Let’s Talk About The B-52 Strategic Bomber’s Characteristic “Skin Wrinkles”

The highlighted skin buckling in the photo captured by Zdenek Cerny (Image credit: The Aviationist).

Skin buckling is more a structural design feature than a sign of aging.

Last week we published an interesting image captured by aviation photographer Zdenek Cerny on Sept. 18, 2017, as the B-52H Stratofortress bomber 61-0029 belonging to the 2nd Bomb Wing from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, departed from Ostrava after attending the NATO Days 2017.

The image shows the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fellow – as the aircraft is nicknamed in the aviation community) with one of its 8 engines emitting sparks and smoke, most probably because of FOD (Foreign Object Damage) from a birdstrike.

Not only is the photo remarkable because it pictures a rare (not catastrophic) engine mishap, but also because another peculiar feature of the B-52 is clearly visible: the so-called “beauty wrinkles” on the front fuselage of the iconic bomber.

Our readers have noticed these “wrinkles” or “ripples“. Commenting our post on social networks, many have suggested they may have been a sign of the airframes aging. However, they have nothing to do with age of the B-52: they are the visual effect of the aircraft’s skin buckling.

Generally speaking every component of an airframe is designed to be thin to reduce the overall weight of the aircraft but, at the same time, every piece, including the “outer skin”, is required to bear load along with the longerons and frames (the main load-bearing components of the airplane structure). This load can be of three types: compression, tension and shear load. When the thin skin panels of the aircraft are under stress, they may buckle and when the light comes from the right angle, such buckling can be apparent, as in the photo we posted last week.

As mentioned, this not only happens on the B-52. There are also civilian airliners designed in such a way buckling is so evident that you can visualize the arrangement of the aluminium skin panels. The Boeing 757 is one of them. The lower side of the rear fuselage of the B757 is an area where “wrinkles” can are visible under certain lighting conditions.

The skin buckling is can also be spotted on Boeing 757 airplanes. (Image credit: Wiki)

Other military aircraft, such as the A-3 Skywarrior or the B-47 Stratojet, had visible buckles on their skins.

An overall view of a Boeing B-47 Stratojet aircraft in flight. The world’s first swept-wing bomber. Skin buckling is clearly visible between the wing and the cockpit, in the lower fuselage. (Image credit: USAF)

Back to the B-52, the wrinkles are usually visible in the front section of the aircraft between the wings and cockpit: that area “hangs” from the Centre of Lift (where Lift is applied), the thin aluminium skin absorbs part of the load and buckles. The buckling becomes less evident as it is partly relieved, when the fuselage pressurizes.

The “wrinkles” on Boeing B-52 Stratofortress “Calamity Jane” (55-0071) on display at Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile, Alabama. (Image credit: Tony Webster/Wiki)

Needless to say, the age of the airframes and metal fatigue may affect the amount and distribution of the aircraft’s “wrinkles” but, as long as the load and service life do not exceed the design limits, buckling is nothing to be worried about.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.