* The B-47 was the first line of America's strategic defense in the late 1950s and early 1960s, standing guard with nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union. Its nuclear strike role was highly visible, but while bomber variants of the B-47 never fired a shot in anger, the reconnaissance versions played a dangerous and secret game of probing Soviet airspace, occasionally taking fire and suffering losses. These secret B-47 spy missions remained classified for decades.
The B-47 was also modified for a wide range of special roles, particularly late in its career when it was being phased out of first line service. This chapter surveys the B-47's operational career, and its special variants and modifications.
* When B-47s began to be delivered to the Air Force, most crews were excited about getting their hands on the hot new bomber. The thing was so fast that in the early days the B-47 set records everywhere it flew without even trying. The aircraft handled well and comfortably in flight, with a fighter-like light touch to the controls. The big bubble canopy also enhanced the fighter-like feel of the big aircraft, though it could make the cockpit a "hotbox" on sunny days, while the navigator in the nose froze.
However, it took the Air Force until 1953 to turn the B-47 into an operational aircraft. The big aircraft was sluggish on take-off and too fast on landings -- a very unpleasant combination of flight characteristics. Furthermore, if the pilot put the machine down at the wrong angle on the bicycle landing gear, the aircraft would "porpoise", bouncing fore-and-aft. If he didn't lift off for another go-round, the instability would quickly cause the bomber to skid onto one wing and cartwheel to destruction.
Improved training led to a good safety record, and few crews felt the aircraft was inherently unsafe or too demanding -- but apparently there were aircrews who had little affection for or were even afraid of the B-47. Crew workload was also high, with only three crew members to keep the B-47 flying right. The B-52, in contrast, generally had six crewmembers, with roomier accommodations. The B-47's reliability and serviceability were also regarded as good in general, the exception being the electronic systems -- but that was true for all aircraft with complicated electronic systems in that era, something always being broken. Much work was done to improve the reliability of the electronics systems; nonetheless, they remained something of a maintenance headache all through the B-47's operational life.
* By 1956 the US Air Force had 28 wings consisting of a total 1,306 B-47 bombers and five wings consisting of a total of 254 RB-47 reconnaissance aircraft, for a sum of 1,560 machines. That was the peak strength of the Stratojet, though the number of bombers would increase into 1958 to 1,367, while the number of reconnaissance machines decreased to 176. The B-47s were armed with Mk 28, Mk 36, Mk 42, Mk 53, and B43 free-fall nuclear weapons. Stratojets were given a coat of white paint on the bottom to help reflect the flash of a nuclear explosion, though the top of the aircraft remained in natural metal finish.
The bombers were the first line of America's strategic nuclear deterrent, many operating at forward bases in the UK, Morocco, Spain, Alaska, and Guam. Overseas deployments of entire wings began in 1953 and involved 90-day rotations. B-47 bombers were often set up on "one-third" alert, with a third of the operational aircraft available sitting on the runway, loaded with fuel and nuclear weapons, crews on standby, ready to take off on an all-out attack against the USSR at short notice.
Crews were also trained to perform "minimum interval take-offs (MITO)", with one bomber following the other into the air at intervals of as little as 15 seconds, to get all the bombers on the way as fast as possible. MITO could be very hazardous since the bombers left turbulence and, with water-methanol injection, dense black smoke that blinded pilots in the following aircraft.
In 1956, when the Stratojet force was at its peak, SAC conducted two exercises, Operation POWER HOUSE and Operation ROAD BLOCK, that put more than 1,000 B-47s and KC-97s into the air to intimidate the USSR. Apparently B-47 bombers even performed training missions in which they penetrated Soviet airspace in numbers. The facts behind these missions remain controversial, with some sources claiming that SAC commander General Curtiss LeMay ordered them without presidential knowledge or approval.
* In the late 1950s, operational practice for B-47 bomber operations went from high altitude bombing to low altitude strike, which was judged more likely to penetrate Soviet defenses. Bomber crews were trained in "pop-up" attacks -- coming in at low level and then climbing abruptly on nearing the target before releasing a nuclear weapon -- and the similar "toss bombing" procedure -- in which the aircraft released the weapon while climbing and then rolled away to depart the target area before the bomb fell back down and detonated.
