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B-52 bomber marks major milestones in 2012

Apr. 9, 2012 - 06:37PM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 9, 2012 - 06:37PM  |  
B-52 Minimum Interval Takeoffs
B-52 Minimum Interval Takeoffs: B-52's lift off at BAFB during Operation Mudbug where a number of bombers performed minimum interval takeoffs as part of a week long exercise.
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A line of B-52 bombers graces the flightline of Barksdale Air Force Base in a Times file photo. The bomber, which first came to the base in August 1958, will mark the 60th anniversary of its first flight Sunday It's the first of a series of important milestones for the venerable bomber this year (File / Shreveport (La.) Times)

B-52 anniversary

• June 1945: Army Air Forces' Air Materiel Command sets criteria for new bomber
• June 1946: Boeing design calling for a 221-foot wingspan turboprop bomber chosen as most promising
• November 1951: First plane, XB-52, is "rolled out" under a dropcloth and at night at Boeing's Seattle works. Plane develops mechanical problems and second plane, YB-52, is prepped for flight.
• April 15, 1952: YB-52, serial 49-0231, makes first flight. After two hour flight, plane lands at Larson Air Force Base, Wash. (Serial numbers are the way the Air Force and plane-watchers around the world identify airplanes. The "49" indicates the fiscal year in which the plane was funded, and "0231" is its sequence in the military's acquisition process.)
• June 1955: First true "Stratofortress," B-52B serial 52-8711, delivered to Strategic Air Command at Castle AFB, Calif.; service recommends B-52 program be expanded to 576 aircraft.
• July 1958: First B-52G, serial 57-6468, rolls out at Wichita, Kan. It is a complete rebuild of the B-52, with a shorter tail, smaller external fuel tanks, a radical new "wet wing" fuel design, and new one-piece radomes, the molded Fiberglas "nose" panels over radar antennae.
• August 1958: Barksdale AFB receives its first B-52F.
• September 1960: Last B-52G, serial 59-2602, rolls off the line at Wichita; that month, the first true B-52H, serial 60-0001 rolls off the same line. Besides radically new engines, the bomber has more powerful tail guns and is designed to carry the Skybolt Missile, which would have been air-launched ballistic missiles with 5,000-plus-mile range and nuclear warheads.
• March 1961: First true B-52H flight, serial 60-0006, at Wichita.
• October 1961: Soviets detonate 58-megaton H-bomb, the "Tsar Bomba," at Novaya Zemlya, islands in the Arctic Ocean just north of the Russian mainland; it is the largest man-made explosion in history. Scientists later estimate the bomb was a 100-megaton weapon that fizzled.
• June 1962: The last B-52H, serial 61-0040, rolls off the Wichita line. It is the end of 11 years of B-52 production. Boeing Wichita built 467 aircraft, Boeing Seattle 277, including the first two prototypes.
• October 1962: The Cuban Missile Crisis puts Strategic Air Command aircraft on 100 percent alert status for a full month. The last five B-52Hs, of 102 built in all, are accepted by the Air Force. The last B-52H, serial 61-0040, enters service at Minot AFB, N.D. In all, 744 B-52 bombers, including the two prototypes, were built.
• Mid-1963: B-52 force reaches its peak: 42 squadrons operate from 38 bases in the United States and Puerto Rico, with 630 available aircraft.
• February 1965: President Lyndon Johnson decides to use B-52s in Southeast Asia; Operation Arc Light begins, with deployment of 30 conventional bomb-capable B-52Fs to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, from Barksdale and Mather AFB, Calif.
• June 1965: First combat use of the B-52 in the Vietnam War.
• January 1966: A Seymour Johnson Air Force Base B-52G is destroyed after a mid-air collision with a KC-135 over Palomares, Spain. Three of the alert-status B-52's B28 nuclear weapons impact on land; they do not explode, but there is some soil contamination. The fourth nuclear weapon is lost in deep water and is not recovered until April 1966. This recovery is portrayed in the Cuba Gooding Jr. movie "Men of Honor."
• December 1972: Operation Linebacker II begins. The so-called "Eleven Day War" delivers 15,000 tons of bombs in 729 sorties against North Vietnam.
• Aug. 15, 1973: Congress orders the end of U.S. air operations in Southeast Asia. B-52 combat operations have lasted eight years, numbered 126,615 sorties dropping 2.63 million tons of bombs.
• November 1979: Iranian militants seize U.S. Embassy in Tehran, hold 68 Americans hostages. One hostage, upon release in January 1981, asked if he'd ever like to return to Iran, answers, "Only in a B-52."
• April 1990: Perhaps the oldest B-52 still flying, a NASA mother ship called the NB-52B, serial 52-008, launches a Pegasus missile that places a Navy communications satellite into orbit.
• 1992: B-52 combat crew training school relocates to Barksdale AFB.
• June 1992: Strategic Air Command stands down after 46 years. By the end of the decade, base closures would force remaining B-52s onto just two bases, Barksdale and Minot.
• August 1993: The first of 350 B-52s are scrapped , not because they are worn out but rather to meet with the requirements of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the former USSR.
• August 1994: Operation Global Power 94-7, sees two Barksdale B-52Hs fly non-stop around-the- world bombing mission. The mission covered 20,062 miles in 47 hours and 12 minutes, setting a new B-52 endurance record, with five air refuelings.
• Early 1995: First female combat crew members begin training for service in B-52s. Airplane celebrates 40 years in U.S. military service.
• 1999: Air Force and General Accounting Office predict B-52s will be in service through year 2040.
Source: H.D. "Buck" Rigg Archives, Shreveport (La.) Times research

They've been part of the landscape of Northwest Louisiana since the late 1950s, and this year the big B-52s at Barksdale Air Force base will mark a number of milestones. It was 60 years ago Sunday that the prototype YB-52 first took to the air, thrilling employees of the Air Force and Boeing and civilians in Seattle, who witnessed the event.

