On January 4th, 2017, one of a B-52H’s eight Pratt & Whitney TF33 turbofan engines detached from the jet mid-air, plunging thousands of feet into a sparsely populated area about 25 miles northeast of Minot AFB, North Dakota. The B-52 was not loaded with live ordnance at the time, and its five crew were able to make it back to Minot safely—but the idea that one of the aircraft’s engines literally fell off is bizarre and unnerving to say the least.
Regardless of whether this incident ends up being a result of human error or a faulty component, it will likely fuel calls for the B-52's re-engine program to finally be executed. Attempts to mount new powerplants on the BUFF have been frequent over the last four decades, often with different powerplant choices and different funding schemes motivating them. We have discussed all this in great detail in the past—and the stark reality is that upgrading the B-52’s engines is long overdue—especially considering the technological upgrades and game-changing weaponry the B-52 is receiving. Not to mention the potential for what the type could morph into in the future, or that it’s slated to serve till at least 2040.
Barring the very low chance of an early B-52 retirement following a massive investment into the new B-21 Raider program, any new engine initiative for the B-52 would likely come under a complex private-public sector cooperative, where the new engines are “paid for” by theoretical fuel savings over time. What the USAF will get in the process is a much more capable bomber—one that features higher reliability, less maintenance per flight hour, dramatically longer range and loitering time, higher altitude operations, and more lifting ability while utilizing shorter runways.That improved short-field performance could come in very handy for forward deployed operations to the Pacific, and further the use of the B-52H’s new “smart” internal weapons rack. Other benefits of new engines include greater power generation abilities—useful in supporting potential future roles toting directed energy weapons or acting as a standoff jamming and electronic warfare platform.
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