The Dawn of Discipline

A B-47 pilot remembers when an airplane—and Curtis LeMay—stiffened the spine of the Strategic Air Command.

While two 1,780-gallon drop tanks increased range, they also marred the bomber’s clean lines and produced drag. (USAF)
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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.

In May 1954, I arrived at McConnell Air Force Base and was crewed up with two fine officers, Major Harold McCarty, the aircraft commander, and Captain John Rosene, the radar observer. They were probably not too thrilled to have a low-time copilot on board, but they were polite.

The instructors were very experienced, and during training, they pointed out what made the B-47 capable and what made it dangerous. One of the most talked-about of the latter qualities was the fabled “coffin corner,” a point in the flight when the aircraft’s weight and altitude rendered the difference between a high-speed stall and a low-speed stall negligible. Recovering from a high-speed stall required a swift reduction in power to allow the speed to bleed down to a point where you re-established control. Recovering from a low-speed stall was more conventional. You lowered the nose and applied power, if necessary. The trick was to recover from one without transitioning into the other. In my view, the danger of the coffin corner was overblown, for if you executed correctly a well-planned mission, you would not find yourself in a situation where it might occur.

Flight control issues were far more important, especially the need to react with the correct control inputs if you lost an outboard engine as you neared the takeoff point. The loss of power on the far right (number six) engine, for example, would cause a loss of lift on the right wing, initiating a roll to the right. In a piston-powered aircraft, the traditional reaction was to turn the control wheel to the left, which raises the left aileron and lowers the right one, thus raising the right wing. In the B-47, however, the correct procedure was to boot in rudder pressure to lift the right wing, and you had to do it within 1.7 seconds of the loss to be effective.

Many a squadron briefing was spoiled by film clips of heavily laden B-47s caught at the wrong moment: as an engine failed on takeoff. The films would show the wing going down, the wrong control inputs applied, and then a veering, bounding cartwheel ending in a huge explosion, a sea of flames, and deaths.

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