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The Air Force’s newest B-52 turns 50

The Air Force’s youngest B-52 Stratofortress will turn 50 years old this October. It’s the subject of a terrific writeup by Tech Sgt. Chris Powell, packed with great detail about the bomber, and also telling in what it doesn’t say: The Air Force’s forthcoming new bomber has enormous shoes to fill.

Wrote Powell:

“I don’t think anyone really knew this was going to be the last B-52 ever made,” said Robert Michel, the 5th Bomb Wing historian. “They expected it to be in service for probably about 20 years, (not close to) a hundred.”

With Tail No. 1040 and the rest of the Air Force’s B-52s scheduled to keep flying through 2040, there are several reasons why the B-52 has been flying for more than 50 years.

“I don’t think you can get a bomber that could replace the B-52 that will do everything the B-52 does,” Michel said.

That’s because the B-52 can perform nuclear deterrence and conventional operations, fly at both high and low altitudes while carrying nuclear and conventional bombs, cruise missiles or aerial mines, he said. “It’s like the Swiss Army bomber.”

To keep a fleet of aircraft flying for so long, it takes constant attention from maintainers to ensure the planes are every bit as airworthy as the rest of Air Force’s fleet.

“The aircraft has seen some really good maintainers through its years,” said Staff Sgt. Eric Thomas, a dedicated crew chief assigned to the 5th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. “I think it’s a compliment to the maintainers and the people who support the airframe because there aren’t many aircraft that are flying 50 years after it left the factory. It’s definitely not the prettiest plane out there, but it can take a beating and keep on kicking.”

However, even with highly trained maintainers, keeping the B-52 flying day in and day out is no easy task. Thomas said 1040 requires less maintenance than the rest of the B-52s at Minot AFB, which is surprising, considering it’s also the most active aircraft at the base. On average, the rest of Minot AFB’s B-52s have between 17,000 to 18,000 flying hours, while 1040 has more than 21,000, Thomas said.

Tail 1040 was the last of 744 bombers, Powell writes; they’d been in production since 1952. (Boeing delivered 100 BUFFs in Fiscal 1958 alone.) This armada of B-52s constituted the mailed fist grasping the lightning bolts on the Strategic Air Command emblem, though mercifully, the bombers’ combat career has involved delivering only conventional ordnance…

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