In 1966, The New York Times reported that nation’s fleet of long-range B-52 Stratofortress bombers—first introduced in the 1950s—would "be too old" and need to be grounded within nine years. Nearly a half-century later, the New York Times says the B-52 will likely continue to serve until at least 2040. The reason? Attempts to build a more sophisticated replacement for the so-called "Big Ugly Fat Fellow" have failed: One was too radioactive. Another crashed a lot. Yet another released toxic exhaust. More or less, historian Yancy Mailes tells the Times, they were too "futuristic." While the B-52 has undergone some upgrades—microchips replacing vacuum tubes, and the addition of high-tech missiles—it remains a product "built during the Eisenhower administration." Air Force Capt. Lance Adsit tells the Times he loves his B-52. "But," the 28-year-old says, "the fact that this is still flying is really insane."
There are plans to eventually replace the B-52 with the yet-to-be-designed Long Range Strike Bomber. However, the Times notes, some question whether such bombers are needed these days to fight "insurgent wars and stateless armies." More recently the menacing B-52, once known for its carpet-bombing of Vietnam, has been used mainly for "assurance and deterrence" missions. For instance, the Washington Post reports, at least one of the United States’ 76 B-52 bombers recently flew over manmade islands in the South China Sea that are claimed by China. "We conduct B-52 flights in international air space in that part of the world all the time," says a Pentagon rep. More on the state of the B-52 bomber here. (Read more B-52 bomber stories.)