National Security

The Long-Range Staying Power Of The B-52

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The B-52 bomber has recently undergone an overhaul of its communications systems. The aircraft has remained in continuous service since 1955. We look at what makes it so remarkable and enduring.


From veterans in Congress, we turn to another veteran. The U.S. Air Force B-52 fleet, which had its communication system refitted earlier this year, which gives us an excuse to hear the late Slim Pickens and a young James Earl Jones playing a B-52 bomber crew in Stanley Kubrick's 1964 Cold War satire, "Dr. Strangelove."


JAMES EARL JONES: (As Lt. Zogg) Major Kong, is it possible this is some kind of loyalty test? You know, give the go-code and then recall to see who would actually go.

SLIM PICKENS: (As Maj. Kong) Ain't nobody ever got the go-code yet. And old Ripper wouldn't be giving us Plan R, unless them Russkis had already clobbered Washington and a lot of other towns with a sneak attack.

JONES: (As Lt. Zogg) Yes sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Major Kong, message from base, confirmed.

PICKENS: (As Maj. Kong) Well boys, I reckon this is it. Nuclear combat toe-to-toe with the Russkis.

SIMON: "Dr. Strangelove" recently observed its 50-year anniversary, and that reminded us that the B-52 entered service in the summer of 1955 when the song "Cherry Pink And Apple Blossom White," by Perez Prado and his orchestra, was high in the Billboard charts. So what is it about this long-range bomber that has made it last for all these decades? John Tirpak is editorial director at Air Force Magazine.

JOHN TIRPAK: It was over-engineered. It was meant to withstand the buffing of nuclear explosion. It's been a virtue of necessity too. There have been other attempts to replace it with other bombers, and through the years a lot of those bomber programs got canceled. Another reason - it's very adaptable. You can hang anything on it or in it. It has a very long range, and it can be used for all kinds of missions, and it's just been a very rugged, adaptable design for a long time.

SIMON: Long-range, indeed. The B-52 holds the world record for the longest bombing mission ever flown, this during the 1991 Gulf War - 14,000 miles. The plane's role has changed over the years, but the Air Force does not plan to retire the B-52 just yet. Even though, the last one rolled off production line during the Kennedy administration in 1962.

TIRPAK: When it finally goes out of service - 80 years that's exactly analogous to taking a World War I biplane, and flying it in the 1991 Gulf War. You know, that's many, many years of technology gone by.


SIMON: The B-52 stratofortress, just shy of 60 years in the sky. You're listening to NPR News.

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