Boeing B-47 – The Most Significant Multi-Jet Aircraft of All Time



Drag chute deployed

Boeing B-47 on final appraoch

Calling the Boeing B-47 “the most significant multi-jet aircraft of all time” might be attributed to the bias of an old B-47 pilot, were it not for the incontrovertible facts of the situation.

The Boeing Company took a gigantic gamble to create the B-47. It combined an advanced planform, with wings and horizontal surfaces swept back 35 degree, new and relatively untried jet engines placed in pods beneath and forward of the wings, a bicycle landing gear, and new electronics. Its success was enormous, with more than 2,000 being built.

That success was conferred upon the aircraft which followed, including the B-52, the KC-135 and the 367-80. All of the subsequent Boeing transports, from the 707 to the 787, owe a massive debt to the B-47 for its revolutionary planform, its nurturing of the company’s financial basis and its outstanding subsonic performance. The multi-jet designs of many other manufacturers—including such sadly missed names as Douglas and Convair—owe a similar debt.

We are so accustomed to the swept-wing podded-engine layout that it is difficult to recall the utter wonder with which the B-47 was greeted when it made its first flight on December 17, 1947. It was so radical that even some of is own designers and builders, watching as it nosed toward its takeoff position at Boeing Field, wondered if in fact it would really fly. This is not a myth–it was told to me personally by one of its principal engineers.

To be fair, it must be noted that there are a large number of former B-47 crewmembers, pilots and radar observers alike, who hate the airplane. There were many reasons to do so. It was uncomfortable to fly on the very long missions, some of which exceeded twenty-four hours. It was in certain situations a dangerous aircraft, killing many a fine young crew in accidents, particularly on high gross weight takeoffs. In 1957, no less than 24 B-47s were lost in major accidents, killing 43 crew members. A loss rate like that today would not only cause a Congressional outcry–it would cut our bomber fleet by 1/5th.

The mission of the B-47 was demanding. It was to fly, alone, or in small cells of three or more aircraft, deep into the Soviet Union and destroy it with nuclear weapons. This hazardous undertaking was fortunately never required, and the B-47 in fact never dropped a bomb in anger. (It did serve briefly in the Vietnam War as an intelligence gathering aircraft.) Nevertheless, the B-47it served its primary purpose by deterring (a euphemism—the real term is “frightening”) the Soviet Union.

It did so by placing extraordinarily demands on the crews who flew and maintained it. The confining, restrictive nature of Alert duty, where crews were sequestered in monastic seclusion so that they could race to their airplanes and take off on a strike mission, took its toll of careers and marriages. Alert duty came often and for long periods, and was during the early years performed under primitive conditions.

In addition, B-47 units frequently deployed overseas for long periods of time, and this made life very difficult for families. There were good reasons not to like B-47 duty, particularly for hot young fighter pilots who graduated from flying school intent on becoming an ace and were instead placed in the back seat of a Stratojet.

But most people who flew the B-47 admire and respect it. It provided the United States with an unimaginable degree of power that was very obvious to the Soviet Union. By doing it quelled Soviet aggressive measures and helped maintain the uneasy peace between the two nations.

The B-47 came into being in a remarkably short time period, suffered delays as a result of the inevitable problems that ensued, and then swiftly equipped an expanding Strategic Air Command. Then just as it had expanded its numbers to become America’s premier strategic bomber, Robert McNamara ordered that the B-47s be withdrawn from service to save money for B-52s and missiles.
Just as they had suddenly appeared, forty-five to a wing, they disappeared, flown to Davis Monthan Air Force Base, and from there taxied to oblivion.

After a relatively short interval, during which salvageable parts were removed, they were towed to a huge guillotine that cut them to pieces and started their transformation back into aluminum ingots.

A total of 2,032 B-47s were built, 1,373 by Boeing, 274 by Douglas and 385 by Lockheed. For most of the twenty year interval between its first flight on December 17, 1947 and its last official Air Force flight on December 29, 1967, it reigned supreme as a bomber. For those of us that flew it, this is the way we will always remember it.

The Navy used an NB-47E as test bed for the General Electric TF-34 engine. The last NB-47E flight was in the summer of 1975.

