6 March 1961

Boeing B-52H-135-BW Stratofortress 60-0006. (United States Air Force)

6 March 1961: The B-52H is the final version of the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress intercontinental strategic bomber. There are discrepancies as to the date of its first flight, with sources varying by as much as eight months. One very reliable source writes that the flight took place on 20 July 1960. A U.S. Air Force publication says that it was in March 1961, and another source (Boeing) says that it was 6 March 1961. An article in The Kansas City Times confirms the date:


Initial Flight Is Made by Bomber at Wichita

     Wichita, March 6.(AP)—The first of this nation’s newest missile bombers, the global B-52H, took to the air in its initial flight today.

     A 6-man test crew of the Boeing Airplane company manned the production model super bomber, which is capable of flying 650 miles an hour over an 11,000-mile range.

     The bomber will carry four Douglas Skybolt missiles.

The Kansas City Times, Vol. 124, No. 56, 7 March 1961, Page 21, Columns 7–8

The U.S. Air Force contracted 62 B-52H Stratofortresses, serial numbers 60-0001 through 60-0062, on 6 May 1960. A second group of 40, serials 61-0001 through 61-0040, were ordered later. All were built at the Boeing Wichita plant.

A fourth source identifies the aircraft in the photograph above, Boeing B-52H-135-BW Stratofortress 60-0006, (Boeing serial number 464-371) as the first B-52H to fly. The existence of a nice aerial portrait suggests that this may be correct.

The B-52H, like the B-52G, is a re-engineered aircraft, structurally different from the XB-52, YB-52, and B-52A–B-52F Stratofortress variants. It is lighter, carries more internal fuel, giving it a longer unrefueled range, and is strengthened for low-altitude flight. The B-52H is also equipped with quieter, more efficient turbofan engines.

A Boeing B-52H Stratofortress carries four Douglas Skybolt ALBMs. (U.S. Air Force)
A Boeing B-52H Stratofortress carries four Douglas GAM-87 Skybolt ALBMs. (U.S. Air Force)

The B-52H was developed to carry four Douglas GAM-87 Skybolt air-launched ballistic missiles on pylons mounted under the wings, inboard of the engines. The Skybolt was armed with a 1-megaton W-59 thermonuclear warhead. The program was cancelled, however, and the North American Aviation AGM-28 Hound Dog air-launched cruise missile was used instead. (Interestingly, the Hound Dog’s Pratt & Whitney J52-P-3 turbojet engine could be used to supplement the B-52’s takeoff thrust, and then refueled from the bomber’s tanks before being air-launched.)

Boeing B-52G Stratofortress aremd with two North American Aviation AGM-28 Hound Dog ACLMs. (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing B-52G-105-BW Stratofortress 58-0216 armed with two North American Aviation AGM-28 Hound Dog ALCMs. (U.S. Air Force)

The B-52H is a sub-sonic, swept wing, long-range strategic bomber. It was originally operated by a crew of six: two pilots, a navigator and a radar navigator, an electronic warfare officer, and a gunner. (The gunner was eliminated after 1991). The airplane is 159 feet, 4 inches (48.565 meters) long, with a wing span of 185 feet (56.388 meters). It is 40 feet, 8 inches (12.395 meters) high to the top of the vertical fin. The B-52H uses the vertical fin developed for the B-52G, which is 22 feet, 11 inches (6.985 meters) tall. This is 7 feet, 8 inches (2.337 meters) shorter than the fin on the XB-52–B-52F aircraft. The bomber has an empty weight of 172,740 pounds (78,354 kilograms) and its Maximum Takeoff Weight (MTOW) is 488,000 pounds (221,353 kilograms).

