Wrecked B-52 Bombers South of Edwards AFB

b 52s edwards  Wrecked B-52 Bombers South of Edwards AFB(Images via Google Earth)

Aircraft enthusiasts who frequent Edwards Air Force Base in California will likely be familiar with a Boeing NB-52B nicknamed Balls 8, either for its history as NASA’s longstanding “mothership” or for its more recent position on display by the airfield’s north gate.  Less well known are two derelict B-52 bombers located south of the dry lake bed – one relatively complete minus its tail fin, the other chopped into several large pieces.

b 52s edwards 21  Wrecked B-52 Bombers South of Edwards AFB(Images: JACoulter, cc-nd-2.0; Google Earth)

The wrecked B-52s are among several retired airframes dotted across the Edwards radar range.  With security so high at the base, it’s surprising that photographers have managed to get close enough to take these photos.  Is the range still active or is it abandoned?

A Brief History of Balls 8, the Famous B-52 that Served NASA for Almost 50 Years

nasa nb 52 b balls 8  A Brief History of Balls 8, the Famous B-52 that Served NASA for Almost 50 Years(Image: NASA, public domain)

If you’re familiar with those inspired aviation images depicting X-Planes launched from beneath the wing of a Boeing B-52 bomber, chances are that “mothership” was NASA NB-52B, tail number 52-008, known to pilots as Balls 8.  After almost 50 years of dedicated service to research and development, ending in 2004, Balls 8 is now preserved at Edwards Air Force Base.  This article outlines a brief history of NASA’s trusted mothership, the oldest active B-52 in service at the time of retirement.

nb 52b balls 8 x 15  A Brief History of Balls 8, the Famous B-52 that Served NASA for Almost 50 Years(U.S. Air Force, public domain)

Originally built as an RB-52B reconnaissance variant for the U.S. Air Force, Balls 8 first took to the sky on June 11, 1955.  After being transferred to NASA in 1959, the massive Stratofortress was modified to an X-15 launch platform at North American Aviation’s Palmdale plant, receiving the new designation NB-52B.

nb 52a  A Brief History of Balls 8, the Famous B-52 that Served NASA for Almost 50 Years(Image: US Federal Government, public domain)

While 93 of the X-15 launches came care of Balls 8’s predecessor, an NB-52A named “The High and Mighty One” – 106 flights of the rocket-powered pioneer were launched by 008. To achieve this, a pylon was fitted beneath the B-52’s right wing between the fuselage and inboard engine, with a 6-by-8 foot section removed from the wing flap to accomodate the X-15’s tail.

balls 8 hl 10  A Brief History of Balls 8, the Famous B-52 that Served NASA for Almost 50 Years(Image: NASA, public domain)

During the 1960s and ’70s, Balls 8 flew missions supporting the Martin Marietta X-24 and other lifting body aircraft, followed by HiMAT, the Pegasus rocket and the unmanned scramjet-powered X-43, among others.

b 52 balls 8  A Brief History of Balls 8, the Famous B-52 that Served NASA for Almost 50 Years(Image: NASA, public domain)

The modified B-52 gained its nickname from its NASA tail number 52-008. In an amusing and slightly irreverent tradition, U.S. Air Force personnel refer to aircraft with a number preceeded by multiple zeros as “Balls”, plus the last number – hence Balls 8.

balls 8 52 008  A Brief History of Balls 8, the Famous B-52 that Served NASA for Almost 50 Years(Images: LanceBarber, public domain; NASA, public domain)

The NB-52B mothership was finally retired on December 17, 2004 after 49 years in the air, having become the oldest active B-52 in service until that time.  Balls 8 was also the only variant still flying other than the H model, and had the lowest number of flying hours of any operational B-52.  The aircraft is pictured below with her replacement, a more modern B-52H.

balls 8 nb 52b edwards  A Brief History of Balls 8, the Famous B-52 that Served NASA for Almost 50 Years(Images: NASA (top), public domain; RaNma, cc-nc-sa-3.0)

Soon after retirement, Balls 8 was placed on permanent display at the north gate of Edwards Air Force Base, her home for 45 years and – as home of the Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC) – the place where some of the most pioneering aircraft ever designed first took to the sky.

NASA B-52 Launching X-24A in 1970

b 52 x 24 a  NASA B-52 Launching X-24A in 1970(Image: NASA, public domain)

This stunning photograph, which reflects the pioneering days of post World War Two aviation research and development, shows the NASA Boeing NB-52B mothership – nicknamed Balls 8 – launching the X-24A experimental lifting body aircraft in 1970.  The rocket-powered Martin Marietta X-24A flew 28 times from 1963 to 1972 before modification to the more stable X-24B, validating the concept that the Space Shuttle could land unpowered.  Balls 8, serial number 52-008, first flew in 1955 and was the oldest active B-52 at the time of its retirement in 2004.  The long serving aircraft now on public display at the north gate of Edwards Air Force Base.

Scrapping a B-52 Stratofortress at AMARG Boneyard

b 52 scrapping  Scrapping a B-52 Stratofortress at AMARG Boneyard(Image: Screenshot via YouTube)

This excerpt from a German language documentary shows the crude nature of aircraft scrapping, as a mighty B-52 Stratofortress is cut-up at the AMARG facility at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, popularly referred to as the Boneyard.  The 185,000 lb bomber is no match for “the guillotine”, used to reduce the B-52s to several massive chunks of scrap to be viewed by Russian spy satellites under the SALT II Treaty prior to final recycling.  Like the B-52s, aircraft numbers at the Boneyard appear to be dwindling.