The U.S. Air Force’s Grandpaps, the B-52 and KC-135, Just Keep On Flying

These planes are older than you: a KC-135 refuels a B-52 in flight.

Over at The Daily Beast, Clive Irving has a neat piece about the venerable U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress and it’s little brother, the KC-135 Stratotanker. The B-52, which turns 65 years old this year, and the KC-135 were both designed by Boeing aeronautical engineers Ed Wells and George Schairer.

Wells and Schairer came up with the basic design for the B-52 over one weekend in 1948, drawing upon advanced concepts developed by Nazi Germany during World War II. The first prototype flew in 1952.

Six days after that first B-52 flight, the two pitched an idea to the Boeing board for a jet-powered passenger aircraft, which they would get the U.S. government pay to develop by marketing it as a military tanker for the B-52. This program would yield the KC-135 and the civilian Boeing 707 airliner. The first KC-135 flew in 1956.

Although seeking replacements, the Air Force is planning on keeping both the B-52 and KC-135 in service past 2050, when both airframes will be over 100 years old. Boeing won a contract to replace the KC-135 in 2011, but its new tanker is woefully late and over budget.

The 76 B-52s have a 70% readiness rate due to their relative simplicity to maintain and the Air Force is about to approve $4 billion in new engines to keep them flying.

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Shawn Woodford
Shawn Woodford

Shawn Robert Woodford, Ph.D., is a military historian with nearly two decades of research, writing, and analytical experience on operations, strategy, and national security policy. His work has focused on special operations, unconventional and paramilitary warfare, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, naval history, quantitative historical analysis, nineteenth and twentieth century military history, and the history of nuclear weapon development. He has a strong research interest in the relationship between politics and strategy in warfare and the epistemology of wargaming and combat modeling.

All views expressed here are his and do not reflect those of any other private or public organization or entity.

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