Col. Pete Warden and the B-52

The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress strategic bomber first flew in 1954 and remains in active service. It is considered one of the greatest aircraft ever built.

Col Henry Edward “Pete” Warden

Henry Edward “Pete” Warden, had not planned on a military career, but when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 he abandoned his postgraduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and joined the Army Air Corps. He subsequently earned his wings in June 1940 and shortly thereafter deployed with the Twentieth Pursuit Squadron to Nichols Field in central Luzon in the Philippines. He was primarily a P-40 pilot, but after a few months he also became the depot inspector. When the Japanese attacked on December 8, 1941, leaving Nichols Field untenable, he was forced to move with parts of the depot team to the outskirts of Manila in an attempt to prolong resistance. After the main Japanese landings in Lingayen Gulf two weeks later, Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur, the commander in the Philippines, ordered national and local forces to withdraw to the Bataan Peninsula, declaring Manila an open city. However, Warden chose to stay behind enemy lines in order to salvage aircraft that would otherwise be lost during the immediate retreat. His team managed to save eight; Warden himself flew the last aircraft out of Manila only hours after the Japanese entered the capital.

Brig. Gen. Harold H. George, the air commander responsible for the region, then instructed Warden to take a few enlisted men to the island of Mindanao to find, assemble, and save more aircraft. Warden soon discovered three aircraft in packing crates, and while test-flying one he shot down what appears to have been a Japanese “Betty” bomber. With the end of the resistance in the Philippines in May 1942, Warden left for Australia, where he assembled, modified, and overhauled aircraft at the Fifth Air Service Command. He soon proved himself an innovative officer who achieved results, although not necessarily by following the technical manuals and procedures.

When he returned to the United States after almost four years in the Pacific, he was assigned to Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio-“the engineering center of the Air Force.” At that time the air force was engaged in fierce debates over whether it should focus on a bomber with straight wings and propeller-driven engines or one with swept wings and turbojet engines. The latter would be able to fly at higher altitudes and at high speed, which would make it more effective within the zone of engagement. However, aircraft with turbojets consumed far more fuel, and their shorter range would require a large tanker fleet for air-to-air refueling. The preliminary design program for the XB-52 indicated that costs would be high. Air force leaders also disagreed about the size of the aircraft and confronted considerable uncertainty about the quality of jet engines. Moreover, while the B-36 propeller plane could be delivered immediately, the B-52 would take years to develop.

In May 1945 Col. Donald L. Putt, chief of the Bombardment Branch, appointed Warden as the chief of the branch’s engineering division, with responsibility for running the Northrop XB-35 and the Convair XB-36 programs. Warden strongly identified with the three-bomber concept, which involved light, medium, and heavy bombers, stating, “the most important of the three airplanes is the heavy [bomber], whose mission will be the delivery of the special bomb load to the strategic target system.”

When Boeing was awarded a contract to build an experimental long-range heavy bomber Warden became the designated project officer and the leading spokesman for a new generation of bombers based on turbojet propulsion. His unrelenting support for both the B-47 and the B-52 gained him friends and enemies alike, and earned him the reputation as “one of the founding fathers of the B-52.” According to Walter J. Boyne, the author of Beyond the Wild Blue, Warden exercised far more authority than he actually had when he told Boeing, on October 21, 1948, to design the B-52 with jet engines:

Pete Warden undoubtedly knew that he had more information on aircraft and engine projects than any other individual, and that to advance the USAF’s need for a long-range bomber, he was responsible for making value judgments, causing programs to happen, and then seeing to their approval. In the case of the long-range bomber, Boeing had not been able to get the required range from the B-47-size jet bomber projects they were investigating. Intuitively, they felt that a larger, turbo prop bomber would have the required range. Unfortunately, the Wright T-35 turboprop engines, although they had been increased in power, still did not provide the necessary range, and worse, would not be ready for production until four years later in 1952. Warden apparently considered all this, urged Pratt & Whitney to pursue what became the J57 engine, and once he had their commitment, instructed Boeing to design a very large aircraft based on the J57. The B-52 was the result.

Lori S. Tagg, author of Development of the B-52, dedicated her book to Pete Warden, and insisted that the United States owes a considerable gratitude to this “progressive and persuasive jet-nut.” Boeing may have completed the design drawings and engineering, but Warden and his small staff played an important role in keeping the B-52 project alive at crucial times despite heavy criticism.

As the new bombers went into production and test flights, Gen. George C. Kenney, the commandant of Air University, requested that Warden join a research program at the Air War College. In late 1953, after Warden had been promoted to the rank of colonel at the age of thirty-eight, his technological insight and operational grasp caught the attention of Brig. Gen. Bernard A. Schriever, who personally ensured that he was put in charge of long-range planning at the Air Warfare Systems Division in the Pentagon. Maj. Gen. Donald N. Yates, commander of the Air Force Missile Test Center at Patrick AFB, also seems to have been impressed with Warden, arranging for him to become the deputy commander for tests in 1957. Three years later, Schriever, as the three-star commander of the Air Force Research and Development Command at Andrews AFB, made certain that Warden was given a central role in reorganizing what would become the Air Force Systems Command.

In this position, Warden became eligible for promotion to general rank. However, Warden was not one to play the political games required: he operated on the philosophy that it was easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission, and when the Air Staff wanted him to do something he considered a waste of effort he silently ignored it. His involvement with the B-52 also defined him as a controversial figure, one who could not be fully controlled. Given Warden’s maverick tendencies, the Promotion Board voted against him, and Warden retired from the air force in 1964, at the age of forty-nine. Shortly thereafter he became the corporate director of plans for North American Aviation; he stayed with the company for six years before he and his wife, Joanna, decided to devote their full time to managing their 550 acres of farmland near Columbus, Mississippi.

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