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 4 of 5)
Life as a Strategic Air Command B-47 pilot was fascinating. We logged as many as 60 to 80 hours per month, and the experience facilitated proficiency. Mission lengths varied from six hours to 24. On the latter missions, pills that worked like Dexedrine were supplied to ward off fatigue. My aircraft commander, Major McCarty (I never called him Hal or Harold, believe me), was a good guy who drove a Muntz Jet convertible and, even better, gave me a good share of the landings and inflight refuelings.
Initially, we refueled the B-47 from the Boeing KC-97. Despite its four big Pratt & Whitney 4360 radial engines and two J47 jet engines, the KC-97 had trouble refueling the B-47 because it was so much slower. Refueling often began in level flight at some middling altitude, but as fuel was transferred, the B-47 became heavier, so we had to go faster to avoid stalling. The KC-97 could keep up only by entering a descent. I recall one refueling when the KC-97’s number-one engine failed, emitting a huge black cloud of oil. The big tanker decelerated like a rocket in reverse, disappearing behind us. Fortunately, the KC-97 passed back over, rather than into, us, for we would have had no time to react. (Later, we benefited from the introduction of the swept-wing Boeing KC-135, which flew at higher altitudes and airspeeds than the KC-97.)
The continuous training in the B-47 was intense, and we were always aware that the reason for our existence was a nuclear strike mission. SAC crews were also burdened by a stark fact that other U.S. flight crews had never faced: If the worst happened and we were launched on a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, we would fly with the knowledge that our families were at risk from a Soviet counter-strike. The supreme tragedy would have been our returning from a combat mission to find our families gone.
The 93rd Bomb Wing was selected to be the first in SAC to convert to the Boeing B-52, and there was no way that I could wangle my way into a crew, for the minimum flying time required for a copilot was then 1,000 hours. By a stroke of good fortune, I was given orders to go to the University of California at Berkeley to finish my degree. Next, by an even luckier stroke, I was assigned to the 4925th Test Group (Nuclear) at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.
The 4925th was an elite outfit dedicated to developing and testing nuclear weapons for the Air Force. It was small: two B-47s, two B-52s, and a handful of century-series fighters. The pilots were very experienced, many of them veteran B-47 instructors from McConnell. The radar observers were equally good. Unlike SAC crews, we did not fly as designated crews, and could be current in more than one type of aircraft. I quickly checked out as a B-47 aircraft commander and began my most fascinating period of flying. Missions were shorter than in SAC, and there was no alert duty, but the test requirements were extremely stringent and called for pushing the aircraft to its limits.
Almost every day we had a different mission. They ranged from high-altitude drops of nuclear “shapes”—dummy bombs with the shape and weight of a nuclear weapon—to very-low-level bomb runs.
Getting comfortable in any aircraft takes time. I realized I was finally comfortable in the B-47 when, on a newly qualified pilot’s first night mission, I sat in the back seat. After a short flight we came back to land, and the pilot made the classic mistake of touching down front gear first. The aircraft immediately bounded upward, the first step in the familiar “bounce to a crash” sequence. But because I was familiar with the aircraft, I popped the brake parachute at the top of the bounce. The aircraft immediately lowered onto the aft landing gear, making the pilot feel pretty good—and me really smug.
The hybrid ancestry of the B-47 posed challenges for its crews. When the bomber was designed, engineers did not understand the stresses imposed by high speeds, prolonged exposure to sub-zero temperatures, and repeated cycles of takeoffs and landings. As Soviet defenses grew more sophisticated, the Air Force developed new low-level tactics for the B-47, which imposed even greater stress on its structure. As a result, metal fatigue and corrosion took a greater toll.
Ultimately, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara called for the removal of the B-47 from service; he believed the B-52 and the new family of intercontinental ballistic missiles provided sufficient deterrence. The B-47s were flown to the boneyard at Arizona’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, with only a few retained for special duties. The Air Force’s last B-47 ended service in 1969, and a single Navy aircraft was used to test electronic systems through 1976. The final flight of a B-47 was made in 1986, when a sketchily refurbished example was flown from the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake to Castle Air Force Base to become a museum piece.