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Venerable B-52 enters 3rd war in 40 years

SHARE Venerable B-52 enters 3rd war in 40 years

NEW YORK (AP) -- From the helicopter over South Vietnam in 1968, the scene was deceptively placid. A tropical sun glinted off the river where it carved a lazy S through the mangrove and jungle a mile away.

"Twenty seconds," said a voice on the radio.A pause, and then a garden bloomed in the river bend, huge brown flowers sprouting from the earth, each with a bright orange center. One row of flowers, another, a third. Doughnut-shaped shock waves from ton after ton of bombs. Mission accomplished.

The B-52s high above Indochina flew on -- and still fly today.

No warplane in history has lasted longer than the B-52, flown more missions, dropped more explosives or held on so sturdily against the march of technology. The lumbering aircraft are back in action over Yugoslavia -- their third war -- in NATO's bid to force Serb President Slobodan Milosevic to the peace table.

Despite the proven worth of radar-evading stealth aircraft, the Air Force says the slow but steady B-52 will remain on duty for another 40 years.

"It drives like a truck, but it's very capable and very versatile -- a high altitude bomber that can also deliver cruise missiles at low level," said Lt. Gen. E.G. "Buck" Shuler, who logged 2,000 hours in B-52s before he retired in 1991 as commander of the 8th Air Force at Barksdale Air Force Base, La. "It's also a great investment for the American taxpayer."

What happened that day in Vietnam gives a picture of why the craft is still in use: power and versatility.

At 35,000 feet, the three B-52s were too high to be seen or heard; the bombs seemed to be falling from nowhere. Dust and smoke blotted out the instant moonscape.

Communist soldiers dug deep bunkers to try to survive the sudden hell of a strike that sometimes wiped out entire regiments. A North Vietnamese defector said being caught in one was "like being dead for 30 seconds."

Ex-B-52 commander Col. Max Pickard of Memphis, Tenn., recalled: "The GIs told us they'd sometimes find enemy soldiers just sitting there, holding their ears."

The eight-engined bomber with the droopy, 185-foot wingspan and 40-foot sharkfin tail cost $9 million apiece when the last "H" model rolled off the Boeing Co.'s assembly line in 1962.

Conceived at the height of the Cold War, the B-52 StratoFortress was designed to deliver nuclear weapons to the heart of the Soviet Union. For years, B-52s waited on 15-minute alert, 24 hours a day, for the call that never came. By early 1965, dozens were being drafted from the Strategic Air Command for duty in southeast Asia.

The bomber's Vietnam debut was anything but auspicious -- two B-52s collided on takeoff on the first mission from Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, killing all 12 crewmen. Overall, 20 B-52s were lost in Indochina, where the craft also flew secret missions in Cambodia and Laos.

But none were lost to enemy action until December 1972, when President Richard M. Nixon ordered the behemoths to attack North Vietnam for the first time in an effort to drive Hanoi authorities back to the peace table in Paris.

In 11 days that became known as the "Christmas raids," B-52s struck military targets around Hanoi and Haiphong. Fifteen aircraft were lost to Soviet-made anti-aircraft missiles -- the very reason they'd stayed clear of the North previously.

Hanoi soon exhausted its missile supply, returned to the talks and agreed to a cease-fire in March 1973.

The B-52 came out of retirement in 1991 for the Persian Gulf War.

Today, 76 B-52s are still in service, twice as old as some pilots who fly them.