Originally published in Flight Journal Magazine - November/December 2021
Saved only by a plea from Boeing President William McPherson Allen to Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington, the B-52 almost died before it ever took flight. The Boeing model 464-17 met all of the Air Force requirements for the new strategic bomber, except for the range required. It was required that the aircraft be able to carry out the mission without dependence upon advanced and intermediate bases by other countries. Boeing was asked to create a bomber that could travel 400 miles per hour with a range of 12,000 miles and the ability to deploy nuclear weapons. The requirements continued to change and Boeing produced models 464-29, 464-35, 464-40, 464-49. Model 464-67 became the XB-52 and the YB-52. On February 14, 1951, Boeing was awarded a contract for thirteen B-52As.
The B-52 would go on to serve in the Vietnam War, on alert for Strategic Air Command during the Cold War, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Inherent Resolve. Of the 744 bombers built over various models only 76 remain, where 58 remain in active service and 18 aircraft are assigned to Air Force Reserve Command. Early B-52s had timed out in the early 1960s, B-52Gs were retired as part of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed in 1991, and as budget constraints took hold some of the B-52H models were retired to the boneyard.
On August 14, 2008, a young Air Force Captain named Aaron Hedrick flew B-52H Stratofortress, serial number 60-0034, “Wise Guy” from Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota to the 309th Aircraft Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona. Sentimental in the moment and believing he would be the last to fly the aircraft, he left a note on the flight deck clipboard reading, “AMARG, this is 60-034, a cold warrior that stood sentinel over America from the darkest days of the Cold War to the global fight against terror. Take good care of her … until we need her again.”
In the early morning hours of May 19, 2016, B-52H, 60-0047, was involved in a mishap resulting in the destruction of the aircraft. The accident investigation narrative says the pilots saw birds at wing level when the aircraft achieved S1 (111 knots) and soon after saw engines five, six, and seven begin to roll back. The aircraft returned to the ground and then departed the prepared surface overrun of runway 6L at Anderson Air Force Base, Guam. The Accident Investigation Board showed the drag chute failed and the wheel breaks exceeded the limits, resulting in brake failure. The crew of seven was able to successfully exit the aircraft, but she burned and was a total loss.
With 17,000 flying hours on her already before she was retired, B-52H, 60-0034, “Wise Guy” was chosen as the aircraft to replace 60-0047 and return to the fleet with the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. This regeneration would be the second B-52H Stratofortress regenerated to replace destroyed aircraft. The United States Air Force personnel at the 309th AMARG began the three-phase process to return “Wise Guy” to a fully mission capable status. With cracks in the main gear, rotten fuel lines, and parts for the ejection systems in a bucket, the maintenance personnel began regenerating and repairing the once-great, but now decaying aircraft.
It took nearly four months to make the plane airworthy and on May 14, 2019, 60-0034, was ferried wheels-down to Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, for the second-phase of her regeneration process. The maintenance personal of the 2nd Bomb Wing, Barksdale AFB, restored “Wise Guy’s” operability. After nearly a year of restorative maintenance, she was ready to move on to programmed depot maintenance for final restoration.
On April 1, 2020, 60-0034 was ferried (wheels down again, for safety) to Tinker Air Force Base near Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for the final phase of her regeneration. As the primary maintenance center for the B-1, B-2, B-52, KC-46, KC-135 and E-3, Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center (OC-ALC) is the largest maintenance, repair, and overhaul facility in the United States Air Force. OC-ALC is part of Air Force Materiel Command.
Once inducted for depot repair, personnel from the 565th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, 76th Aircraft Maintenance Group, stripped the aircraft of her faded paint and began disassembling the aircraft as part of her programmed depot maintenance. Depot level maintenance takes the aircraft down to the absolute airframe structures to inspect, repair and replace parts, to ensure she is in perfect shape for a return to the fleet.
As the aircraft was nearing completion and interest began to build within the aviation community the author talked with the pilot that wrote that prophetic note on the clipboard in 2008. Now the Commander of the 93d Bomb Squadron, 917th Bomb Wing, Air Force Reserve Command, Lieutenant Colonel Aaron Hedrick tells us about his feelings on his prophetic note and “Wise Guy’s” return to flight.
“I’m very happy to see 60-0034 back in the air. I wrote the note when I flew the aircraft to Davis-Monthan in 2008 as a young Captain, pretty sure that I’d be the last pilot to ever fly it,” he said. “It might be a bit sentimental, but it didn’t seem right to just drop the airplane off and leave it without something. I’m very pleased to see that “Wise Guy’s” back and getting modernized to rejoin the fleet.”
Still stripped of her paint and after 260 days at Tinker AFB, “Wise Guy” flew wheels-up for the first time in 12 years on December 14, 2020. Flown by a crew from the 10th Flight Test Squadron, Air Force Reserve Command, she was put through a battery of tests in a flight lasting nearly three hours, to ensure the aircraft could meet the required flight parameters. With some tests not passed on the last flight, she flew again on December 16, 2020, in a moderately short flight, where she worked the aircraft pattern five times before coming to a full stop. After clearing all the required flight tests on a final flight on December 18, 2020, “Wise Guy” was cleared to begin the final bit of her restoration at Tinker. She was painted and time compliant technical orders completed to ensure she is fully up to date when returning to Minot.
Coincidentally, while “Wise Guy” was in maintenance at Tinker, the first restored B-52H, 61-0007 “Ghost Rider,” entered programmed depot maintenance, which was her first PDM after her 2015 regeneration. After nearly two months on the ground, confidence ground runs began on March 2, 2021 to ensure 60-0034 was ready to return home.
Lt. Col. Aaron “Gumby” Hedrick, the once young Captain that delivered her to AMARG over twelve years ago would be, once again, pilot-in-command as she was delivered to Minot AFB, ND. He reflected on the day by saying, “It’s a testament to both the hard work of the AMARG staff keeping the aircraft preserved, and the people of the Oklahoma Center Air Logistics Center going through the work of restoring it to be fully mission capable.”
“Wise Guy” has returned to the fleet with the 5th Bomb to complete Air Force Global Strike Commands’ 76 B-52 Stratofortress inventory. 4,590 days elapsed since her retirement to almost certain destruction, but the second part to her story has just begun. At 60 years old and with relatively low numbers of flight hours on the airframe; just over 17,000 flight hours, she was retired for 12 years and then restored for nearly two years. Make no mistake, Wise Guy is back!