Enduring Designs: Return on Aircraft Investment

By Scott Spangler on March 11th, 2019

b-52 oshReading that the US Air Force will be requesting proposals from engine makers to propel the B-52’s active-duty service through 2050 didn’t surprise me. It continues the decades-long return on aircraft investment, its ability to continue its fundamental mission efficiently and economically. Not every aircraft so endures. Consider the approaching retirement of the B-52’s much younger compatriots, the B-1 and the billion-dollar B-2, which the Air Force wants to replace with the lookalike B-21 that will probably cost several billion per copy.

Boeing produced the B-52 for a decade, from its first flight in 1952 until 1962. It entered service in February 1955. The early models in 1956 cost $14.3 million ($133.6 million in 2018 dollars) and the H-model, the recipient of decades of military makeovers, cost new in 1962 $9.28 million ($77.92 in 2019 dollars). (Imagine that, a US weapon system getting cheaper!) Most likely, Boeing built today’s 76 active B-52s in 1962. Upon their 2050 retirement (if that indeed happens), you compute the return on their investment by 88 years.

baslerThis return sparked thoughts of other enduring designs that have returned an aircraft investment well beyond their original expectations. The DC-3 certainly tops this list. Since its first flight in 1937, it has earned its keep for 82 years and counting. And it will surely continue for decades, until parts for piston-pounding radials disappear, and the Basler Turbo Conversions remanufactures the airframe as a turboprop BT-67.

twin beechThe Beechcraft Model 18 is another enduring design that first flew in 1937. Like the DC-3, most examples earning their keep today were manufactured during and after World War II. Surely, the remaining spare parts for its Pratt & Whitney R-985 radials are counting down its last days. Lacking the multipurpose special mission utility of the DC-3/BT-67, mounting new powerplants would be an investment with no meaningful return.

172A chronological peer of Boeing’s enduring design is Cessna’s 172 Skyhawk. Making its first flight it 1955, Cessna introduced it in 1956, and it continues to make new ones today. There is, perhaps, no better measure of the return on its investment than 63 years of service, and counting. And unlike the other enduring designs here mentioned, representatives from almost every year of its existence, from the first 172 on, are still flying. We pilots should be so lucky. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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