The B-52 that launched a thousand ships.
- By Preston Lerner
- Air & Space magazine, July 2001
(Page 3 of 3)
Between 1990 and 1994, 008 launched the first six Pegasus rockets. (Since then, Orbital Sciences has used its own modified Lockheed L-1011.) In 1998, the B-52 returned to the X-plane business with the first drop test of the X-38, the vehicle to be used to return the space station crew in an emergency (it was recently put on the back burner). The X-43 Hyper-X program should take 008 well into the 21st century. Even if NASA gets its promised H model, that airplane would require millions of dollars’ worth of structural modifications to carry the 42,000-pound Hyper-X.
Which brings us to the most delicious irony about 008: Obsolete or not, it’s still uniquely suited for mothership duty. Yes, its J57s are ridiculously inefficient, but the turbojets enables the airplane to fly higher than H models equipped with turbofans. Also, H models use spoilers rather than ailerons, and Fullerton fears they may not provide enough lateral control to counteract the roll produced when a heavy payload is dropped. Last but not least, though 008 is older than some of its pilots, the airframe is a spring chicken compared with H models that have flown as part of an operational squadron. “The biggest problem we have with the airplane,” Albrecht says, “is that it’s so hard to find replacement parts.”
Considering that 744 B-52s came off the Boeing assembly line before production ceased in 1962, there ought to be no shortage of components. And in fact, 008 has been retrofitted with hundreds of bits and pieces salvaged from Buffs in museums—a practice now prohibited by Air Force edict—and boneyards, most notably Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. Moreover, the crew has amassed a sizable inventory of spares.
Then again, many parts arrive at Dryden marked “Condition Unknown,” and the only way to test them is to install them and hope for the best. Other components, meanwhile, are simply irreplaceable. A few years back, for example, the airplane was out of commission for 11 months while a leaking fuel cell was repaired. But the biggest headache is what Fullerton calls “the infamous bleed air system.”
Many jets use high-pressure bleed air from the engines to run the air conditioning. But 008, like all early B-52s, is packed with hundreds of feet of ducting through which bleed air drives not only four alternators but also 10 hydraulic packs that power the landing gear, spoilers, trim tabs, and vertical stabilizer. (Thanks to the clever aerodynamic design of the control surfaces, the cables that manipulate the ailerons, rudder, and elevator don’t require any hydraulic boost.) Besides being extinct, these hydro packs are notoriously temperamental, so the maintenance crew has had to develop its own test rig.
With all of the modifications made over the years, 008 might be best described as a B-52B-plus. The fuel gauges are from a C model, the ejection seats from a D, the drag chute, landing gear, and brakes from a G. The height of technological wizardry in the cockpit is an off-the-shelf GPS unit you might find in a Cessna. Oh, and there’s a homely digital timer originally designed to keep track of turkeys and pot roasts. “Well, at least we’ve got a VHF radio,” Batteas jokes. “Sometimes,” says Ken Wilson, a member of the ground crew, “I feel like a museum curator.”
The fact that 008 continues to thrive is a tribute to a cadre of workers who have made the airplane their life’s work. Beard, for instance, has been assigned to it since he graduated from high school 20 years ago. Bain, meanwhile, is only the fourth crew chief since the mid-1960s. He can’t help but regard 008 as more than the sum of its fragile and obsolete parts. “I’ve got the best job in the world,” he insists.
Wearing a bandana, the tattooed Bain gazes fondly at 008 while he smokes a cigarette outside the trailer the maintenance crew uses as its office. “I love this plane,” he says. “It’s like a classic car. There’s no reason it can’t fly for another 10 or 15 years. They tried a G model but we got rid of it. Now they’re talking about an H, but we can carry more and we can go higher. Besides,” he adds with a wicked grin, “we don’t want a new car. The old one’s already paid for.”