B-52 Stratofortress pilots control six-decade-old hardware with a 185-foot wingspan — and the lives of the four or five airmen onboard. But the moment the Vietnam War-era bomber’s wheels leave the ground, anything can happen — and some of the most important lessons cover more than routine flight procedures.

Defense News visited Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana to check out the aging B-52 bomber fleet and talk to pilots about what it will take for the aircraft to fly for several more decades. Here’s what we saw:

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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