Such maneuvers were thrilling to watch, but unfortunately stresses due to low altitude operations led to a number of crashes, and an extensive refit program was initiated in 1958 to strengthen the wing mountings. The program was known as MILK BOTTLE, named after the big connecting pins in the wing roots that had to be swapped out for the refit.
* The B-47 would be the backbone of SAC into 1959, when the B-52 began to take over and the B-47 wings started to be cut back. Actual B-47 production had ceased in 1957, though modifications and rebuilds continued after that. Final phaseout of B-47 bomber wings began in 1963, and the last bombers were out of service by 1965.BACK_TO_TOP
* The only B-47s to see anything that resembled combat were the reconnaissance variants. They operated from almost every airfield that gave them access to the USSR, and they often probed Soviet airspace. Sometimes they stirred up more trouble than they could handle, and paid the price. The stories were kept secret for a long time, with the families of aircrew killed simply told that there had been an unspecified fatal accident. The facts only started to come out in earnest in the 1990s.
The first overflight of Soviet territory with an RB-47 took place on 15 October 1952, when an RB-47B -- a standard B-47B that had been converted to a daylight reconnaissance configuration on a fast-track basis -- flying out of Alaska overflew Soviet airfields in Eastern Siberia. The Soviets scrambled MiG-15s to intercept, but the fast RB-47B got away unharmed. The Soviets apparently sacked the local commander of air defenses in the region.
On 8 May 1954, an RB-47E flying out of RAF Fairford was paralleling the Soviet border over Norwegian airspace, then abruptly turned into Soviet airspace to overfly airfields around Murmansk. The RB-47E was flying at high altitude, out of reach of MiG-15s, but unknown to USAF intelligence some MiG-17s had been stationed in the area and they were able to intercept the intruder. The RB-47E's tail turret malfunctioned, as it often did, and the crew couldn't shoot back, while the big aircraft took some hits and was damaged. It managed to get back out of Soviet airspace over Finland and finally performed an emergency landing at RAF Brize Norton, following a last-minute cliff-hanger topping off from a KC-97. Finnish news reported the air battle, but the USAF denied that any US aircraft had been in the area.
The pilot, Hal Austin, was reprimanded by the commander at Brize Norton for defying control-tower instructions. Back on the runway, the aircraft's crew chief looked over one of the cannon holes in the fuselage and asked the pilot: "What the hell did you hit?" The mission was completely secret and so Austin only replied: "It wasn't a seagull." The reprimand was quietly removed from Austin's record under LeMay's orders, and Austin was even more quietly awarded a medal.
One RB-47 flying out of Alaska was scouting out the Kamchatka Peninsula on 17 April 1955 when it was bounced by Soviet MiG-15s in international airspace. The RB-47 and its crew disappeared. They were probably lost in the shoot-down, but there is a remote possibility that some or all were captured, run through the mill by Soviet interrogators, and then shot in the head.
The loss did not deter the USAF. Between 21 March and 10 May 1956, 16 RB-47Es and 5 RB-47Hs operating from Thule, Greenland, performed overflights the length of Siberia 156 times under Project HOME RUN, with six RB-47Es flying in during the final flight of the series. The Soviets never got a clear shot at the intruders; they filed an angry complaint with the US government, which blandly replied the overflights were accidental, merely due to "navigational difficulties".
MiGs did bounce RB-47s on three separate occasions in the fall of 1958, with one incident over the Black Sea on 31 October, the second over the Baltic on 7 November, and the third over the Sea of Japan on 17 November. In all three cases, the RB-47s got away without serious injury.
In one of the few incidents that made headlines, an RB-47H flying out of RAF Brize Norton was jumped and shot down over the Barents Sea on 1 July 1960. The Soviets claimed it had violated their airspace, while the Americans insisted that it was well out over international waters and, of course, not on a surveillance mission. It appears that it actually was well out in international airspace, but the Soviets were annoyed over recent overflights. They wanted to send the Americans a message that such provocations would have consequences, and that hiding behind the rules wasn't going to be any protection.
