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.”