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OPINION: How to keep a Cold War veteran flying

According to an old tale, a fighter pilot who had been instructed to hold off from landing while a B-52 bomber made an approach with a defective TF33 quipped to air traffic controllers: “Oh no – the dreaded seven-engine approach”. On 4 January, this perhaps apocryphal story became reality, when the crew of an aged bomber returned to their North Dakota base minus an engine, which had disintegrated in flight.

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US Air Force

While entertaining for its parallel with a classic tale of yore, the mishap highlights an increasingly pressing question for the US Air Force: whether to soldier on with the B-52’s outdated powerplants, or advance with a long-considered upgrade effort. Replacing the type’s classic Pratt & Whitney turbofans would be a costly act as the strategic bomber fleet powers towards its end and replacement by the Northrop Grumman B-21, but could generate sufficient cost savings to merit doing so.

Outgoing air force secretary Deborah Lee James was quick to play down any suggestion of a fleet-wide issue, and defended the B-52’s safety and readiness as “excellent”. A re-engining decision will shift to the Trump administration, which has bigger-ticket budget items to scrutinise, such as the B-21, Boeing’s KC-46A tanker, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 and the T-X trainer.

Ultimately, sticking with and enhancing the TF33 might be the most viable option, but this is a Cold War veteran whose support needs cannot be ignored.