B-52 Design: Dayton hotel birthplace of jet-powered bomber

Defense, Space & Security

B-52 50th Anniversary

B-52 Design: Dayton Hotel Birthplace of Jet-powered Bomber

Boeing received a contract from the Air Force in July 1948 to build two experimental long-range, heavy bombers under the designation B-52. Because jet engines were still in their infancy and considered insufficient for a heavy bomber, the contract called for turboprop engines to power the planes.

But Ed Wells, Boeing vice president of Engineering, and George Schairer, chief of Aerodynamics, preferred jets for the B-52. Boeing Senior Vice President Wellwood Beal told the two to work up a new design using jets but not to do anything that would jeopardize the contract in hand for turboprops.

The jet-powered B-52 was born in the Hotel Van Cleve in Dayton, Ohio, on an October weekend in 1948. How it happened has become a Boeing legend.

On Thursday, October 21, a three-man team -- headed by Schairer and armed with plans for the turboprop bomber -- walked into a conference room at Wright Field Air Force Base. Engineers Art Carlsen and Vaughn Blumenthal accompanied Schairer, whose briefcase also just happened to contain data for a jet-powered B-52.

The Air Force chief of bomber development, Col. Pete Warden, looked over the turboprop data and was clearly disappointed. He asked if the Boeing team could come up with an updated proposal for a B-52 powered by jets.

Schairer called Wells, who arrived in Dayton that night.

Back at the hotel, the team worked all night. Using the data that Schairer had brought along, they put together a design that incorporated jet engines but did not call for any major changes to the bomber's wing.

On Friday, Col. Warden carefully looked over the new charts and graphs. Finally he said, "I don't think you've gone far enough."

"Let's see what we can do," Wells said. "We'll be back Monday morning." It was almost noon Friday.

Returning to the Hotel Van Cleve, the team was joined by Bob Withington and Maynard Pennell, two top Boeing engineers who just happened to be in town on other business.

By late Friday night, they had laid out what was essentially a new airplane. The new design featured a wing that was swept back at 35 degrees with a 185-foot span. More significantly, it featured eight jet engines.

After a Saturday morning trip to a local hobby shop for balsa wood, glue, carving tools and silver paint, Schairer set to work building a model. The rest of the team focused on weight and performance data. Wells, who was also a skilled artist, completed the aircraft drawings.

On Sunday, a hired stenographer typed a clean copy of the proposal.

On Monday, Schairer presented Col. Warden with a neatly bound 33-page proposal and a beautiful 14-inch scale model on a stand.

Col. Warden was clearly impressed.

"Now we have an airplane," he said. "This is the B-52."

The Air Force quickly approved the proposal to develop an entirely new jet bomber under the same designation.

The B-52 that flew for the first time on April 15, 1952, looked and performed almost exactly like the plane presented in drawings, words, numbers and balsa wood assembed by six talented engineers who worked one very full weekend in Dayton's Hotel Van Cleve.

April 11, 2002