According to a variety of news sources, a B-52H Stratofortress went down at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam this morning at around 0830 local time. The cause of the crash is unknown so far, and an investigation has been initiated. What we do know, however, is that all seven crew aboard the Stratofortress were able to safely egress from the stricken aircraft, and that the aircraft seems to be a complete loss. This particular B-52 belonged to the 69th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, whose parent unit is the 5th Bomb Wing, based at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. The B-52s from Minot were deployed on a six month rotation as part of US Pacific Command’s continuous bomber presence (CBP) mission, which has been hosted since 2004 at Andersen AFB, allowing for rapid deployments of the aircraft to the Indo-Asia-Pacific region should the need arise.
A closer inspection of the cockpit section of the downed B-52 reveals openings above the co-pilot’s seat. The openings are precisely where explosive overhead panels would normally be situated, armed and quickly blown off in the event of an ejection. This potentially points to the possibility that the aircrew aboard the Stratofortress ejected from the aircraft prior to the crash. However, these panels can also be manually removed during an emergency egress while on the ground, which could also mean that the B-52 was unable to lift off the runway, and the crew escaped while still on the ground.
While the investigation is ongoing, an extremely important question will undoubtedly bubble to the surface- will the Air Force replace this B-52 with another taken out of mothballs?
Last year, after a debilitating cockpit fire caused by an oxygen leak and an untimely spark, a B-52H based at Barksdale AFB was taken out of action permanently. The damage done was so great that the Air Force assessed the cost of fixing the aircraft and instead found that it would actually be cheaper to mobilize a retired B-52 from the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group located on Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona. With the help of civilian contractors, Air Force ground and technical crew were able to reinstall the aircraft’s eight engines, new wiring and replace all removed avionics necessary for basic flight, and returned the B-52 to flight in just 70 days.
So it can be done.
The Air Force exclusively operates the B-52H at the moment, with the last of its B-52Gs having been destroyed in compliance with the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) signed with Russia in April 2010. Thus, the aircraft they return to service must be an H model. Should the Air Force wish to pursue resurrecting a B-52 from Davis-Monthan, they’ll have about a dozen options to choose from, all maintained in Type-1000 storage. According to an Air Force public affairs officer:
“Aircraft in Type-1000 storage are to be maintained until recalled to active service, should the need arise. Type 1000 aircraft are termed inviolate; meaning they have a high potential to return to flying status and no parts may be removed from them. These aircraft are “re-preserved” every four years.”
The B-52 is one of the oldest workhorses of the US Air Force, having first flown in the late 1950s, and carrying on in service through Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, and even today in the fight against Daesh (ISIS). Even with its advanced age, the aircraft affectionately known to its crew as the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat F***er) still remains a vital component of the USAF’s Global Strike Command’s offensive arm, serving alongside the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, and the B-1B Lancer supersonic strategic bomber. The loss of one B-52 might not have a significant impact on Global Strike Command’s offensive capabilities, though conversely, given the possibility of upcoming rotations overseas in support of combat missions such as Operation Inherent Resolve, this could be mildly problematic.
The B-52H is expected to serve beyond the 2030s and into the 2040s as one of the US Air Force’s go-to strategic bombers, and a series of pre-planned upgrades over the years will ensure that it remains relevant in its role, until it can be replaced by a newer next-generation long range strategic bomber.
Update #1: The crash occurred during an aborted takeoff from Andersen AFB.