The aircraft's pilot was Major Willard G. "Bill" Palm, his copilot was Captain Freeman "Bruce" Olmstead, and his navigator was Captain John R. McKone. Olmstead and McKone managed to eject safely and were captured. Palm and the three EWOs in the bombbay reconnaissance pod -- Major Eugene Posa, Captain Oscar Goforth, and Captain Dean Phillips -- were all killed. Palm's body was recovered and sent back to the US. Olmstead and McKone were convicted as spies and loudly played up as propaganda pawns, but both were swapped back to the US on 25 January 1961, after the inauguration of incoming President John F. Kennedy.
The last known confrontation between MiGs and RB-47s took place on 27 April 1965, when an ERB-47H was jumped by North Korean MiG-17s over the Sea of Japan. The MiGs gave the ERB-47H a working over, but it managed to make it back to Yokota Air Base in Japan with two engines out.BACK_TO_TOP
* Aside from production aircraft, there were quite a number of conversions and oddball special modifications in the B-47 line. B-47B conversions and special modifications included:
* B-47E conversions and special modifications included:
The final recorded flight of a B-47 was on 17 June 1986, when a B-47E was flown from the Naval Weapons Center at China Lake, California, to Castle AFB, California, to be put in the air museum there. There are at least 15 B-47s that survive on static display, including a spectacular exhibit at the USAF Museum in Dayton, Ohio, but none are still flying.BACK_TO_TOP
* The total number of B-47s built was 2,042 by Boeing's count. The production breakdown was:
The B-47 was undeniably successful on its own terms. Just as importantly, it led directly to the Boeing B-52, which still survives as an important US military asset, and provided much inspiration for the design of Boeing's KC-135, which survived prominently in Air Force service into the 21st century, and the Boeing 707, the basis for the modern commercial jetliner.
The B-47 still looks pleasing today, but considering what most of its contemporaries looked like, it must have appeared revolutionary when it was introduced. The white antiflash paint scheme helped give the aircraft a clean, elegant appearance.
* Although I grew up under the approach path to a Strategic Air Command base, I have no recollection of ever seeing a B-47 in flight. I do have an oddly vivid boyhood memory of an episode of the "Steve Canyon" TV show, which ran in 1960 or so, in which a B-47 engaged in an attack exercise against the USSR got into trouble: the canopy was damaged by some kids playing with a 0.22 caliber rifle from off-base and cracked in flight, killing the crew via explosive decompression.
Canyon was scrambled to intercept the bomber as it flew towards Soviet airspace. As it neared the frontier, he was ordered to shoot it down and did so reluctantly. Although I must've been 6 or 7 at the time, I still can remember the creepy image of the pilot and copilot of the bomber, lying dead in their seats, their faces iced over with frost, while the aircraft continued automatically on course.
* As concerns copyrights and permissions for this document, all illustrations and images credited to me are public domain. I reserve all rights to my writings. However, if anyone does want to make use of my writings, just contact me, and we can chat about it. I'm lenient in giving permissions, usually on the basis of being properly credited.
* Sources include:
* Revision history:
v1.0 / 05 aug 96 v1.1 / 25 oct 96 / Review & polish. v1.2 / 15 sep 97 / Update with additional materials. v1.3 / 13 feb 99 / Review & polish. v2.0.0 / 01 nov 01 / Major rewrite. v2.1.0 / 01 nov 03 / Cut into two chapters, added overflights. v2.1.1 / 01 may 04 / Review & polish. v2.1.2 / 01 feb 05 / Review & polish. v2.1.3 / 01 aug 06 / Review & polish. v2.1.4 / 01 aug 08 / Review & polish. v2.1.5 / 01 jul 10 / Review & polish. v2.1.6 / 01 jun 12 / Review & polish. v2.1.7 / 01 may 14 / Review & polish. v2.2.0 / 01 apr 16 / Review & polish.