by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
The Air Force is working to get a B-52 bomber back into service after it sat collecting dust for seven years at the famous Boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.
On Feb. 13, the B-52H—with the serial number 61–0007—left the desert for its new home with the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. This is the first time the Air Force has “regenerated” one of these bombers from the Boneyard back to active duty.
Here’s another fascinating statistic. The “61” in the refurbished bomber’s serial number is short for … 1961. The bomber can—amazingly—still fly decades later, after some necessary maintenance work.
At the same time, the flying branch is looking at giving its 76 long-range B-52s all new engines—to help keep the venerable warplanes fit to fight for several more decades.
The restored bomber—which had the nickname Ghost Rider before the Air Force retired it—will replace another B-52H that suffered an accident at Barksdale.
In January 2014, “a fire … during maintenance caused significant damage to the upper forward crew compartment” of the previous aircraft, a 2nd Bomb Wing public affairs officer told War Is Boring. “The aircraft was not destroyed, but the damage received proved to be above the prohibitive cost of maintenance.”
Even with this bomber heading back into service, the Air Force still has a dozen more H-models sitting in Arizona. All of these aircraft are currently in “Type-1000 storage,” according to a public affairs officer with the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, commonly referred to simply as AMARG, which oversees all the aircraft in the Boneyard.
Type-1000 storage means the Air Force keeps the planes more or less at the ready, in case the Air Force wants to get them back into action.
AMARG looks after almost 100 G-model bombers, too, the public affairs officer added. But these older aircraft are solely a source of spare parts. In December 2013, the Air Force effectively destroyed the last of these planes as part of the New START arms-control agreement with Russia.
Signed in 2010, the arms deal requires both countries to trim their combined arsenals of intercontinental nuclear missiles, sub-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers down to 700 systems, each.
The very first B-52s joined the Air Force in 1955. Boeing has not manufactured any new Stratofortresses in more than a half-century. Over the decades, the eight-engine bombers—each able to lob up to 45 tons of bombs and missiles—have become symbols of American military power.
The Pentagon bought Ghost Rider—as its serial shows—during the 1961 fiscal year. Of course, the Air Force has upgraded the B-52 fleet numerous times since then.
With no more of these huge bombers rolling off the assembly line, Air Force officials determined getting the old plane out of storage was the cheapest option available for replacing its scorched cousin.
“Salvaging a retired B-52 from the ‘Boneyard’ saves taxpayers money,” Air Force captain Chuck McLeod, an officer from the B-52 System Program Office who worked on the project, said in February. “It’s far too expensive to repair the damaged aircraft or manufacture a new bomber.”
Which is not to say that reactivating Ghost Rider was easy. AMARG teamed up with personnel from the 2nd, 5th and 307th Bomb Wings, repairmen from the Air Force Material Command and the Defense Logistics Agency just to get the bomber back in the air, McLeod added in his interview.
And even with the storage arrangement, personnel had earlier stripped navigation gear and the plane’s GPS equipment to use on other B-52s, according to a report from Shreveport Times.
Ghost Rider will inherit the systems it lacks from the written-off B-52H it’s replacing. Crews at Barksdale expect to finish up the job sometime next year.
The Air Force also wants to keep upgrading the entire fleet of aging bombers. The flying branch has just asked Congress for almost $150 million for new modifications.
“The Air Force continues to modernize its bomber fleet to extend the life of the B-52, B-1 and B-2 aircraft,” the service explained in an overview of the budget request.
The new funds would add new communications gear, hardware to carry more smart bombs inside the aircraft’s bomb bay and other additions.
On top of that, the Air Force is considering giving all of the bombers new engines. The Pentagon has toyed around with this idea for more than two decades.
Engine-maker Pratt and Whitney developed the TF-33 turbofan in the 1950s. Compared to more modern jets, the design is horribly inefficient and increasingly expensive to keep running. Replacing any one of a B-52’s eight engines costs $1.5 million, according to a 2012 Air Force news release.
“Every 6,000 flight hours, the engine is shipped to Tinker [Air Force Base in Oklahoma] for an overhaul, which replaces most components with new ones,” the release stated. “Parts may become damaged or worn down by more than an engine surpassing recommended flight hour limits.”
The Air Force will likely want to replace the B-52’s older twin-engine pods with four larger, more efficient motors. The flying branch could save additional costs by using an engine already in service on other aircraft, such as the C-17 transport.
New powerplants would make it both cheaper and safer for the Air Force to fly the massive bombers. However, at least one of the service’s senior officials has already admitted that there isn’t any money for this kind of improvement program.
“To go out and buy new engines for the B-52, you’d have a really hard time fitting that into our program,” Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes, the deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, told reporters on Feb. 6.
In October 2014, Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson—the head of Air Force Global Strike Command—made a similar observation. “I can’t say I’m going to gain any traction on it, but I’ve got people looking at it.”
So the current “idea is … a public-private partnership,” Holmes said, according to Defense News. “Somebody funds the engine and then we pay them back over time out of the fuel savings, which are generated out of the new engines.”
With shrinking budgets and plans to keep the B-52s in service for at least another 25 years, the Air Force might need to get creative to keep the fleet going.
As it stands, the flying branch can only afford to write off another 12 of these lumbering workhorses. That’s how many extra B-52Hs are left in the Boneyard now that Ghost Rider has returned to service.