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The Military Technology

Sixty Years On, B-52s Are Still Going Strong 403

Posted by samzenpus
from the staying-power dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Those who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s knew the B-52 Stratofortress as a central figure in the anxiety that flowed from the protracted staring match between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Now CNET reports that it was 60 years ago, on April 15, 1952, that a B-52 prototype built by Boeing took off on its maiden flight and although the 1950s-vintage B-52s are no longer in the US Air Force inventory, the 90 or so H models delivered between May 1961 and October 1962 still remain on active duty. 'The B-52 has been a wonderful flying box,' says retired Brig. Gen. Peyton Cole. '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.' The B-52's feat of longevity reflects both regular maintenance and timely upgrades — in the late 1980s, for instance, GPS capabilities were incorporated into the navigation system but it also speaks to the astronomical costs of the next-generation bombers that have followed the B-52 into service (a total of 744 were built, counting all models) with the Air Force. B-52s cost about $70 million apiece (in today's dollars), while the later, stealth-shaped B-2 Spirit bombers carried an 'eye-watering $3-billion-a-pop unit price.' The Air Force's 30-year forecast, published in March, envisions an enduring role for the B-52 and engineering studies, the Air Force says, suggest that the life span of the B-52 could extend beyond the year 2040. 'At that point, why not aim for the centennial mark?'"
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Sixty Years On, B-52s Are Still Going Strong

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 16, 2012 @06:05AM (#39698659)

    This is exactly why 60 year old tech is still flying as a bomber. Air power is still king in conventional warfare, and once you've sent in your fleet of high-tech air-superiority and multirole/ground-attack fighters to clean out the AA threats, all you really require next is a very large flying tube that holds a lot of bombs. Hence, the B-52 is still around. You don't need a fancy stealth bomber because penetrating enemy airspace is better left to smaller stealthier craft - or you ignore the airplane altogether and use a cruise missile.

    If you think about it, the B-2 is the real antique here. The B-52 is just practical.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 16, 2012 @06:16AM (#39698695)

    If you already have control of the airspace you don't need the stealth the B2 has, and the B2 has a disadvantage from an aerodynamic perspective - it requires computers to keep it under control at all times. The B52 is an example of the KISS strategy - it's rough but the only brain it really needs is the pilots so if something happens then it's up to the pilot to do his best. And computers has a tendency to age quickly - what was state of the art a decade ago is ancient today, and spare parts are hard to get for old computers.

    Strip the B52 of all computing and it can still fly and even get the job done, strip any modern aircraft of all computing and you have a brick. That's why the B52 will be a viable option for a long time to come. Add to it the fact that it's a strong and flexible platform that can be assigned to carry a lot of stuff, not only nukes.

  • by Richard_at_work (517087) <richardprice&gmail,com> on Monday April 16, 2012 @06:23AM (#39698713)

    How about 60 years of western freedom, which was guaranteed by things like this?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 16, 2012 @06:39AM (#39698753)
    How about reality, which is somewhere in the middle of the extremes you guys are throwing around?
  • by MachDelta (704883) on Monday April 16, 2012 @06:42AM (#39698765)

    Western freedom:
    Decades of defense by B-52's
    Murdered one day by a quartet of 757/767's

  • by Richard_at_work (517087) <richardprice&gmail,com> on Monday April 16, 2012 @06:53AM (#39698801)

    Unless there is another piston-to-jet style sea change in airborne combat, I don't see why the B-52 wouldn't be used for its primary mission in the next 28 years.

    After all, the C-130 is still being produced brand new, despite the basic design being only two years younger than the B-52!

    Carrying X amount of bombs to target Y doesn't change much over the years - once suppression of the air defences is secured, it doesn't matter if you send in a Boeing 747 with a midget pushing Obama-For-2008! badges out a door, the risk is going to be the same.

  • by Richard_at_work (517087) <richardprice&gmail,com> on Monday April 16, 2012 @07:00AM (#39698835)

    I'm not sure why you think certain costs are included in one price and not in another - the Boeing 747-8 is a derivative of an already profitable aircraft line, one which had brand new tooling, manufacturing and a factory built just for it. The costs were there, just included in the Boeing 747-100 rather than the current derivative - Boeing doesn't get to charge the costs of the factory to the fairies and imps, they have to be borne by the commercial products just as much as the DoD have to bear the cost of the R&D for their projects.

  • by Dave Emami (237460) on Monday April 16, 2012 @07:22AM (#39698917) Homepage

    Putting aside your politics for the moment -- let's just say that I disagree with you -- this is about a well-designed and enduring piece of technology. I can admire the technical excellence of a something without liking what it was used for, or who used it. I can, for example, still appreciate the robustness and shallow learning curve of the AK-47 without being a Marxist -- and by the way, that weapon has almost certainly killed more people over those 60 years than the B-52 has. The ideal nerd should be able to look at a high-tech device and have some part of his mind thinking "whoa, that's freakin' cool!" right up to the moment that it kills him.

  • by neyla (2455118) on Monday April 16, 2012 @07:48AM (#39699033)

    I doubt that, unless you add more constraints. Optimum in what sense ? Speed ? Durability ? Range ? Load-capacity ? Fuel-efficiency ? Price ?