The most significant difference between the B-52H and the earlier Stratofortresses is the replacement of the eight Pratt & Whitney J57-series turbojet engines with eight Pratt & Whitney Turbo Wasp JT3D-2 (TF33-P-3) turbofans, which are significantly more efficient. They are quieter and don’t emit the dark smoke trails of the turbojets. The TF-33 is a two-spool axial-flow turbofan engine with 2 fan stages, a 14-stage compressor section (7-stage intermediate pressure, 7-stage high-pressure) and and a 4-stage turbine (1-stage high-pressure, 3-stage low-pressure). Each engine produces a maximum of 17,000 pounds of thrust (75.620 kilonewtons). The TF33-P-3 is 11 feet, 10 inches (3.607 meters) long, 4 feet, 5.0 inches (1.346 meters) in diameter and weighs 3,900 pounds (1,769 kilograms).

The B-52H has a cruise speed of 525 miles per hour (845 kilometers per hour). It has a maximum speed of 632 miles per hour (1,017 kilometers per hour) at 23,800 feet (7,254 meters)—0.908 Mach. The service ceiling is 47,700 feet (14,539 meters). The unrefueled range is 8,000 miles (12,875 kilometers). With inflight refueling, its range is limited only by the endurance of its crew.

The B-52H was armed with a 20 mm M61 Vulcan 6-barreled cannon in place of the four .50-caliber machine guns of the earlier variants.
The B-52H was armed with a 20 mm M61A1 Vulcan 6-barreled rotary cannon in place of the four .50-caliber machine guns of the earlier variants. The gun was removed after 1991.

The B-52H was armed with a 20mm M61A1 Vulcan six-barreled rotary cannon in a remotely-operated tail turret. The gun had a rate of fire of 4,000 rounds per minute, and had a magazine capacity of 1,242 rounds. After 1991, the gun and its radar system were removed from the bomber fleet. The flight crew was reduced to five.

The B-52H can carry a wide variety of conventional free-fall or guided bombs, land-attack or anti-ship cruise missiles, and thermonuclear bombs or cruise missiles. These can be carried both in the internal bomb bay or on underwing pylons. The bomb load is approximately 70,000 pounds (31,751 kilograms).

A Boeing B-52H Stratofortress dropping forty-five M117 750-pound (340 kilogram) general purpose bombs. (Senior Airman Carlin Leslie, U.S. Air Force)

The first of 102 B-52H Stratofortresses entered service on 9 May 1961. The last one, 61-0040, was rolled out 26 October 1962. Beginning in 2009, eighteen B-52H bombers were placed in climate-controlled long term storage at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. As of December 2015, fifty-eight of the bombers remained in the active fleet of the United States Air Force and eighteen are assigned to the Air Force Reserve. In 2014, the entire fleet began a major avionics upgrade. B-52Hs remaining in the Air Force inventory will be upgraded with new engines, new radar, communications and navigation equipment, and will be redesignated B-52J. The B-52 is expected to remain in service until 2040.

An ordnance crew loads a rotary launcher with 8 cruise missiles into teh bomb bay of a B-52H Stratofortress. (Senior Airman Amber Ashcraft/U.S. Air Force)
An ordnance crew loads a rotary launcher with 8 cruise missiles into the bomb bay of a B-52H Stratofortress. (Senior Airman Amber Ashcraft/U.S. Air Force)

60-0006, the first B-52H to fly, crashed while making a ground-controlled (GCA) approach to Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, at 2:07 a.m., 30 May 1974. The bomber’s rudder and elevators failed. Although 60-0006 was destroyed, all seven airmen on board, Captains Charles Brown, Robert E. Smith, William G. Heckathorn, Paul C. Hoffman, 1st Lieutenants John D. Weaver, James R. Villines, and 2nd Lieutenant Robert E. Pace, survived the accident without serious injuries.

Wreck of Boeing B-52H-135-NW Stratofortress 60-0006 at Wright-Patterson AFB, 30 May 1974. (Dayton Daily News Archive)
Wreck of Boeing B-52H-135-BW Stratofortress 60-0006 at Wright-Patterson AFB, 30 May 1974. Two AGM-28 Hound Dog ACLMs are lying in the background. (Dayton Daily News Archive)
A Boeing B-52H Stratofortress during a deterrent patrol near the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, 2016. The bomber is carrying a load of Mk.84 2,000-pound JDAM “smart” bombs. (Master Sgt. Lance Cheung, U.S. Air Force)
Boeing B-52H-165-BW Stratofortress 61-0007 takes off at Tinker Air Force Base on a functional test flight, 30 August 2016. The airplane, named “Ghost Rider,” was overhauled after being stored for eight years at The Boneyard, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona. 61-0007 is the very first B-52 to have been “regenerated.” (Kelly White/U.S. Air Force)

