"On This Day" In Engineering History Blog

"On This Day" In Engineering History

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November 27, 1956 – Operation Quick Kick

Posted November 27, 2007 12:02 AM by Steve Melito

On this day in engineering history, a succession of B-52 bombers landed at Baltimore's Friendship International Airport after completing eight non-stop polar flights, the longest of which lasted 32.5 hours and covered 17,000 non-stop miles. The mission, a training exercise known as Operation Quick Kick, was designed to do more than educate new airmen, however. In demonstrating the prowess of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), the operational establishment of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) that was responsible for America's bomber-based nuclear arsenal, Operation Quick Kick reminded the Soviet Union about its Cold War rival's military capabilities. The success of the mission also helped to save the B-52 Stratofortress itself.

The First B-52Bs

On March 12, 1956, the first B-52B bombers entered operational duty with the 93rd Heavy Bombardment Wing at Castle Air Force Base (AFB) in California. Nicknamed the "Stratofortress", the B-52 was built by Boeing as a replacement for the Convair B-36 Peacemaker, the largest American bomber ever produced. Unfortunately, the B-52's early operations were plagued by problems. The aircraft's fuel system was prone to leaking and icing, the bombing and fire controls were unreliable, and the Pratt & Whitney J57 engines required frequent service. To minimize maintenance problems, the USAF staffed Castle AFB with a Sky Speed team of 50 maintenance contractors. Still, routine checks took as long as one week per aircraft.

Grounded in Failure

Built at the then-sizable cost of $8 million (USD), the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress soon captured the attention of critics. Even before first B-52s became operational in March of 1956, a Stratofortress had exploded in mid-air, killing five crew members. Called before Congress, SAC commander General Curtis LeMay testified that a "serious component failure" with an alternator flywheel had caused the crash - and led the Air Force to reject 31 of the first 78 B-52s that Boeing built. Several months later, a second B-52 exploded in-flight, this time because of a problem with the aircraft's electrical system. When the USAF grounded its entire fleet of the B-52s, an Air Force spokesman admitted that he had "no idea" how long the grounding would stay in effect. Problems were addressed, however, and the B-52 Stratofortress became airborne again.

Saving the Stratofortress

Although the B-52B enjoyed some positive publicity after a Stratofortress dropped a hydrogen bomb over Bikini Atoll on May 21, 1956, an investigative reporter named P.D. Eldred threatened to expose more information about the aircraft's inadequacies. When Gen. LeMay learned that Eldred was interviewing air crews and maintenance personnel at Castle AFB, the SAC Commander planned "Power Flite", a multi-operation mission that was designed to counter the B-52's bad publicity. The first widely-publicized mission, Operation Quick Kick, proved that a fleet of B-52s supported by tankers could fly nonstop around the perimeter of North America. A subsequent mission on January 16, 1957 demonstrated that the B-52 Stratofortress could circle the world nonstop.









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