U.S. Air Force serial number 61-0007, a B-52H known by its nose art as "Ghost Rider," was brought out of seven years of storage at the Defense Department's boneyard in Arizona. Its new mission? To replace an active B-52H that was badly damaged by fire while on the ground at Barksdale Air Force Base and make the USAF arms treaty-dictated fleet of 76 B-52s whole once again.
An oxygen leak coupled with a spark ended 61-0049's life in an intense cockpit fire while on the ground at Barksdale AFB last year. The damage was so bad that it was deemed cheaper to pull one of 13 B-52Hs out of type 1000 storage by the Aerospace Maintenance And Regeneration Group (AMARG), located at Davis Monthan AFB, in Tucson Arizona. Still, the jet's fuel lines, seals, tires and many other components that have been baking in the sun for close to a decade all needed to be carefully inspected and/or replaced before the jet could fly again. Making the challenge even greater, this was apparently the first time a B-52 had been ordered to be brought back from the boneyard after long-term storage.
Although "Type 1000" storage is the most ready state of storage for an aircraft that still will be stored for an unknown amount of time, many of the jet's systems were pulled, including much of its navigation equipment.
|Type 1000||Aircraft stored in near-flyaway condition. Can be stored without re-preservation for a period of 4 years. Aircraft stored under this category may be downgraded to Type 2000.|
|Type 2000||Generally aircraft allocated for reclamation purposes. Aircraft stored under this category may be downgraded to Type 4000.|
|Type 3000||Flyable hold for 90 days or more, pending transfer, sale or disposition.|
|Type 4000||Minimal preservation. Generally aircraft stored in this category are awaiting disposal.|
Even in Type 1000 storage, returning an aircraft to the air is no easy task. It took 70 days of constant work to get the Ghost Rider in a decent enough condition so that it could make its way to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana. There, the 54-year-old jet would receive more of its missionized and navigational gear, much of it being cannibalized from the fire damaged 61-0049. In all, the process will cost around $13M according to the USAF.
Apparently, regenerating the Stratofortress back to flying condition went incredibly smooth, with all the jet's eight TF33 engines roaring back to life without incident. Staff Sgt. Matthew Cocran, 2nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief noted:
"Our first engine start was a sight to see. Out of the exhaust came a black cloud of smoke, then a huge flame as it roared to life."
Last Friday, the lumbering jet made its way to the main runway at Davis Monthan AFB, where it powered up and begun its takeoff roll. As those involved with the historic project pensively watched, within about half the runway's length Ghost Rider was airborne. Still, her ferry flight was no regular B-52 sortie. She had to fly below 250kts and 23,000 feet, with her gear down the whole way, for safety reasons.
Col. Keith Schultz, who has the most B-52 time of anyone flying in the USAF today with 6,500 hours in the jet's Cold War era cockpit, and is also is the Commander of the 307th Operations Group at Barksdale AFB, was at the controls for the sensitive flight. Speaking to the Shreveport Times, he described how austere the conditions were aboard Ghost Rider:
"We had none of the traditional navigation equipment we're used to, the inertial navigation system, GPS, so I challenged my navigator, to do 'dead reckoning.' Basically he had a radar system and a doppler, so he could ground map with his radar system."
After safely landing at Barksdale AFB, 61-0007 parked alongside 61-0049 where the majority of -0049's components will be transferred to -0007. This process is planned to be finished by October, at which time she take to the air again, this time her detination will be Tinker AFB for a full depot-level maintenance overhaul. After which, Ghost Rider will be better off than most of the fleet that never saw the boneyard at all. She will be fully renovated, upgraded, seen a recent depot visit and she will have less hours than much of the existing B-52 fleet, with 17,000 hours under her wings. The fleet average today is 18,000 hours and growing by the day.
Like the legend says, "Ghost Rider rides again," and in 2016, 61-0007 will officially return to active service. This act will make America's 76 strong B-52H fleet whole again, a number that is limited by Strategic Arms Reduction treaties. As for the empty hull of 61-0049, she will be either cut up for scrap or made into a static display.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com