  • by JoeMerchant (803320) on Monday April 16, 2012 @07:55AM (#39699059) Homepage

    My grandfather crashed a B-17 in free-at-that-time France

    How can that be? France was invaded in 1940, before the US and its B-17s were in the war, and was liberated in 1945 with the rest of Europe. Are you saying he crashed in peace time? Sounds a bit careless.

    Lots of crashes during training, if there weren't, we wouldn't need to train so much, would we?

    Seriously, though, a whole lot of time spent in the air during peace time can be just as hazardous as a single mission during wartime.

  • by dave420 (699308) on Monday April 16, 2012 @09:15AM (#39699459)
    Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia. It is *never* to be trusted as a source, along with all other encyclopaedias. You have to check the cited sources, as you did, so there's no need to cry foul of Wikipedia doing what's expected of it.
  • I prefer peace (Score:2, Insightful)

    by cryfreedomlove (929828) on Monday April 16, 2012 @09:27AM (#39699553)
    Sure, it's a great plane. Yadda, yadda.

    Personally, I hope that we find our way to a world of common abundance and tolerance among all societies. Then we can stop treating weapons that have the ability to wipe out mankind as like they are some kind of gee whiz project from Popular Mechanics. I'd rather we all spent our time making love and going to our kids little league baseball games.
  • by jheath314 (916607) on Monday April 16, 2012 @09:36AM (#39699641)

    I agree... the best way to respond to past atrocities is to indiscriminately kill thousands of innocent civilians. Terrorism is justified when we do it, right?

  • by IICV (652597) on Monday April 16, 2012 @10:00AM (#39699795)

    Except it would do worse, because there's over 60 years of collective knowledge centered around the construction, maintenance and flying of B-52s, whereas whatever new hotness comes out will have its own little quirks.

    It's the same reason why big software re-writes never work [joelonsoftware.com]; the old software is old and convoluted because it's had to solve problems you'd never think of the first time around.

  • by drerwk (695572) on Monday April 16, 2012 @10:03AM (#39699803) Homepage
    Not sure where 20,000 feet higher is coming from. B-52 operates at 50,000 and the V-bombers seem to operate at 55,000. Cruise for B-52 seems to be about 90% to 95% of the V-bombers.

    The thing is that even in 1940s, subsonic aerodynamics were pretty well understood, and could be well studied in wind tunnels. We have better engines now, but other than winglets the shape of subsonic jet aircraft has remained remarkably the same - probably because it is near optimal.
  • Re:Drop the pilots (Score:4, Insightful)

    by rubycodez (864176) on Monday April 16, 2012 @10:04AM (#39699809)
    both wars were pointless responses to sound bites. the "taliban" we're fighting now isn't the taliban who hosted bin laden, they're long gone out of afghanistan. in fact, right now we're negotiating with the "taliban" that is there now, because we won't "win" over them. we're lining defense contractor pockets, we're giving power to some who crave it......but there is no just purpose
  • by Alioth (221270) <no@spam> on Monday April 16, 2012 @10:29AM (#39699997) Journal

    Low volume, certification and paperwork. Anything that goes in an airliner tends to be very low volume, and needs reams and reams of paperwork and certification to show it complies with aviation standards and won't do something dangerous. I should imagine the circuit breaker for the military is - instead of just what using Boeing use for a 747 - to some other spec for some reason and produced in perhaps only 2 digit volumes. Why it's a different spec to a functionally identical airliner part, I don't know without the facts.

  • by bhcompy (1877290) on Monday April 16, 2012 @10:35AM (#39700043)
    Sliderule got us to the moon while "more powerful computational devices" turned Mars landers into Mars impactors.
  • by phorm (591458) on Monday April 16, 2012 @10:47AM (#39700125) Journal

    easy != unnecessary

    A lot of jobs qualify as "easy until a point" (that point being when the sh** hits the fan)

  • by NeutronCowboy (896098) on Monday April 16, 2012 @11:00AM (#39700229)

    Let me guess: you also complain about IT twiddling their thumbs when the network is running, right? Or about support staff taking a two hour break in the afternoon to play SC2 when things are just fine and dandy?

    Here's a little secret: you can either staff optimally for when everything's fine, or you can staff optimally for when the shit hits the fan. If you choose option 1 though, don't complain to me though that nothing gets done when shit hits the fan, because everyone is completely overworked.

    At the risk of incurring the wrath of libertarians (they seem to have a lot of mod points recently), I'm thinking you're either a tea partier, a MBAer or a libertarian. It's the main places where I see this sort of thinking come from.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 16, 2012 @11:12AM (#39700327)

    If you read the referenced article on the history, you'll see that it started life as a high altitude bomber and was converted into a penetration role. Something tells me that the claim of "optimum for its mission" is indeed garbage. Much more important to its longevity is "hey we have a ton of these, and we can do more with the same funds if we modify them rather than starting from scratch."

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 16, 2012 @11:48AM (#39700629)

    And slide rules turned Lunar landers into Lunar impactors [wikipedia.org] while powerful computation devices got us multiple [wikipedia.org] Mars landings [wikipedia.org].

    It's almost like there's other factors at work!

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