The Dawn of Discipline
A B-47 pilot remembers when an airplane—and Curtis LeMay—stiffened the spine of the Strategic Air Command
- By Walter J. Boyne
- Air & Space magazine, July 2009
(Page 2 of 5)
In today’s Air Force, where bombers are few and terribly expensive, an accident rate approaching that of the B-47 would be unacceptable, and Congress and the public would be justifiably up in arms. In the early days of the cold war, however, it was just business as usual.
To the bomber pilots who flew the aircraft, the B-47 offered fighter-like performance, a vast improvement over the B-29s and B-50s we had been flying. Besides its swept wings and six jet engines slung in pods beneath the wings, the B-47 was unusual in other ways. Its bicycle-style landing gear had it rest on the ground in takeoff attitude, stabilized by two outrigger gear. The high-aspect-ratio wings, spanning 116 feet, were very thin and flexible, so much so that in turbulence it sometimes seemed as if a vibrating outboard engine might simply rumba off the wing. The wings were too thin to serve as tanks, so fuel had to be stored in the fuselage (and in wing drop tanks), and fuel management, particularly during aerial refueling, was critical to maintain the proper center of gravity.
Because of the B-47’s weight (sometimes exceeding 200,000 pounds), the takeoff roll had to be augmented by water-alcohol injection and even, sometimes, by rocket-assisted takeoff. The XB-47 was so advanced that even its designers didn’t know what to expect; one of them told me that when he watched it taxi on its first takeoff, he was not absolutely sure it would fly.
But fly it did, on December 17, 1947, with Bob Robbins and Scott Osler at the controls. The first flight, a 52-minute cruise from Seattle’s Boeing Field to Moses Lake, Washington, was uneventful, and the aircraft embarked on a promising but troubled development period before it entered service. (Sadly, Osler later died in a B-47 canopy malfunction.)
The introduction of the B-47 coincided with the massive makeover of the Strategic Air Command by General Curtis E. LeMay. He assumed command of SAC in 1948, and found that the pell-mell of post-World War II demobilization had left it in shambles. SAC had become a comfortable Air Force-subsidized flying club, where discipline was slack, standards low, and procedures wildly variant. LeMay began an intensive effort to acquire modern aircraft, standardize procedures, improve training, and impose an iron discipline. Although he was successful, the transformation took time.
Joining the 93rd, I entered SAC at the very end of the command’s flying club heyday. While the B-50 was a good aircraft, many of the crew members were World War II veterans who were not yet impressed by the stern demands of a non-shooting cold war. As an example, my first flight as a B-50 copilot included a gunnery mission. During the preflight, I observed boxes of ammunition being loaded into the cavernous bomb bay. With the ignorance of youth, I approached the senior gunner and deferentially asked, “Sarge, wouldn’t it be better to load the ammunition in the fuselage, so we won’t have to depressurize to get it?” He smiled and said, “Don’t you worry about it Loooooootenant.” (Veteran non-commissioned officers could put an inflection on the word that revealed your insignificance.)
Midway through the mission, we flew out to the bombing range off Point Mugu, opened the bomb bay doors, and jettisoned the ammunition boxes. The gunners marked their firing score as 100 percent (and they didn’t even have to clean the guns). Similar light-hearted chicanery went on with the radar bomb scoring, the navigation legs, and so on, until one Monday morning we went to work and found the old leaders had been fired and a whole new management team put in charge. As had happened elsewhere in SAC, base by base, flying went from sometimes frivolous fun to the serious pursuit of the mission.
As he molded SAC to his standards, LeMay was largely responsible for converting the B-47s from maintenance-plagued, accident-prone nightmares into a fleet of the most powerful bombers the world had yet seen. At its peak, SAC employed 1,560 B-47s, primarily as nuclear bombers but also for reconnaissance and electronic warfare. Their projection of power deterred the Soviet Union’s huge army from overrunning Western Europe. Although none of us was privy to the entire war plan, we believed that in less than a week our B-47s could roll up the Soviet Union from the outside in, cutting off its invading armies and ending the war.