Sunday, March 30, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Last of Boeing's fabled bombers is still wars' workhorse

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

At the upscale Covenant Shores retirement community on Mercer Island, two men in their 80s point to the wing details on a scale model of the B-52 bomber. Holden "Bob" Withington, a Boeing aerodynamicist, designed those details in the late 1940s. His neighbor, retired Air Force Gen. Guy Townsend, flew the plane on its first flight from Boeing Field in 1952.

Today, this aircraft with a 50-year-old design leads the high-tech U.S. strike force in Iraq.

Flying from the Royal Air Force's Fairford base in England, updated B-52s built by Boeing more than 40 years ago have pounded Baghdad with cruise missiles. B-52 precision-guided "smart bombs" are targeting Republican Guard positions to support U.S. ground troops.

The B-52, a long-range, eight-engine heavy bomber, flies just shy of the speed of sound. It has been a nuclear deterrent and a carpet bomber. It has set the jungle ablaze in Southeast Asia and pulverized the caves of Tora Bora, Afghanistan. It's dealt stunning blows to enemy forces and inflamed anti-war sentiment over unintended civilian deaths.

The B-52 has even influenced commercial-jet design: Its distinctive swept wings and hanging engines are standard on large commercial airliners to this day.

Yet, unlike the men holding the model, this airplane is only in midlife.

Boeing has proposed further extensive upgrades to keep the plane a cutting-edge weapons platform. The Air Force plans to use the current B-52s until 2040.

"It's a matter of great satisfaction to find something you worked on 50 years ago still so important," Withington said.

Townsend, 82, who flew bomber missions during World War II and joined Boeing after leaving the Air Force, is part-owner of an aerobatic plane. Come summer, he flies it three times a week, doing loops and rolls above the fields around Duvall and Carnation.

On leaving Boeing, Withington, 85, the aerodynamics engineer, kept himself busy by constructing and flying a homebuilt Kitfox seaplane. He sold it reluctantly when he couldn't get insurance, but he likes to joke that in his retirement he became, like Townsend, a test pilot.

His part in the B-52 story comes first.

Withington arrived in Seattle in 1941, recruited from Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop what would become one of the world's most advanced wind tunnels. Over a long weekend in October 1948 in Dayton, Ohio, he was one of a six-man Boeing team that rapidly revised the original specification for the B-52.

Air Force Col. Henry "Pete" Warden, looking for a high-altitude nuclear bomber, had Boeing's proposal for a large turboprop bomber. On a Thursday, Warden — who had been at MIT with Withington — asked for a new specification with jet engines instead of propellers. Otherwise, the B-52 would be canceled.

The following Monday, the Boeing team returned with a freshly written 33-page proposal for a new jet bomber that won Warden's blessing.

The rapid turnaround was possible because Withington had separately been working on development of a smaller jet bomber, an updated version of the B-47. Applying engineering data from that project, Withington and his aerodynamicists supplied a second-generation swept-wing design that would become the standard for large airplanes, both commercial and military.

"That technology is used by everybody today, including Airbus," Withington said.

Though the B-47 had been the first swept-wing jet, its wing was flawed: It was so thin where it joins the fuselage that it couldn't be used as a fuel tank. The B-52 spec put together in Dayton corrected that flaw and established standards for wing sweep, wing thickness, aerofoils, flight-control systems and engine location.

"All of today's big multiengine airplanes have got fundamentally the B-52 wing on them," Withington said. "Nobody's ever done anything significantly better."

The first plane was built in Seattle. On April 15, 1952, a large crowd gathered at Boeing Field to watch the B-52 take off for the first time.

Photography was banned by the Air Force. An Air Force photo of the takeoff published that day in The Seattle Times was, as the paper noted, doctored to "blot out certain details." The landing gear and bomb bay had been airbrushed out.

Townsend, then an Air Force lieutenant colonel, was co-pilot on that first flight.

Subsequently the B-52 broke many range and speed records.

In 1957, Townsend was deputy commander on a mission that flew three B-52s nonstop, with in-flight refueling, around the world in 45 hours.

