They’ve been fulfilling their duty to America for decades, their nuclear weapons always ready for deployment. And the stalwart bombers aren’t done yet.
They’ve been flying for almost 70 years and are equipped with up to 20 nuclear weapons. Bold and resilient, the B-52 bombers of the U.S. Air Force are still writing aviation history. But they are not always 100% reliable…
95 YEARS IN THE AIR
will be the service record set by the B-52 when it’s finally retired in 2050—if that does indeed occur. The U.S. Air Force has regularly raised the venerable old lady’s retirement age—2050 is just the latest planned year for the end of her service.
The hydrogen bomb is the single most destructive weapon that humankind has developed thus far. It consists of a conventional atomic bomb that is used to detonate a far more powerful explosive charge. In just a fraction of a second this weapon can unleash the power of the Sun’s nuclear fusion reactor. A hydrogen bomb has never been used, and to date two atomic bombs have ever been deployed: In 1945 these weapons claimed about 160,000 lives in Hiroshima and up to 75,000 in Nagasaki. Some of today’s nuclear weapons are 3,000 times more powerful, making it all the more horrifying that in 1966 a B-52 bomber accidentally released four hydrogen bombs over Spain, the result of an error in judgment…
ON PATROL WITH A PLANE FULL OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS
On January 16, 1966, a B-52G with the call sign Tea 16 lifted off from the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina and headed to Turkey, refueling twice in the air along the way.
Despite being the biggest bomber in the history of the U.S. Air Force, the B-52 has never earned the name of “flying fortress” that was previously awarded to the B-17, the strategic bomber used in World War II. “The B-52 had already become obsolete on the day it entered service,” says military historian Michael Moeller. With a length of just over 159 feet and a 185-foot wingspan, the B-52 is an easy target for antiaircraft missiles. That’s why the bomber never enters enemy airspace without adequate protective air cover.
Nevertheless, the B-52 was the only choice for the Air Force mission called Operation Chrome Dome, the Strategic Air Command’s plan to fly bombers along the edge of the Iron Curtain. Between 1960 and 1968, up to 66 flights per day ensured the U.S. could quickly strike or retaliate in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Each crew carried a map with four predetermined targets and four alternatives, as did the crew who flew out of North Carolina on that fateful day in January 1966. Their mission: patrol the skies of Turkey along the Soviet border and then return home. It’s a long way across the Atlantic and mainland Europe and back again, so the journey required aerial refueling several times in each direction.
Refueling while in the air is one of the most challenging maneuvers for pilots. “At the end of it, you’re literally sweating,” reveals B-52 pilot Carlos Espino. “You have to precisely align your bomber with the tanker to accept the fuel.” The fuel is transferred via a refueling boom on a KC-135 aircraft as the B-52 flies only 30 feet behind it at around 600 miles per hour. The highly flammable fuel is pumped from one aircraft to the other as they fly at close to the speed of sound. The eight jet engines of the B-52 and the four engines of the KC-135 Stratotanker are operating in very close proximity while the transfer is being made.
THE DAY THE H-BOMBS RAINED ON SPAIN
The morning after its takeoff from North Carolina, the B-52 named Tea 16 was involved in an aerial disaster during the return trip. While it was lining up behind a KC-135 tanker in the sky over Spain, the B-52 came in a little too fast. The bomber struck the tanker, jet fuel gushed out, and both aircraft exploded. Four of the bomber’s crew members ejected and parachuted to safety, but the three others were killed, as were all four of the tanker’s crewmen. Among the wreckage as the aircraft fell from the sky were four unexploded Mark 28 hydrogen bombs, each packed with 1.45 megatons of explosive power, or 100 times more than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. These bombs were unarmed but the explosive core of two of them detonated and spread radioactivity all across a large area. The third bomb was found intact but it took months to find the fourth bomb 2,500 feet down on the ocean floor, finally located thanks to a fisherman who saw it fall into the Mediterranean. (Because of its trailing parachute he thought it was an ejected crewman.) Around 1,600 personnel participated in the land cleanup at Palomares.
Unfortunately, this midair disaster was by no means an isolated incident. On October 15, 1959, airmen assigned to the 4228th Strategic Wing division at Mississippi’s Columbus Air Force Base were refueling over Hardinsburg, Kentucky, when their B-52 collided with a KC-135 tanker at 31,500 feet. The resulting fireball could be seen up to 150 miles away. The section of the B-52 where the nuclear weapons were loaded created a huge crater, however the bombs didn’t explode. The official accident report stated: “The weapons survived the accident in remarkably good condition…with no radiological hazards.” Then on January 23, 1961, three days after John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president, a B-52 was on patrol over the Atlantic when fuel began gushing from a leak in the fuselage. As the pilot attempted to return to his base in North Carolina, the plane’s right wing sheered off, and the aircraft went into a nosedive. Six of the eight crewmen parachuted to safety. Two nuclear bombs fell to the ground, but neither of them detonated. As similar incidents took place over the years, only failsafe mechanisms and a large amount of luck prevented the deaths of millions of people. In the years between 1961 and 1968, the U.S. had recorded five serious incidents that involved a B-52 and nuclear weapons. The final incident occurred in January 1968 not far from Thule Air Base in Greenland when a cabin fire forced the crew to evacuate before they could make an emergency landing. Six crew members survived, one was killed, and the nuclear payload fell into the sea, resulting in radioactive contamination of the area as well as acute political tension with Denmark. After that incident the U.S. Air Force ended Operation Chrome Dome, and from then on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) assumed the security role that had been played by the B-52.
But the aircraft are still in service and will likely continue to be for at least another 30 years. By the time the B-52 is retired in 2050, it will have been in service for almost a century. For comparison, commercial airliners are generally retired after 25 years at most. However the B-52’s legacy will live on long after she’s gone: Parts of southern Spain are still contaminated and restricted areas today, and they’ll remain so for the foreseeable future…