50 years later, B-52 flying fortress still backbone of aerial assault

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—Upgraded with the latest military technology, the B-52 Stratofortress is still delivering a lethal punch nearly 50 years after the first model rolled out of a Boeing plant in Seattle.

Wave after wave of B-52s from bases as far away as Great Britain and the Indian Ocean have rained destruction on Iraq, contributing to a U.S.-led aerial assault that has cleared the way for ground troops storming toward Baghdad, the nation's besieged capital.

With eight engines, swept-back wings and a hulking, cigar-shaped fuselage, the 244-ton behemoth looks outwardly identical to earlier models that pounded targets in Vietnam. But the cramped, two-level interior reflects decades of change, both technologically and socially.

Each of the planes is at least 40 years old, but carries 70,000 pounds of the latest precision-guided weapons and is equipped with infra-red sensors, high-resolution television and other gadgetry that helps the five-member crew detect targets and avoid ground fire.

A 27-year-old Air Force captain permitted to be identified only by her first name, Amber, exemplifies another kind of evolution—the expanding role of women in America's armed forces.

As a B-52 co-pilot, she has completed three missions in Operation Iraqi Freedom, sharing responsibility with a male pilot for exhausting 13- to 18-hour bombing runs that took the aircraft deep into enemy territory.

"This plane is tough to fly," she said. "But now I've gotten use to it and I don't even notice how big it is until my Mom reminds me."

Amber, a native of San Ramon, Calif., said she wanted to be a pilot from the age of 5. She joined the Air Force with aspirations of becoming a fighter pilot but was assigned to B-52s. Only a "handful" of women, she said, are Superfortress crew members.

Flying her first combat mission shortly after the air war started on March 21 was "a little overwhelming," she said. But, she added, "I was trained for it, did what the Air Force taught me to do and brought us home safely."

The pewter-gray aircraft is almost as much a cultural icon as it is a lethal weapon. It inspired the name of a rock group and provided employment for three generations of workers at Boeing plants in Wichita, Kan., and Seattle, Wash.

"You start talking about it like it's your airplane," said Donnie Saal, a program manager at the 12,400-worker Boeing complex in Wichita. Saal, 57, has worked in Boeing's B-52 program for 31 years.

Pilots have nicknamed it "BUFF," which, in polite company, stands for Big Ugly Fat Fellow. One B-52 crew member affectionately compares it to his first car, the 10-year-old, 1972 Ford Torino he drove in college.

"It just grows on you every day," said the 39-year-old pilot, a lieutenant colonel who said he could be identified only as Bobby. He serves as a radar navigator and has been flying in B-52s for 17 years.

Since the first B-52 rolled out of the Seattle plant on March 18, 1954, the lumbering aircraft has come to symbolize American airpower. It wielded nuclear bombs during the Cold War, staged high-altitude raids over North Vietnam and delivered 40 percent of the munitions dropped by coalition forces during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Gunners disappeared years ago as the five-member crew became more high tech. Once-vacant nooks and crannies were filled with sophisticated electronic panels and communication systems.

Production stopped in 1962, but the Air Force keeps its current fleet of 93 B-52H models flying through a rigorous maintenance program.

The bomber is expected to remain an integral part of the Air Force through 2040, although engineers are considering other modifications.

One plan under review would replace the current eight engines with four high-efficient models to drastically save fuel.

The missions over Iraq resemble the high-flying strikes of the Vietnam area, often taking B-52 crews over the clouds to pepper targets with cruise missiles, satellite-guided smart bombs and cluster bombs that drop smaller "bomblets" once they reach a certain level.

Combined with other aircraft, the B-52 strikes have left Republican Guard forces in disarray.

Says Bobby: "It's proven over the skies of Iraq that it's still a deadly weapon system."