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Over 60 Years In, The B-52 Bomber Is Still Kicking


The military campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria have featured a lot of new war-making technology, including drones, GPS-guided bombs and weaponized shipping containers. The constant advances in technology can make new equipment quickly obsolete. But one reliable military asset's been around for more than 60 years. The B-52 Stratofortress bomber was developed by Boeing in 1952. Some of the original aircraft are still in service today, taking part in Operation Inherent Resolve, the push to drive ISIS out of Iraq, Syria and other places. Eric Adams wrote about the indefatigable B-52 for WIRED and joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

ERIC ADAMS: Thank you, Scott. It's a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: This aircraft is more than 60 years old. How can it still be operating?

ADAMS: It's a great story because the airplane was designed in a way that the Air Force described to me as both under-engineering and over-engineering. And by over-engineering, they mean it's robust. It is a very well-built, well-constructed airplane. And all the tests that they've done over the last 60 years have indicated that it's just doing fine, and it's got many decades ahead of it.

And by under-engineering - I mean, they made the aircraft kind of easily conformable to new technologies. You can take stuff out and put stuff in that's new and completely different whereas in more modern airplanes you can't really do that. They're so tightly built and tightly constructed that what you take out has to be the same thing going back in.

So it's a really easily adaptable airplane to new conditions, new conflicts, new technologies. And so for that reason, it's sustainable and it's still relevant, even though the thing entered service shortly after World War II.

SIMON: And what role is it playing in the campaigns in the Middle East now that makes it so well-suited for it?

ADAMS: Well, for one thing, it's going to drop two kinds of bombs, two kinds of ordinance, whether they're technically dumb bombs, meaning just ballistic bombs that are dropped and well -targeted but dropped in freefall or GPS-guided smart bombs. And these are bombs that have GPSs attached to them and a degree of steerability with the bombs. So they can be dropped and then guided more precisely to their target. Now, it's the same type of ordinance that it's used in all the recent conflicts.

It entered service, of course, in the '50s and the '60s. It was the beginning of the Cold War. And so it was designed originally to transport and deliver nuclear weapons.

SIMON: Do pilots have a special esteem for the B-52?

ADAMS: They do. It's - it's not - there are a lot of airplanes in the military that have funny, quirky reputations. The A-10 has a nickname - the Warthog. It's a really sort of unpleasant-looking airplane but is very respected and is very reliable. The B-52 is similar. It has an equally sort of unpleasant nickname - big, ugly, fat, blah, blah, blah. But it is very well-respected because it is so reliable, so well-built and so able to tolerate whatever you put it into, like whether it's flying 8,000 miles on a mission, getting refueled and flying back. I mean, this airplane has flown all the way - it set a duration and endurance record for flying all the way around the world.

SIMON: And does the Air Force see much of a future for the B-52?

ADAMS: Yeah, they do. It's going to fly until at least 2040, but that's not a hard number. That's a number that can go longer. So this thing could very well reach the century mark in combat service.

SIMON: Eric Adams is a contributor to WIRED and his story about the B-52 appears in wired.com. Thanks so much for being with us.

ADAMS: My pleasure, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.