B-52's propulsion system upgrade to come after almost 70 years

Collins Aerospace has the in-depth manufacturing capabilities to help define the next era of success for the Stratofortress

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The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress long-range strategic bomber has been a key defense platform of the United States Air Force (USAF) since it first took flight in the 1950s. And Collins Aerospace – beginning with one of its heritage companies, Rohr Aircraft Corporation – has been on board since day one. The company has been on every one of the eight B-52 variants to date, producing not only the unique twin-pod nacelles, but also the engine mounts, engine systems, struts, aft fuselage section and underwing fuel pods.

Recently, the USAF decided to re-engine the dependable B-52 as part of the Commercial Engine Replacement Program (CERP). The intent of the CERP program is to outfit these legendary aircraft with commercial off-the-shelf jet engines that are more efficient, more powerful and less expensive to operate – extending the lifespan of the B-52 for decades.

With a demonstrated track record dating back to 1940, Collins Aerospace brings the type of experience and expertise required for a successful re-engine program:

  • Collins has provided nacelles, struts and other aerostructures since the B-52 first took flight.
  • Collins products are currently flying on dozens of aircraft programs for multiple platforms.
  • Collins continues to certify new products.
  • Collins’ industry-leading manufacturing capability has generated advanced technologies and increased efficiencies, which have been refined and proven for decades.

70-year program history

“Our history with this platform, and the USAF trusting us for more than 70 years, has always been a point of great pride for us,” said Marc Duvall, president, Aerostructures, Collins Aerospace. “If you think about it, we started working on this program before most of our current employees were born. Since then, that knowledge has been handed down and refined over generations and we’re ready to continue supporting the aircraft until much of today’s team has retired and beyond.”

But program history alone isn’t enough to support a replacement effort of this size and scope. Manufacturing expertise will be key given the B-52’s unique twin-pod powerplant configuration found on relatively few other aircraft types. Boeing originally developed the configuration for its B-47 bomber in the late 1940s, based on the thrust levels needed and the engines available at the time. The side-by-side configuration offered easy engine access for maintenance and replacement, while also incorporating two engines onto a single wing-attachment strut.

Nacelle considerations

Today’s B-52 CERP will maintain this same architecture to most closely match the original aircraft aerodynamics, center-of-gravity, thrust line and wing loading. And given that the B-52 weighs in at approximately 185,000 pounds and is more than 159 feet long and 40 feet high, manufacturing challenges abound. But Collins Aerospace understands the complexity of the uniquely contoured twin-pod nacelle and how to efficiently manufacture it with a high degree of quality.

“Collins Aerospace is uniquely positioned to play a key role in ensuring the B-52’s continued success because we’ve been manufacturing highly engineered structural components such as nacelles and struts for 80 years,” Duvall said. “More than 50 programs are supported by our team, and our products have been certified on 19 aircraft programs in just the last 10 years. It’s a legacy that really sets Collins apart.”

Manufacturing expertise

The Aerostructures unit at Collins Aerospace has worked over the decades to not only improve the quality of its products, but also its manufacturing capabilities and efficiencies. Much of the 1990s was spent reinventing this aspect of the business through the implementation of Lean and Continuous Improvement principles pioneered by the Toyota Motor Company. In the first half of that decade, many aerospace companies were in an economic downturn. By incorporating Lean’s waste-elimination concepts – not just in manufacturing, but also in quality, engineering and procurement – the company was able to successfully navigate the downturn and solidify its position as an industry leader.

In just the last 10 years, Collins Aerospace has invested millions of dollars in support of smart automation of the future to accelerate Industry 4.0 initiatives. These enhancements range from robotic paint systems to automated drilling and fastening systems, as well as advanced hand-held smart drilling and torque tools to optical projection technology.

“Our industry-leading smart manufacturing capabilities have positioned Collins Aerospace to solve today’s unique challenges,” Duvall said. “We’ve invested heavily in virtual assembly modules that not only ensure reduced risk tolerances, but also speed up work so what used to take days to complete now takes only hours.”

In fact, Industry Week Magazine recognized Collins’ Foley, Alabama, facility as one of the best manufacturing plants in North America. Dozens of employees and significant square footage at this site will be dedicated to the B-52 CERP program. Not only is the assembly more accurate and efficient than it was back in the ‘50s and ‘60s when the last B-52 aircraft were produced, it also is supported by world-class suppliers that are experts in providing specialized components. These relationships help Collins keep quality up and costs down.

“The B-52 is an American legend; it’s formidable, strong and persistent,” Duvall said. “And Collins Aerospace is ready to extend its power into the future.”