A Full Retaliatory Response

When President John Kennedy contemplated nuclear war, what went through the minds of the U.S. bomber crews?

View inside the cockpit of a U. S. Air Force Boeing B-52H Stratofortress, en route to Australia in 1982. (NASM/ USAF Photo by Tech. Sgt. Alex R. Taningco)
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Sidebar: The Bombers

The U.S. bomber fleet, nearly 10 times the size of the Soviet Union’s, consisted of 1,300 Boeing B-47 and B-52 aircraft (a few B-58 Hustlers were also operational). The B-47 Stratojet, first flown in 1947, was a revolutionary swept-wing medium bomber; six turbojets gave it a maximum speed of 610 mph. The three-man crew could deliver 10,000 pounds of bombs to targets 3,500 miles away at near-supersonic speeds; it was faster than most jet interceptors of the day.

Boeing followed the B-47 with history’s longest-flying strategic bomber, the B-52 Stratofortress. In the decade before intercontinental missiles became dominant, the B-52 was SAC’s roundhouse punch, capable of flying from the continental United States and striking the Soviet Union. At twice the gross takeoff weight of the B-47, it had a top speed of more than 620 mph and could reach a target 3,300 miles away. The BUFF (an acronym politely translated to “big ugly fat fellow”) entered service in 1955, and by October 1962 Boeing was delivering the final Stratofortress version, the B-52H. Its turbofan engines gave it a combat radius of 4,300 miles and a top speed of 650 mph.

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