If you need proof that “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” look no further than the venerable American B-52 bomber.
When I hitched a ride on one way back in 1981, they were already considered old and near the end of their useful lifetimes. The plane I flew on was built not long after some members of the six-person crew were born. New, more modern bombers were in development.
And yet, a 60-year-old B-52 flew over disputed airspace 100 miles off the coast of China in February of 2020, making the point that it was “a United States military aircraft conducting lawful military activities in international airspace.”
Similar flights of the eight-engine bomber – designed in 1948 with slide rules instead of computers – projected American power last August over the Ukrainian coast, and last month over the Persian Gulf.
Last month the Wall Street Journal reported on the latest role of the B-52. It reported that the newer B-1B bomber developed problems with its adjustable wings after missions over Afghanistan and the Mideast.
And the stealth B-2 bomber was scaled back to 21 aircraft from a projected 132 due to its $2 billion cost per plane.
Both will soon be phased out. A new B-21 is expected by 2025, joining the old reliable B-52s, which will be retrofitted and are expected to fly until 2050 – an incredible 90 years after the first models were built.
“It is like an old truck that was built when they actually built them tough,” Gen. Charles Q. Brown, the Air Force chief of staff, told the Wall Street Journal.
I flew on a B-52 on October 28, 1981, after spotting a news release warning private pilots in Wyoming that low-level training missions would be flown over the state, at around 500 feet of altitude at a rate of about six miles per minute.
Through our congressman at the time – a guy named Dick Cheney – I arranged to go along on one of those training flights out of Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, S.D., with “the Black Hills Bandits.”
(I wore cowboy boots at the time, so they had to outfit me with regular air crew footwear, so I wouldn’t look like Slim Pickins in “Dr. Strangelove.”)
Before we took off, the pilot explained that they have two kinds of emergencies – a “controlled emergency,” in which I would be directed to bail out of the belly of the plane, and an “uncontrolled emergency,” in which case, “you will suddenly be all alone on the plane,” the six-man crew having ejected. He strongly urged me to bail out if that occurred – there would be plenty of openings.
We did airborne refueling as we headed west over the Wyoming/Colorado line. Flying that close to another aircraft was sobering, and I remember seeing the face of a crewman aboard the tanker, who directed the refueling vane down to our plane. With a clunk, we took on fuel.
We took a right turn around the Wyoming/Utah line, flew up toward Yellowstone, then angled back across Wyoming to South Dakota, where we did a sharp U-turn and dropped down to enter the low-level portion of the flight.
At 300 to 800 feet, and with eight engines roaring on a plane bigger than a Boeing 707, you could pick out people on the ground, their mouths agape as we blasted overhead.
The fall foliage, up close, was spectacular.
We did simulated bomb drops on targets near Douglas and Powell, Wyoming.
When we got back to Ellsworth, after a long day aloft, there was a delay in landing, as a light that was supposed to indicate that the landing gear was down failed to come on. It took a while, but the light ultimately came on, and we landed.
On the ground, the pilot said, “Let me show you something.” In the area in front of one set of wheels, there was red hydraulic fluid sprayed all over the compartment. “That’s why it took us a while to land.”
Hard to believe that those planes are still flying, projecting American power almost 40 years after my flight, a testament to American design and durability.
I’m betting they got that landing gear problem fixed.
Dave Simpson can be contacted at email@example.com