One of the more amazing stories in aviation is the continued role for the B-52, Boeing's huge 8-engined behemoth from the Cold War. The newest B-52 of the 744 built is over 50 years old. How is it they keep 'em flying? It's like the joke about George Washington's original axe - "Of course, it's had 6 new handles and 2 new heads over the years." The original design has proven to have an airframe strong enough to make continuing overhaul and upgrade possible and practical.
As for the BUFF's continuing role in the active inventory of the U.S. Air Force, the reason has been adaptability. It has made multiple transitions, from a first-strike nuclear weapons delivery platform, to everything from dumb bombs, cruise missiles, mines, smart bombs, and more. It can operate across the airspace, from high in the sky to down and dirty. Add in a huge payload capacity and global range, well as long as there are combat roles where the B-52 looks like the optimum choice, it will stay in the inventory. There isn't anything else with that mix of capabilities, and still places where - despite its vulnerabilities - it can play an active role. (And, the real kicker, the Air Force has not been able to come up with anything comparable it can afford to replace it.)
The latest wrinkle in keeping the B-52 up with the times is upgrading the electronics.
4/22/2014 - TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- The Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex just completed on-time delivery of its first B-52 Stratofortress retrofitted with an upgrade that allows the bomber to meet the digital demands of modern war.One of the things that is not immediately obvious to observers of modern combat aircraft is the degree to which one of the most important criteria isn't just speed, maneuverability or stealth, important as those are - it's the ability to manage information. Brute force and numbers still count on the battlefield, but the ability to use information in real time is a force multiplier, especially when it can be used in real time AND it's distributed across all the weapons systems operating on the battlefield and all the way back to command.
A B-52 crew from Tinker's 10th Flight Test Squadron, flew the airplane home to Barksdale AFB, La., on April 21st, with state of the art displays, servers and communications uplinks installed as part of the Combat Network Communications Technology upgrade.
The aircraft arrived at Tinker in July 2013 and the 76th Aircraft Maintenance Group performed the work, which will allow the aircraft platform, born more than 60 years ago, to remain viable in the Air Force inventory to at least 2040.
"It is taking the B-52 from a rotary-dial phone to a smartphone," said Alan Williams, Deputy Program Element Monitor at Air Force Global Strike Command, when the program was announced.
When an aircraft can network into sensor platforms and communications all across the battlefield, from troops on the ground using lasers, GPS, and laptops for targeting, to AWACS planes monitoring the airspace, to drones tracking hostiles on the ground, to satellites in orbit providing secure comm links, and act on this in real time… The digital war fighter is changing the game in ways that even seasoned military professionals are having trouble keeping up with. (And the smarter ones are already thinking past it to what comes next.)
There is this about the B-52. It's got plenty of places to hang things off of, and a fair amount of room and power to support lots of new digital goodies. (Considering it dates back to the vacuum tube era, that's quite a transition.) In any case, the B-52 seems well established as one of those few aircraft that just seems to keep flying on, like the DC-3 or the C-130. Not bad for an old guy.