A B-52 drops live guided bomb units as an F-15D Eagle follows during a June training exercise. The 60-year-old aircraft will soon receive its latest upgrade. (Staff Sgt. Christopher Hubenthal / Air Force)
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The B-52 is celebrating a big birthday this year — 60 — but unlike humans who feel the aches and pains of aging, the aircraft remains a premiere bombing machine that is expected to continue giving bad guys a real bad day through the 2040s, thanks to yet another upgrade.
"It's a purely awesome machine," said Senior Master Sgt. Daniel Dutton, B-52 command fleet manager for Global Strike Command. "It's hard to put into words how well this aircraft was built and how well it's been maintained over the last 50 or 60 years by our guys — out here on the flight line or deployed, it doesn't matter."
The bomber can carry nukes or provide close-air support by obliterating anyone shooting at U.S. troops, as it has in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
"When people ask, ‘What kind of armament, what kind of weapons can this thing carry?' we basically say, ‘Well, pretty much the U.S. arsenal' — granted the air-to-air role isn't quite there yet," said Col. Russell Hart, chief of the bomber operations division at Global Strike Command.
Going forward, the B-52 will get an upgrade to its bomb bay allowing it to carry 40 percent more precision-guided bombs and new radar that can go more than 1,000 hours before it needs to be repaired, versus the current radar, which needs to be worked on after 30 to 50 hours, Global Strike Command officials said.
The B-52's upgrades will also allow smart bombs to receive new targets while the bomber is in flight — a critical capability given the U.S. military's focus on the Pacific region, which requires planes to travel long distances, said Jim Noetzel of Global Strike Command's bomber requirements division.
In fiscal 2012, the mission-capable rate for the B-52H was 78.3 percent even though the bomber's average age is 50.8 years — blowing the doors off the B-1B's 56.8 percent mission-capable and the B-2A's 51.3 percent mission-capable rate.
Officials credit well-trained B-52 maintainers for the bomber's longevity and its high mission-capable rate.
"There's 1,000 people every day that are monitoring fleet health from the airmen on the line to folks here at the program office to the engineers at Tinker [Air Force Base, Okla.] and the program office," said Lt. Col. Mark Riselli, branch chief of the weapons system team at Global Strike Command.
Since it first entered service in April 1952, the B-52 has been updated numerous times, replacing much of the original technology that is now obsolete, such as vacuum tubes, Riselli said.
"We've had … years to learn the aircraft and get it right, and the key is to refurbish it at depot every four years," he said.