In the 1957 film Bombers B-52 an instructor says of the then-new B-52 Stratofortress:

“On a single mission one of these airplanes, just one, can carry greater destructive force than that of all the bombs dropped by the Allied Air Forces during the whole of World War II”.

Is there a sense in which this statement can possibly be true? At what I find, the B-52 could carry up to 32,000 kg of weapons, while “between 1939 and 1945, Allied planes dropped 3.4 million tons of bombs on Axis powers” (source), that is, five orders of magnitude more. Of course a part (how large?) of the B-52 payload could consist of nuclear devices: would this balance the account? Was that sentence just a hyperbole?

  • 10
    Because destructive force is not the same thing as tonnage. Apr 21, 2019 at 22:13
  • 4
    And "destructive power", whatever it is, is not the yield (which is simply energy in physical sense). Of course a few thermonuclear devices wouldn't cause as much damage as all of the WW2 bombings.
    – kubanczyk
    Apr 21, 2019 at 22:18
  • @DavidRicherby: Thanks, I know that, and I mention this in my question. (Or were you answering to someone else, since you begin with “because”?)
    – DaG
    Apr 22, 2019 at 7:36
  • 2
    Perhaps more importantly to me – is the statement even relevant? I mean, the way it’s phrased, pretty much any (large-ish) plane would be the same, wouldn’t it? If all that's needed is a single Mark 39 bomb (about 1 × 3 m, just under 3 tonnes), any plane that can carry such a load (surely that's most of 'em?) fulfils the criteria. The quote makes it sound like it’s a property of the B-52, but really it’s the result of the efficiency of nuclear weapons. Apr 22, 2019 at 16:51
  • In the sense that Top Fuel dragsters are the most powerful, fastest and quickest cars, if you don't count any nuance like cornering.
    – James
    Apr 22, 2019 at 17:39

1 Answer 1


The B-52 was capable of carrying thermonuclear weapons. These were the second-generation of nuclear weapons with greatly increased destructive power over the original WW2 atomic bombs. By 1957, these weapons had yields measured in megatons compared to the tens of kilotons that the first atomic bombs produced.

For example, the Mark 39 nuclear bomb had a yield of 3.8 megatons and the B-52 was able to carry multiples of these (the B-52 in the Goldsboro incident was carrying two of them).

Taking the quoted 3.4 million tons of bombs as a starting point, this is the total weight of all types of bombs dropped by the Allies. So this includes the weight of the casing in addition to the weight of the explosive/incendiary payload. There were various explosive compounds used, some of which were weaker than TNT (e.g. Amatol) and some that were greater in power (e.g. RDX). So calculating the equivalent destructive power in terms of TNT isn't that easy.

As a simple comparison, if you take the quoted 3.4 million tons of bombs as a direct TNT equivalent, then a single Mark 39 was (theoretically) more powerful than those combined. If you add a second, third, fourth bomb... then it's even more so.

The heavier Mark 36 nuclear bomb was also in service in this time period and one variant of the weapon had a theoretical yield of up to 19 Megatons.

  • 3
    Nice work - you beat me to this. Here is a yield curve diagram. Apr 21, 2019 at 18:47
  • 7
    The ROU (Rapid Offensive Unit) Killing Time is a spaceship mentioned in Iain M. Banks' Excession novel, part of The Culture series. The GSV Lasting Damage is mentioned in another novel. The Killing Time's name is based on a military pun. 90% of the time in war, you are just killing time. The other 10% of the time is the killing time.
    – CSM
    Apr 21, 2019 at 20:47
  • 6
    This answer would be slightly improved if it mentioned that the nukes dropped during WW2 were about 15kT and 20kT of TNT equivalent. Apr 22, 2019 at 9:09
  • 2
    @LorenPechtel: True only if range is dramatically reduced. These bombers were designed to deliver conventional payloads over short ranges, and nuclear payloads over long ranges. Multiple bomb drops in a small area is pointless with nuclear warheads, doubly so with thermonuclear ones. Apr 22, 2019 at 9:53
  • 3
    @CSM: 2.4 hours of killing per day? I would bump another two nines into that equation.
    – dotancohen
    Apr 22, 2019 at 13:46

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.