Air buffs across the world celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber's first flight this weekend, an aircraft that also deserves to be remembered as a pioneer for the use of computers in air warfare.
The Cold War icon made its maiden flight on 15 April 1952, the first of almost 800 built across several versions, the latest of which the B-52H includes upgraded avionics, radar and engines that will, staggeringly, keep it in the air for another thirty years or more.
Long since rendered obsolete as a nuclear bomber by missile technology, around 80 aircraft hang on in service on the back of a single capability that no other aircraft can match – the ability to deliver huge amounts of conventional bombs to almost any location on the earth’s surface.
It’s not always been loved as aircraft go – many associate it with the controversial carpet bombing campaigns of the Vietnam War – but it did inspire a famous US music act that borrowed its name and starred prominently in the 1963 anti-war satire, Dr Strangelove.
But beyond its longevity, the B-52’s historical significance could turn out to be the way its acted as a platform for the use of early aircraft computer systems, starting with IBM’s radar bombing and navigation AN/ASB-4 system of the late 1950s.
From that point on, the B-52 was loaded with ever more advanced computers, culminating in one of the most important aviation systems, IBM’s System/4 Pi design, loosely descended from the company’s System/360 mainframe.
Upgraded versions later turned up on the B-52’s supersonic Rockwell B-1 ‘replacement’ in the 1970s (which went hugely over-budget and over-cost thanks in part to its complex computing systems), and even the 1980's Space Shuttle.
Once there had been planes and computers; from the B-52 onwards they became inseparable right up to today’s designs that not only help the pilot but in some cases even allow the aircraft to fly at all beyond the capabilities and error-prone reaction times of human beings.
Today, a military aircraft without an array of advanced computers systems would be considered extraordinary and perhaps even unflyable.
By the time the B-52 retires in the 2040s, it could be close to being the first, and almost certainly the last, serving flying antique. Handily, line up its various incarnations and it would serve as a museum of flight computing too.
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