On the edge of the East China Sea, CNN was on board a B-52 bomber as it turned northeast – toward Alaska, the US and Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana – when the oil pressure gauge for one of its engines began flickering erratically. Nineteen hours into one of the longest military missions the US carries out, the crew had already contended with communications issues and had to make pinpoint fuel calculations as they navigated their 13,000-mile journey from Louisiana to Japan and back again.

But this was something different.

Up front, the two pilots began working through their checklists. Capt. Jinan Andrews read each step out loud, while Capt. Tramaine “Omaha” Barnett piloted the jet. Sitting on the massive bomber’s sole bunk, the third pilot on the flight crew, Capt. Sabin “Jett” Park, backed them up, making sure they didn’t miss any items.

With 14 hours of flying and nearly 7,000 miles separating the strategic bomber from its home base, the pilots made the decision to shut the engine down. The B-52 that accompanied us across the Pacific Ocean had landed in Japan. Now our flight, MYLAR11, would be flying back alone and down an engine.

Fortunately, the B-52 has multiple engines, but it’s a reminder that the US military is still relying on an aircraft first flown in the 1950s that has outlasted the Cold War by more than 30 years.

The Boeing B-52H Stratofortress is America’s primary strategic bomber, taking part in every US war since Vietnam.

CNN gained exclusive access to an epic flight on one of the venerable eight-engined jets that serve as an instantly recognizable symbol of American air power. This particular jet was manufactured in 1961 and though they are decades older than their crew members, B-52s remain the cornerstone of the US bomber fleet, sending a high-profile message to US allies and adversaries.

“If you would go back and look at both the national leadership of Russia and the national leadership of China, what do they react to?” asks Maj. Gen. Jason Armagost, the commander of the Eighth Air Force. “We see that they publicly comment about our bomber task force missions, particularly when it involves others in very joint and public ways.”

Our flight took off in the pre-dawn hours of April 1 for one of the longest missions in the world. The B-52 would fly from the continental US, down Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, off Russia’s east coast and down by China and North Korea to a block of airspace off the Korean Peninsula. Then, without landing, MYLAR 11 would fly in formation with fighters from South Korea and Japan before returning home.

The flight would take 33 hours and cover more than 13,000 miles. The jet cruised at about 28,000 feet, mostly over the icy waters of the north Pacific Ocean, where waves were predicted to exceed 20 feet. In total, the B-52 was expected to burn 105,000 gallons of jet fuel during the flight.

“Not only are we one of the most visible and flexible legs of the nuclear triad, but it’s just a really easy way for the Air Force and the US to assure our allies,” said Capt. Bo “NATO” Cain, a weapon systems officer on the flight. The nuclear triad, which includes strategic bombers, ballistic missile silos, and ballistic missile submarines, comprises America’s nuclear deterrent. The B-52 is the most mobile element of the triad.

“We have a B-52 where you need it, when you need it, within 48 hours.”

The last B-52 rolled off the production line in 1962. The strategic bombers are decades older than their crews, and some jets show their age.

A standard crew for missions of this length is three pilots, three weapon systems officers, and one electronic warfare officer. Most of the crew on MYLAR11 had never been on a mission this long.

A few hours into the flight, one thing becomes painfully obvious: the B-52 was never built for comfort. Though the jet has a 185-foot wingspan and a length of nearly 160 feet, the entire crew is crammed into the front portion of the jet, split between the confined upper deck and the windowless lower deck.

The pilots rotate spots, with one frequently resting in the only bunk on board. For the rest of the crew, finding a position to rest often requires curling up on the floor or leaning against a panel.

Capt. Leo “Swabbie” Weber, a weapon systems officer, described his first 30+ hour flight as a “roller coaster ride.”

“You’re excited when you take off, you go through your sleepy lulls and then you realize you’re not even a quarter of the way yet,” he said. “Trying to stay focused has been tough but a challenge that I accept and enjoy.”

In the long stretches of flight between four aerial refuelings, the crew passes the time with casual conversation, rest and snacks. On MYLAR11, Lt. Rebecca “Vulcan” Moore, the electronic warfare officer, brought chicken nuggets for the crew, which she was ready to heat up in the tiny oven perched behind the rows of circuit breakers. Mini-pizza bagels and chocolate chip cookies are also crew favorites.