The opening blow in the first Gulf War was delivered through the longest strike mission in the history of aerial warfare. B-52s flew a 35-hour return combat mission striking Iraq from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

"It's an extremely efficient airplane," Townsend said. "But nobody ever dreamed the B-52 would be in the war plan through 2040."

The key to the B-52's longevity is its adaptability. The plane was originally designed as a high-altitude heavy bomber, but after Francis Gary Powers was shot down in a U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union in 1960, B-52 pilots trained to penetrate Soviet defenses at low altitude, following the contours of the terrain to fly under radar defenses.

The primary mission then was the deterrent threat of nuclear retaliation in the event of a Soviet strike. Half of the B-52s were kept on 15-minute alert, loaded with nuclear bombs; during especially tense times, such as the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, a portion of the B-52 fleet was in the air 24 hours a day.

In Vietnam, the B-52 delivered heavy payloads of mostly conventional munitions.

Dave Wellman of Mercer Island, who later worked for Boeing, piloted B-52s in Vietnam. Wellman, 66, for the most part attacked logistics targets along the Ho Chi Minh trail.

On several occasions, though, his B-52 followed through after defoliant had been sprayed on the jungle canopy.

"We dropped phosphorous bombs and actually burned down the jungle to eliminate the hiding place and the cover for the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese," Wellman said.

In 1968, B-52s relieved the siege at Khe Sanh of 6,000 U.S. Marines, under threat of being overrun by a much larger force of North Vietnamese troops.

Over 12 days in December 1972, massive B-52 attacks on Hanoi forced North Vietnam back to the negotiating table in Paris. Twenty-six aircraft were lost; 93 airmen were killed, captured or went missing. A month later, a cease-fire ended the war.

In the 1990s, as the Cold War ended, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty required the U.S. to destroy about one-third of its strategic nuclear force. By 1994, arrays of broken and unusable B-52s lay in the desert near Tucson, Ariz.

Seattle's Museum of Flight stores one of those broken B-52s — its main wing spar sawed in half in accordance with the treaty — at its Restoration Center at Paine Field in Everett.

In the past decade, new B-52 missions proliferated, in Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan and now again in Iraq.

Today's B-52s carry up to 70,000 pounds of bombs and missiles fixed to bomb racks and massive rotary launchers within the bomb bay or attached to the wings. Ground troops can link computers to the aircraft via satellite and change bombing targets in flight.

"I'm not sure the folks who did the original design could ever have envisaged the flexibility and versatility the aircraft has shown in 50 years," said Scot Oathout, manager of Boeing's bomber program in Wichita, Kan.

Forty years after its last delivery, Boeing maintains a close relationship with its B-52 customer. Oathout's unit does maintenance and upgrades on the 94 B-52Hs currently flying, the last of them built in 1962.

To increase range and fuel efficiency, Boeing proposes to replace the current eight turbofan engines with four modern 757-type engines; it will upgrade the data communications links and modernize both the defensive avionics — new radar-warning and electronic-jamming systems — and the offensive avionics — new processors, data-storage and targeting systems.

The last B-52s completely built in Seattle were the F versions of 1958. The front sections of the G versions were still made here and shipped to Wichita by rail for final assembly.

Bruce Haskin, 68, of Normandy Park, worked as a mechanic on the first G models in Seattle. Today, he has particular reason to feel good about that work in light of the B-52's role in Iraq.

"I have a son, an F/15 Eagle pilot, who flew a mission last night," Haskin said, shortly after the war began.

"When he returned he sent me an e-mail," Haskin said. "It just said he was on the ground, fine, safe."

Retired Maj. Gen. Donald Marks also has a son flying in Iraq. Marks flew in Vietnam and finished his Air Force career as chief of staff of the Strategic Air Command. His son, Maj. Tim Marks, commands a B-52.

The general's 14-year-old grandson, his daughter's son, hopes to be an Air Force pilot, too.

"At least that's what he plans now," Gen. Marks said. "With any luck, it'll be three generations."

That could mean three generations flying the B-52.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or


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