Feb 21, 2024

Tinker Air Force Base Prepares for Major B-52 Upgrades and Engine Testing

In a significant development, Tinker Air Force Base is gearing up for extensive upgrades to the iconic B-52 Stratofortress, with a focus on replacing aging engines and implementing various enhancements to extend the aircraft’s operational life well into the future.

Milestone B Decision and Engine Testing

The United States Air Force anticipates completing qualification testing for the new engines earmarked for the B-52 Stratofortress by the end of 2024. A pivotal Milestone B decision on the Commercial Engine Replacement Program is expected by the end of the summer. This decision will propel the program into the engineering and manufacturing development phase, a crucial step in the modernization journey.

Comprehensive Modernization Efforts

Colonel Scott Foreman, B-52 system program manager overseeing sustainment and modernization efforts at Tinker Air Force Base, emphasized the comprehensive nature of the upgrades. These enhancements encompass new engines, radar systems, avionics, and other improvements aimed at ensuring the B-52’s relevance until potentially 2060, almost a century after its introduction.

The B-52’s current TF33 engines, dating back to the 1960s, are at the end of their operational lifespan and will be replaced by Rolls-Royce’s F130 engine. To facilitate the modernization process, Tinker Air Force Base plans to construct a substantial hangar starting in 2026, capable of accommodating up to four B-52s simultaneously, thereby increasing the efficiency of upgrade work.

Testing and Validation of Rolls-Royce’s F130 Engine

The Air Force is diligent in testing the F130 engine’s compatibility with the B-52. Initial twin-pod testing of the F130 engines at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi was completed last year. Additional tests, including sea-level performance testing and durability testing, are scheduled through 2025. The upcoming tests at the Arnold Engineering Development Complex in Tennessee will simulate altitudes to gather crucial data on the engine’s in-flight behavior.

Upcoming Phases and Facilities

Following successful testing, the first two B-52s are set to undergo modifications at Boeing’s San Antonio facility in 2026. The comprehensive upgrades are expected to take a few years, with ground and flight tests scheduled from late 2028 to 2031. Boeing will establish systems integration laboratories to ensure a smooth integration process, with multiple labs located in Oklahoma City and one focusing on electrical systems near Seattle.

Boeing is expected to provide updated cost estimates around late spring or June, essential for the Air Force to finalize its cost expectations and make the Milestone B decision. The Rolls-Royce engine contract alone is valued at $2.6 billion, with the overall cost estimate for the complete program reaching approximately $12.4 billion.

Tinker’s Role in the Modernization Effort

Tinker Air Force Base, where all production B-52Hs will be upgraded into B-52Js, is strategically positioned to play a pivotal role in the extensive modernization effort. The base’s workforce will conduct upgrades, including engine replacements and radar enhancements, during the regular depot maintenance cycle, which occurs every four years.

As the Air Force aims to conduct as many upgrades as possible during depot maintenance, Tinker is preparing for increased capacity demands. The construction of the “bomber agile common hangar,” starting in 2026 and scheduled for completion by the end of 2030, will provide additional space for simultaneous upgrading of multiple B-52s.

Colonel Foreman highlighted the disciplined approach to structural integrity inspections, ensuring the B-52’s longevity into the 2050s and potentially beyond. With a master plan guiding modifications over the next decade, the Air Force envisions a fleet of 76 B-52s equipped with new engines, radar systems, communications, and more, reinforcing the aircraft’s capabilities for decades to come.

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