Capt. Carlos Espino (call sign “Loko”), foreground, walks towards a B-52 for a training flight out of Barksdale Air Force Base on March 10th. (Rob Verger /)

Just before 9 a.m. on a blue-sky Louisiana morning, a giant gray B-52 bomber gradually lifts off the tarmac with some 190,000 pounds of fuel on board, a trail of dark exhaust behind it.

A few seconds later, there’s a small glitch: One of the aircraft’s landing gear legs—the rear one on the left—decides to stay down. The rest fold up, as they should. The pilots determine that the problem isn’t big enough to scrub the day’s flight, so the bomber pushes on with its training mission, two big wheels hanging down for five hours like an incomplete thought, limiting the plane’s speed and reducing its fuel efficiency. At some point, as planned, the crew refuels from behind an airborne tanker, taking on thousands of more pounds of gas.

That’s the B-52—a beefy old bomber that dates back to the post-World War II years. Though the US military has incorporated sleeker flying machines in recent decades, it’s not retiring what’s known as the “BUFF,” or Big Ugly Fat Fucker, anytime soon. The aircraft that lifted off that March morning from Barksdale Air Force Base in northwestern Louisiana was built by Boeing in Wichita, Kansas, and delivered to the Air Force in early March of 1962. The Cold War-era ship is far older than its two pilots that day: Carlos Espino (call sign “Loko”), 27, and Clint Scott (call sign “Silver”), 34.

Operating the B-52 is like “flying a museum,” Espino says from the left-hand seat in the cockpit just before the mission. “It’s a brick—I would say it’s like wrestling.” He’s a friendly, burly guy, and his squadron, the 20th, are known as the Buccaneers. The patch on his right shoulder shows a pirate throwing a bomb.

“It has a lot of redundant systems,” Espino adds. “So if one system fails, there’s plenty of other systems to back it up.” The most challenging maneuver, he says, is precisely lining the aircraft up with a tanker in the sky to accept more fuel. “At the end of air refueling, you’re literally sweating.”

The plane may be large—its 185-foot wingspan and 159-foot length make it bigger than a 737, and smaller than a 747—but the space for the crew is cozy. Behind and below the cockpit is a small submarine-like compartment, sometimes illuminated in red, where two others sit: radar navigator Rebecca “Ripper” Ronkainen, and aircraft navigator Jacob Tejada, both 28. If anything happens that requires an airborne evacuation from the jet, Ronkainen and Tejada’s ejection seats blast downwards rather than upwards, which is only safe if the plane is more than 250 feet off the deck. Also on board that day is an instructor and weapons systems officer, call sign “Pibber.”

Right behind where Tejada and Ripper work is a urinal. Ideally, no one poops on a B-52, even if the mission drags on for hours. Imodium can help.

Officially called the Stratofortress, or less officially, the Stratosaurus, the B-52 sports a wealth of engines hanging from its big wings. While most airliners rely on two or four engines, the BUFF has eight TF-33 turbofan thrusters. The Air Force is set to replace those engines with new ones, an improvement that could boost the jet’s efficiency by at least 20 percent.

Upgrades like that should help the B-52 fit in a little better with the Air Force’s more modern lineup. Many of the bombers have also been outfitted with a new digital system, though the craft’s cockpit is still very much awash in traditional analog dials. Plus, each BUFF goes through an exhaustive maintenance process every four years that involves some 40,000 hours of labor and around 3,000 swapped parts. The Air Force says it would like to keep the BUFF flying until 2050; it’s a plane they keep investing in because they have it, and because it can do, and

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By: Rob Verger
Title: Inside a training mission with a B-52 bomber, the aircraft that will not die
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Published Date: Wed, 24 Jun 2020 14:08:11 +0000