For almost 70 years, the B-52 Stratofortress bomber has been one of the most representative aircraft of the U.S. Air Force, and it is expected to be around until 2050, for a total service life of almost 100 years. Our friend Erik Johnston brought us last week the most detailed and thorough video ever made of this legendary bomber, recorded during a visit at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. The aircraft in the video is the B-52H with serial 61-031, a 60-years old airframe assigned to the Air Force Reserve Command’s 307th Bomb Wing.
The tour begins with Lt. Col. Aaron Bohl, an instructor pilot, which guides the viewers in the external walkaround as done by a pilot. Each member of the crew, in fact, has a number of external checks to perform during the walkaround, based on their role. For example, the pilots check for the safety and airworthiness of the B-52, while the Weapon Systems Officer checks for everything related to weapons, targeting systems and navigation systems.
To describe the longevity of the BUFF, Lt. Col. Bohl used an interesting anecdote: “The last Civil War veteran was still alive when this aircraft was entering the Air Force, and the last B-52 pilot has not been born yet”. The B-52 flew for the first time in 1952, while the first aircraft entered service in 1955. During the 10-year production, 742 B-52 in various versions were built, including 102 in the current B-52H configuration built between 1960 and 1962.
One of the notorious features of the B-52 described soon after the beginning of the tour is the landing gear. The landing gear has a unique dual-bicycle configuration with a particularly interesting crosswind aid, which allows the pilots to rotate it up to 20 degrees and perform a “crab” landing keeping the gear aligned with the runway while the fuselage is pointing up to 20 degrees off the runway centerline. In fact, this is the only technique that can be safely used by the B-52, with the “low wing” method being the most dangerous as it would cause a wing strike on touchdown, given the huge wingspan of the bomber.
A well-known fact about the BUFF is its eight-engine propulsion. The engines are the Pratt & Whitney TF33 turbofan engines, the military variant of the JT3 that was used on the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8. The crew as the ability to perform either a cartridge start, that allows a simultaneous start of all eight engines, or a more common pneumatic start, starting engines 4 and 5 (the inner ones immediately beside the fuselage) which then provide air to start the remaining engines. As we recently reported, the B-52 will get the TF33 replaced with new Rolls-Royce F130 engines, with the first projected by the end of 2025.
The B-52’s large throttle quadrant got an in-depth look which uncovered some pretty interesting aspects about the throttle and engines. One of these is the throttle friction, which allows to compensate the tendency to over-control the throttle as well as setting the required thrust and then using engines 4 and 5 to fine tune the speed. The pilots often practice both six-engine operation, with two throttle levers set to idle and the other “filleted” to simulate the asymmetric thrust caused by an engine loss, and four-engine operation, this time without the asymmetric thrust. Even more interestingly, Lt. Col. Bohl mentioned that the B-52 is able to go around with just two engines in certain gross weight configurations, as practiced during the instructor course.
After a very throughout cockpit tour, Maj. Brian Heck took over for a tour as performed by an Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO). The tour begins with the blisters on the side of the fuselage (both on the nose and tail) which are used to house the ALQ-172 Electronic Warfare (EW) system, a RadioFrequency (RF) jamming system that protects the bomber from missiles and both airborne and ground-based radars. This is just one of multiple self-protection systems on the bomber, as can be seen by the number of antennas explained in the video.
An interesting mention goes to the so-called “shark fins” on the side of the fuselage. These fins are used for low-band transmitters and they can be mounted in two positions. The fins were initially mounted on a bulge higher up from their current position, but with the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) treaty they were moved to the new position which is on the lower portion of the fuselage. The shark fins can be found in their original position only on the combat coded jets, allowing to check by satellite how many bombers are combat ready, as required by the treaty.
Then it was the turn of Maj. John Roberts, WSO instructor, who provided a detailed tour of the radar navigator compartment. A first interesting fact, which many might already know, is that the ejection seat used by the two WSO eject downwards, as opposed to the standard upward ejection. The compartment still houses many legacy systems which are no longer or rarely used, even though it has been upgraded in the last few years with the addition of new Multi-Function Displays (MFD) to complement the older ones. The upgrades also provided full keyboards and trackball to control a “Windows 95 interface”, as mentioned by Maj. Roberts.
The walkaround from the WSO perspective begins with the two nose-mounted infrared pods, the AN/AAQ-6 Forward Looking InfraRed (FLIR) and the AN/AVQ-22 Low Light TeleVision (LLTV) that were installed on the Stratofortress in the 1970s as part of the AN/ASQ-151 Electro-Optical Viewing System (EVS). It has been reported that these will likely be removed to improve airflow at the front of the bomber, as they are no longer supported on the aircraft. Their capabilities have been replaced by the Litening and Sniper targeting pods, which also allowed to employ autonomously guided weapons without the need to have someone else to lase the target.
Obviously, the tour continues with the weapons pylons and bay. The two external weapons mounts can carry up to nine unguided weapons or up to eight guided weapons. These mounts are different from the ones which are used for nuclear weapons or air-launched cruise missiles. The bomb bay can be configured with the Conventional Rotary Launcher (like the aircraft in the video) which allows to carry guided weapons also internally, instead of just externally as happened for years after the B-52 received the capability to employ these weapons. Without the CRL, the BUFF can carry 27 “dumb” bombs, while with the CRL the bay can house a mix of up to eight smart weapons.
A quite curious feature related to the bomb bay is the walkway, which allows the crew to access the bomb bay while in flight and check if weapons have been released correctly. To do this, the aircraft needs to descend below 10,000 ft, depressurize the cabin and then crawl through a tiny door. The walkway continues all the way to the back of the bomb bay, where another door leads to the old rear gunner position, at least before it was removed from the aircraft.
The tour is concluded by Staff Sergeant Todd Bevan, crew chief on the B-52H, describing some of the technical aspects of the maintenance. An interesting technical fact about the engines is that each of them needs 41 quarts (about 39 liters) of oil to work, while all eight engines burn together a total of 20,000 pounds of fuel per hour at idle power.
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