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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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.

Boeing’s initial $14 million investment in the project paid off handsomely, leading to the production of 2,042 B-47s, including those that Douglas and Lockheed produced under license. The program provided the engineering and financial prowess necessary to create the successful military aircraft that followed it. All succeeding Boeing airliners, and indeed, most commercial jet airliners of all countries, followed the B-47’s configuration. The latest Boeing airliner, the 787, and even its arch rival, the Airbus A380, feature swept wings, tail surfaces, and nacelle-suspended engines—all derived from the B-47. 

Walter J. Boyne is a former director of the National Air and Space Museum and the founder of Air & Space. A retired Air Force colonel, he has published 52 books, including his latest novel, Hypersonic Thunder.

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