History Hour: the first 744 Boeing B-52 Stratofortress
29 June 1955: The first operational Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, RB-52B-15-BO 52-8711, was delivered to the 93rd Bombardment Wing (Heavy) at Castle Air Force Base, Merced, California. The new long-range heavy bomber would replace the 93rd’s Boeing B-47 Stratojets.
Fifty B-52Bs were built by Boeing at its Plant 2, Seattle, Washington. Twenty-seven of these were RB-52B reconnaissance bombers. They were designed to accept a pressurized electronic intelligence and photographic reconnaissance capsule with a two-man crew that completely filled the bomb bay. Without the capsule aboard, the RB-52s were capable of the same bombing missions as their sister B-52Bs. The change could be made within a few hours.
Pressurized two-man RB-52 reconnaissance pod.
The B-52B/RB-52B was operated by a six-man flight crew for the bombing mission, and eight for reconnaissance. These were the aircraft commander/pilot, co-pilot, navigator, radar navigator/bombardier, electronic warfare officer and gunner, plus two reconnaissance technicians when required.
The airplane was 156 feet, 6.9 inches (47.724 meters) long with a wingspan of 185 feet, 0 inches (56.388 meters) and overall height of 48 feet, 3.6 inches (14.722 meters). The wings were mounted high on the fuselage (“shoulder-mounted”) to provide clearance for the engines which were suspended on pylons. The wings’ leading edges were swept 35°. The bomber’s empty weight was 164,081 pounds (74,226 kilograms), with a combat weight of 272,000 pounds (123,377 kilograms) and a maximum takeoff weight of 420,000 pounds (190,509 kilograms).
Boeing RB-52B-15-BO Stratofortress 52-8711, left profile. (U.S. Air Force)
Early production B-52Bs were powered by eight Pratt and Whitney J57-P-1W two-spool axial-flow turbojet engines, grouped in two-engine pods on four wing-mounted pylons. The J57 had a 9-stage, low-pressure and 7-stage high-pressure compressor section, and a single-stage high-pressure turbine and 2-stage low-pressure turbine. These engines were rated at 11,400 pounds of thrust, each, with water injection.
The B-52B/RB-52B had a cruise speed of 523 miles per hour (842 kilometers per hour). The maximum speed varied with altitude: 630 miles per hour (1,014 kilometers per hour) at 19,800 feet (6,035 meters), 598 miles per hour (962 kilometers per hour) at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) and 571 miles per hour (919 kilometers per hour) at 45,750 feet (13,945 meters). The service ceiling at combat weight was 47,300 feet (14,417 meters).
Maximum ferry range was 7,343 miles (11,817 kilometers). With a 10,000 pound (4,536 kilogram) bomb load, the B-52B had a combat radius of 3,590 miles (5,778 kilometers). With inflight refueling, the range was essentially world-wide.
Defensive armament consisted of four Browning M3 .50-caliber machine guns in a tail turret with 600 rounds of ammunition per gun. The guns had a combined rate of fire in excess of 4,000 rounds per minute.
A Strategic Air Command alert crew runs to man their bomber, Boeing RB-52B-15-BO Stratofortress 52-8711, 22 Bombardment Wing (Heavy), the first operational B-52, at March Air Force Base, California, 1965. (U.S. Air Force)
The B-52B’s maximum bomb load was 43,000 pounds (19,505 kilograms). It could carry a 15-megaton Mark 17 thermonuclear bomb, or two Mark 15s, each with a maximum yield of 3.8 megatons.
Boeing manufactured 744 B-52 Stratofortress bombers, with the final one rolled out at Wichita, Kansas, 22 June 1962. As of June 2016, 75 B-52H bombers remain in service with the United States Air Force.
RB-52B 52-8711 remained in active service until 29 September 1965. Today it is on display at the Strategic Air and Space Museum, Ashland, Nebraska.
On the main photo: The first operational Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, RB-52B-15-BO 52-8711. (U.S. Air Force)
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