I got my first glimpse of a Boeing B-47 on an April morning in 1954, when I was a U.S. Air Force first lieutenant with about 450 hours in bombers. I was walking out to fly a rather staid base aircraft, a Beech C-45, and saw the B-47—glistening in the California sun and trailing long plumes of exhaust—land at my home station, Castle Air Force Base, the first of the 45 to be assigned there.
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I’d seen photographs of the bomber and read about its potential. The first time I saw the real thing, though, I was racked with envy, for at that moment, there was little prospect of my flying the B-47. (No one but Boeing publicists ever called it the Stratojet.) I was in the process of becoming an aircraft commander in the Boeing B-50, an upgraded version of the B-29, and the new, super-hot, Jet Age B-47 required even its copilots to have far more flying time than I had.
But being young and foolish had some virtues. Only weeks later, after seeing the majority of my pilot friends in the 330th Bomb Squadron sent off to McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas, for B-47 training, I stormed into the ancient Quonset hut that served as the squadron commander’s office to demand that I too be sent.
Fortunately, the commanding officer wasn’t in (he would have thrown me out on my ear). After I pounded on the adjutant’s desk, the good-natured officer immediately had orders cut to send me on my way to meet an aircraft that I would come to love. In the intervening decades, the B-47’s airliner offspring have turned us into a nation of jetsetters, making it difficult to convey just how thrilling the prospect of flying the jet was to a young bomber pilot. (Perhaps more remarkable, today’s commercial transports exceed the subsonic performance envelope of the B-47 by only a small margin.)
In the early years of the cold war, B-47s served as the spearhead of the Strategic Air Command, with the bomber fleet varying in size from 1,000 to more than 1,500 B-47s. We felt that we were the premier force, an unsolvable problem for the Soviet Union. Each B-47 carried as much firepower as a thousand World War II-era B-17s and B-24s, and each was capable of penetrating to the heart of enemy territory. The pleasure we found in flying the airplane, however, was not in its capacity for lethal warfare but rather its sparkling performance. In the early 1950s, freed from banging piston engines and whirling propellers, you sat under a beautifully streamlined canopy, peering out at thousands of square miles of territory, cruising along at seven miles a minute in a jet bomber. It was intoxicating.
My wife Jeanne was not happy with my volunteering to fly the airplane. By 1954, everyone, including pilots’ families, knew that this aircraft, while magnificent, was also very unforgiving. The B-47’s cutting-edge design pushed the boundaries of both aerodynamics and pilot experience. Yet for young pilots eager to enter the Jet Age, knowing that the aircraft could be difficult heightened the pleasure of flying it.
When the B-47 was introduced, it was simply too radical in its aerodynamics and in its demands for unrelentingly professional airmanship. The new United States Air Force was still operating under World War II attitudes. New swept-wing jets demanded much higher standards, yet far too little emphasis was placed on safety and rigorous training. Accident rates and fatalities skyrocketed. The B-47 was unusual in that through 1955, the accident rate rose with the number of flying hours, then stabilized for four years (see “A Dangerous Ride,” p. 67). From 1959 through 1962, the rate shot up again when structural fatigue and revised tactics imposed new stresses.
In 1957, there were 28 fatal accidents and 63 deaths. The common denominator of the accidents was that the circumstances were routine, familiar. In case after case, there was some minor but fatal human error. In a fast instrument let-down, the pilot might turn the wrong way and run into a mountain. Misreading an altimeter led to a smoking hole in the ground. A 15-second lapse of attention in a descending turn could let airspeed build so fast that a safe recovery was impossible. In earlier, more forgiving aircraft, these mistakes might have been survivable, but in the B-47, they were disastrous. Some accidents were caused by maintenance errors, but these were less common. All too often the accident investigation ended with the heartless but accurate phrase “pilot error.”
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.