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Thu, Dec 22, 2011

Last Surviving B-52 Designer Has Gone West

Bob Withington Also Built 1941 Wind Tunnel, Served As Boeing VP

In April, it will be time to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the first flight of the US Air Force's B-52 bomber. More remarkable, the venerable design is expected to remain in service another 20 years. The last of the original Boeing design team, whose proposal and balsa scale model won Air Force approval to build the plane, has passed away at age 94.

Douglas Martin of the New York Times recalls that over the course of a weekend marathon in a hotel in Dayton, Ohio in 1948, six designers from Boeing produced a 33-page proposal and a 14-inch scale model of an airplane on a stand which Colonel Pete Warden declared was the new B-52. The last surviving member of that team was Holden "Bob" Withington, who according to his daughter succumbed to Alzheimer's Disease at his home on Mercer Island, Washington on December 9.

Originally conceived at the close of WWII as a six-engined heavy turboprop bomber which could reach the other side of the world without refueling, a series of early designs were rejected by the Air Force for disappointing performance. The design initially approved in 1948 used eight Westinghouse J40 turbojet engines, which resulted in very limited range. General Curtis LeMay, who by then was heading the Strategic Air Command, made the now-prophetic-sounding observation that range would improve over the plane's service life as engine technology improved.

The B-52's first flight was April 15, 1952. A total of 744 were built through 1963. The swept wing and other design features were later borrowed for the Boeing 707, and some of the lines persist in airliners to this day. Michael Lombardi, Boeing's corporate historian, tells the Times, "Essentially, they discovered the perfect form of the subsonic jet. Airbus, Boeing, any other company, it's the basic form they follow."

Withington, who was trained at MIT and built an early Boeing wind tunnel capable of 635 MPH speeds in 1941, eventually went on to become a Boeing VP, charged with heading the design of a competitor to Europe's Concorde supersonic transport. That project was canceled in 1971. Ironically didn't get his own pilot certificate until age 80, after his 1983 retirement, when he built a two-place experimental in his backyard.

The Times reports Holden Withington is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, three sons and five grandchildren.

FMI: www.boeing.com/history/boeing/b52.html

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