 cost $9.3 million — in 1961 dollars.)
The pride surrounding the B-52 is palpable. The plane has long had the nickname “Buff” — the polite translation of which is, “big, ugly, fat . . . fellow.” Sending the lumbering Buff into battle alongside the modern bombers provides a sense of satisfaction — especially because the B-52 often proves easier to keep combat ready than its fussy high-performance sisters.
For the B-52’s 40th birthday in 1992, when the planes weren’t expected to last the decade, the Air Force produced a patch. It shows the classic top silhouette of the plane against the stars and stripes. The text says, “40 Years — Freedom By Buff.”
Planning for Buff’s 50th birthday celebration, set for April 13, 2002, just before the anniversary of the plane’s first test flight, was underway six months in advance. And these days, no one is betting against a 75th birthday.
Charles Fishman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior editor.