© 2024, Bryan R. Swopes

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13 thoughts on “6 March 1961

  1. Thanks, this is the only reference I’ve read about the additional take off thrust from the Hound Dogs. My Dad had told me about how they experimented with addition thrust, and I always assumed some type of JATO at the wing tips, but I never could find anything in research. Here it is in your article that I’m fairly certain what my Dad was referring. He was pilot during Linebacker.

  2. Worked on Fire Control for 5 years on the HS at KI Sawyer and an I G trip to Minot. Did several flights and enjoyed fighter intercepts, but not low level. Great Plane

  3. You should have the article say the H model is the current or latest version of the B-52, not the final. It is very likely to be re-designated as the J model after upgraded with the new radar and new engines in the next 5-7 years.

  4. Two observations: the first flight of the B-52H was indeed March 6, 1961. The “very reliable source” has it wrong. There’s no way that a B-52 contracted for on May 6, 1960, when the B-52H contract was signed, would have its first flight just ten weeks later, and contemporary publications reported the first flight, such as Aviation Week, so the March 1961 first flight is verifiable.

    Secondly, your story has some misinformation about the vertical fin. The purpose of the shorter fin was only for weight savings. Again this was duly noted in Aviation week at the time, as testing revealed that shortening the fin to save weight would not adversely affect control. Also, the chord of the fin is not longer. The base of the fin is exactly the same on all B-52 models, and the angles of the leading and trailing edges of the fins on all B-52 models are exactly the same with respect to the fuselage. In terms of shape and dimensions, the B-52G/H fin is simply a shortened B-52A-F fin. Engineering drawings prove this. If you like, send me an email and I’ll provide all supporting documenting for these issues.

  5. I know you are aware that two MIGs (Fishbeds) were shot down by the tail gunners of B52D’s during Linebacker. The first was on Dec 18, 1972 and the next on Christmas Eve, 6 days later. These were with the quad .50’s.

    With that success, I wonder why those guns were replaced. Probably better range on the 20mm?

    1. Standardization, perhaps? The tail gun on the B-58A was also the M61. I assume that it was felt that the explosive 20 mm shell would do more damage than the .50s. It is interesting to me that the tail gun was eventually removed from the B-52H.

  6. Thank you for an excellent article on the B-52. I would like to add details on the
    modification of the B-52 wings for low altitudes. My father was the Prime Contracting Agent for the B-52 at OCAMA (Oklahoma City Air Materiel Area) TAFB in the 1960s and 70s. He told me that ground hugging radar allowed the B-52 to fly as low as 50ft or even lower. This facilitated “stand off” delivery of atomic weapons; the 52 would perform an inside loop, releasing the weapons near the top of the loop, launching the weapons. At the top of the loop the 52 would do a 180 roll and then drop down “on the deck”, avoiding the blast of the bomb and heading away from the target, again at extremely low altitude. My father said he watched films of the test 52 doing this maneuver, and the wings would flex in a large U shape. The Hound Dog and subsequent missiles made the stand off delivery maneuver obsolete.

      1. You never heard of B-52 doing that type of maneuver because they never did. The B-47 did that. And as I recall, the Terrain Avoidance radar system was never designed to go as low as 50 feet. No way, no how. Not that low. And that radar system only presented a radar generated “horizon” , it was not linked with the flight control system. It was not a terrain following system like the B-1B has.

  7. The vertical stabilizer was reduced in size not only for reduction of weight. It was shortened because the aircraft’s role had changed, requiring it fly at low level. Tests had shown the larger vertical stabilizer would likely fail for low-level use.
    One H model, tail number 1023 (an aircraft I flew on circa 1986), did lose its vertical stabilizer in flight, but landed safely.
    But again, the stabilizer was shortened for several reasons, not just weight reduction.

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