Moore’s official role is to track threats outside the jet, but she takes it upon herself to know how everyone is doing inside it. “I am trying to make sure I’m paying attention to who’s tired? Is somebody hungry? Is there something I can help somebody with?” said Moore.

“As you’ve seen, this is an old jet, and it takes a full crew to work all of the many problems that come with it.”

The Air Force is planning to upgrade the B-52H to newer B-52J models, giving them more efficient engines, upgraded avionics and new radars. The modernization program will keep the jets flying for nearly a century since they first entered service in the mid-1950s.

“For decades to come, we’re going to be able to see how a jet that’s been around for decades and decades can continue to evolve with the times and be just as capable, if not more capable, than it’s ever been,” said Lt. Col. Jared Patterson, commander of the 20th Bomb Squadron.

This year, the Air Force began low-rate production of the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider, the next generation of stealth bomber. China is not far behind, with Beijing promising that its secretive H-20 strategic bomber will soon be unveiled publicly.

Airman Avery Bulsterbaum (left), Senior Airman Andrew Rodriguez (center), and Senior Airman Justin Joyner (right) practice assembling precision 500 pound bombs as part of the munitions teams.
Staff Sgt. Dakeeja Nelson, left, and Senior Airman Veruca Plott, right, check that a precision 500 pound bomb has been properly loaded on the underwing bomb rack of a B-52H.

The B-52s proponents insist it still has a role in the future. “This has been probably the most adaptable airframe potentially in the history of aerospace,” said Col. Michael Maginness, commander of the 2nd Bomb Wing. “It started its life out as a high-level nuclear bomber. We turned it into a low-level penetrating bomber. We turned it into a standoff cruise missile platform. And along the way, it picked up just about every other air-to-ground mission set in the US Department of Defense.”

On the western edge of the Pacific Ocean, MYLAR11 reaches the mission area, a rectangle of air space between southern Japan and South Korea. Hours earlier, North Korea test fired a mid-range ballistic missile, a stark reminder of the threats in the area.

In October, Chinese fighter jets intercepted a B-52 bomber at night over the South China Sea, south of our position. The Chinese jet flew within 10 feet of the much larger bomber in what the US called an “unsafe intercept.” This time, it’s allied fighters nearby.

Between layers of clouds, our B-52 and a second accompanying bomber fly in formation with Japanese and South Korean fighters, who take up positions off our wings. In reduced visibility with multiple aircraft flying close together, the crew remains alert. But the smaller fighters, who don’t have the endurance of the massive bomber, can’t linger long. The mission requires precise timing.

“The more players there are, the more complex and interesting the mission gets,” said Capt. Sabin “Jett” Park, one of the B-52 pilots.

Capt. Sabin “Jett” Park pilots the B-52 at night, using red cockpit lighting to protect his vision in the dark. The main display is one of the few modern additions to the cockpit.

After snapping a few pictures of the jets in formation, we soon turn back for home when the caution light on engine 5 shines bright orange. Within minutes, the crew shuts down the engine. There is no panic – just a management of risk.

Even with one engine out, the B-52 has seven engines to carry it home. It is not a smart airplane like modern 5th generation fighters, but it is redundant, with numerous backup systems to carry it through its missions.

“Despite how many years the B-52 has been running, and it being considered a legacy aircraft, it is a very formidable one,” said Capt. Jinan Andrews. “She is a tough girl.”

After skirting the airspace off eastern Russia on the return flight, we settle in for the long journey home. Everyone is tired, especially as we approach the 24-hour mark of the flight, but the mission is not yet complete. Landing any aircraft is a challenge, one made more difficult by the duration of the flight.

And the B-52 has one final surprise for the crew. On final approach, with Barksdale Air Force Base looming off our nose, the right main gear does not extend.

“Go ahead and emergency extend it,” orders Capt. Tramaine “Omaha” Barnett, the mission commander.

Seconds later, we touch down after 33 hours on runway 33, deploying the jet’s drag parachute as we slow down on the runway.

CNN’s Jeremy Harlan contributed to this report.

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