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What is a Stratofortress?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
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  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2016
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A Stratofortress is an aircraft manufactured by Boeing for use by the United States military. More formally known as the B-52 or B-52 Stratofortress, these aircraft were in production between 1952 and 1962, and fifty years later, they were still in use by the United States Air Force. This makes the Stratofortress the longest plane in continuous service in American military history, with the Air Force projecting that the planes will be phased out around 2040, which would probably establish an all time service record.

These planes were designed to meet a number of emerging needs in the 1950s. The United States was transitioning away from traditional warfare and dealing with the rise of the Cold War, and it wanted long-range bombers with nuclear capabilities. Boeing responded with one of the largest and heaviest aircraft in military service; servicemembers sometimes refer to the planes as “Big Ugly Fat Fellows” (BUFFs) in a reference to their rather ungainly appearance and large size. The planes were specifically engineered for long flights, even when they were heavily laden with weapons.

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Several different models of the Stratofortress were produced by Boeing to meet various needs. The B-52H, the last model to roll of the line, proved to be the model which would endure through the 21st century. A number of perfectly functional aircraft were destroyed in Arizona in 1991 as part of a nonproliferation agreement, but the terms of the agreement allowed the Air Force to retain a core group of planes for various uses. In return for destroying some of its weapons and aircraft under this agreement, the United States was allowed to oversee the destruction of some Russian weapons and aircraft.

The Air Force has added significant modifications to the planes to make them useful in modern warfare, ranging from advanced electronics systems to housings which allow the planes to carry drones. Five crew members handle the Stratofortress in routine flights, with room for a rotating instructor who can train people in the proper operation of the aircraft, and Stratofortresses can be found stationed on several military bases.

The Stratofortress is sometimes viewed as an icon of American military power. The planes were designed to be intimidating and imposing in addition to flexible and extremely useful, and they definitely accomplished this goal. Although the planes have a variety of peace and wartime uses, many people associate the planes specifically with the Cold War and nuclear warfare, thanks to iconic roles in films such as Dr. Strangelove.

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