It was 50 years ago this summer and fall that the last of the 744 B-52s built, an H-model that is still flying out of Minot Air Force Base, N.D., rolled off the assembly line and was accepted into the fleet.

October also marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when all of the old Strategic Air Command's bombers, including Barksdale's B-52s, were put on 100 percent alert status for a full month.

And it was 40 years ago this December that the airplanes faced and met their greatest challenge ever, in the epic Linebacker II bombing campaign over the skies of Hanoi, then the most heavily defended airspace in the world.

"Dec. 18-29 is the 40th anniversary of the eleven nights of Linebacker II raids," said Terry Snook, president of the Eighth Air Force Museum Association. "Our D-model in the airpark flew on the raids on Dec. 26, perhaps the most intense night since there was a 36-hour bombing halt to see if the North Vietnamese would respond. ... Our aircraft was hit by a SAM (surface-to-air missile) that night and suffered some battle damage."

On Dec. 18, the museum plans to dedicate a monument honoring the memory of the crew members killed, taken prisoner or wounded in the 24 B-52s that were shot down or damaged in the operation.

"I cannot think of a more fitting place for a monument to Linebacker II than in front of the B-52D in our airpark," Snook said. "The board has approved the money raising effort, and Col. (Tim) Fay likes the idea as long as we keep it to a size, or segments, that can be moved when we move the museum to the new gate. I have already talked to two monument folks and they are doing some conceptual work that I can show when I go out and ask for money. I already have a significant pledge that might well cover the entire cost."

Details of the dedication, including the date, are subject to change, but form a fitting end to what the base and Air Force Global Strike Command are calling the "Year of the B-52."

"The Year of the B-52 is a series of milestones we will celebrate, throughout the year," said Major Dave Donatelli II, whose flight specialty is as an electronic-warfare officer, or E-Dub, on the B-52s, but who now works in the Commanders Action Group of Air Force Global Strike Command.

"I don't fly any more, so sitting here in the headquarters listening to the airplanes taking off or the engine run-ups is kind of depressing," he said. "I love the jet."

That's why his work helping to plan the events to celebrate this important year in the bomber's life is important.

"The command is leading an effort to honor the heritage and recognize the accomplishments of the B-52 and the people past, present and future, who have developed it, acquired it, operated it, maintained it and secured it," Donatelli said.

The B-52 is "one of the best airplanes ever built," says retired Brig. Gen. Peyton Cole, a former 2nd Bomb Wing commander whose final flight was an epic around-the-world sortie that included a near-midair nighttime collision with an Egyptian 747 over the Mediterranean. He also helped put together a photo of a B-52 surrounded by the impressive accumulation of weapons it can carry, a photo that continues to impress people to this day.

"The B-52 has been a wonderful flying box," he said. "It's persevered all these years because it's been able to adapt and still continues to fly. It started out as a high-level flying platform during the Cold War. Then as air defenses got better it became a low-level penetrator, and more than that was the first aircraft to fly low-level at night through FLIR (forward looking infrared) and night-vision TV. We were flying 800 feet over the desert floor at night in B-52s in the Cold War when I was a squadron commander. The airplane has had a tremendous ability to adapt that I don't think any aircraft, other than perhaps the DC-3, can claim."

He pointed out recent advances tested in part through the efforts of such outfits as the Air Force Reserve wing at Barksdale, the only one to fly B-52s.

"Even today they are coming up with new and innovative technologies to put on the airplane, and it's big enough to take them."

He said the airplane is large but surprisingly agile with plenty of power.

"When a B-52 is ‘light' you can go from surface to about 20,000 feet fast and actually out-climb a fighter. In fact the H model has ‘thrust gates' so you can't give it as much power as it can take.... It's almost uncomfortable when you point the nose up, climbing out."

A Boeing sibling of the B-52, the "Dash 80" prototype of the 707 airliner, was put through a barrel roll over an awed crowd by its test pilot, the late Alvin M. "Tex" Johnson, who also flew the first B-52 on April 15, 1952. There's no proof a B-52 has ever done a barrel roll, but Cole said he heard that one of the bombers made this spectacular maneuver over Hanoi while evading a missile during the costly "Linebacker II" missions in December 1972.

"I don't think he went down," Cole said. "He regained control of it."

It's a classic airplane that people here should be thankful every day they get to see up-close and personal.

"I think the B-52 will be around as long as we are, if the Air Force is smart," he said.Col. Larry "Robbie" Robertson of Shreveport was at first dismayed when he was transferred from flying the A-1 Skyraider, a hot propeller fighter, to the eight-jet B-52.

"I wasn't real happy being assigned to it," the retired pilot, now 77, said. "I thought I was the world's greatest fighter pilot."

That soon changed when he and his top-ranked crew flew combat mission, including the Linebacker missions whose fury forced the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table and led to the successful end of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and the release of U.S. prisoners of war.

Taking off from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam for Linebacker, Robertson at first couldn't raise his landing gear. Normally that would lead to an aborted mission, since the gear would produce unacceptable drag that would limit speed, altitude and maneuverability. But he was determined to take his B-52 to the enemy.

"I said ‘Hell no, I'm going to Hanoi,'" he recalled.

Now when he hears the airplanes flying and sees their sleek forms coming to or leaving Barksdale, there's the tug of nostalgia.

"When I see the planes going over, I think I'd like one more time to go up in it and get behind the tanker and get plugged in and then go low-level," he said. "I don't know if many of these young guys know how lucky they are to be flying such a good piece of machinery. I think it's a great airplane."

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