For the record, the very last flight of a B-47 took place on June 17, 1986, when a restored B-47E made a precarious gear-down flight from the Naval Weapons Center at China Lake, California to Castle Air Force Base, California, to become a static display exhibit at the fine museum there.

The Beginnings
During World War II, the Wright Field Bomber and Fighter Project Offices grew from one-man bands into large operations that routinely flew everything in the Army Air Forces’ inventory, tested foreign equipment and planned future developments. There was increasing interest in turbine engines, prompted by the success of both Great Britain and Germany. In 1943, the Army informally asked several manufacturers to put forward multi-jet bombers. The industry responded with a series of designs that displayed more than anything the lack of familiarity with the potential of the jet engine. This was followed in 1944 by a preliminary set of specifications, which called for a top speed of more than 500 miles per hour, a range of up to 3,000 miles and a service ceiling of 40,000 feet. By December, 1944, four firms responded—Boeing, North American, Martin and Convair. All of the paper designs would change over time, long before any metal was cut.

As might be expected, Boeing drew heavily on its past experience for its first offering, the Model 424, which was, in essence, a B-29 with four jet engines paired in nacelles under the wing, the design closely resembling a later competitor, the Convair XB-46.

A more advanced proposal followed, the Model 432, which retained the straight wings of the B-29, but placed the engines above the fuselage center section, with huge air intakes located beside the cockpit.

At this point fortune smiled upon Boeing. Its chief aerodynamicist, George Schairer, was a member of the Scientific Advisory Group (SAG) (later Scientific Advisory Board) that the famous Dr. Theodore von Kármán had established at the request of General of the Army Henry H. Arnold. Schairer and Kármán among others were part of Operation Lusty, which was tasked to gather up data on German advances in aeronautics, rocketry and nuclear science. In a heretofore secret German scientific institute at Volkenrode, (near Braunschweig) Schairer found an enormous amount of scientific data, drawings and papers dumped into a well. From these it was easy to confirm that there were great advantages in a swept wing for high speed flight, and Schairer immediately wrote Boeing, directing that the proposed jet bomber project be given swept wings. He specified twenty-nine degrees of sweep in his letter, but this was later changed to thirty-five degrees. (North American would similarly benefit from these findings, and the XP-86 would emerge with thirty-five degrees of sweepback.)

The next Boeing proposal was the Model 448, which retained much of the rotund’s Model 432’s layout, but featured thin swept wings of a high aspect ratio. The configuration of the wings meant that the undercarriage and all fuel had to be carried in the fuselage as was done in the next of the series, Model 450-1-1. To reduce interference, the engines were suspended in pods that placed them forward of the leading edge of the thin wings. This arrangement also permitted a lighter wing structure.

Although the successful conclusion of World War II seemed to lessen the urgency for a jet bomber, a mock-up inspection was held in Seattle in April, 1946. Boeing was awarded a $10,000,000 contract to build two prototypes. The sum seems laughably small today, but it was immensely important to Boeing at a time when literally hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts had been cancelled, and its work force was drawing down at an incredible rate.

George Martin was Boeing’s Project Engineer for the B-47 and focused from the start on two major challenges: the aerodynamics of the swept wings, and on the jet engines themselves. To husband funds for these two unknowns, he chose to use readily available elements wherever possible, including parts of the B-29 landing gear, a low pressure hydraulic system, and the old fashioned 28 volt D.C. electrical system. (Oddly enough, Martin was not certain initially that the risky B-47 represented Boeing’s future, believing that the B-54 (later the B-50) was the real “bread and butter” product of the firm.)

The configuration of the B-47 demanded new and more sophisticated structural methods, to deal with such phenomena as the incredibly flexible nature of the wings, which could deflect up to 17-1/2 feet in flight. Flying a B-47 in turbulence was daunting. If you looked to left or right you could see the wings and the podded engines doing a dance not unlike that of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge just before it disintegrated, an undulating, rolling flex that made you wonder how (or if) they would stay on.

The thin wing also created a problem, in that it was also flexible chord-wise, and at speeds above 425 knots indicated, the ailerons acted as a tab, twisting the wings rather than inducing a bank. At 456 knots, the ailerons were totally ineffective, and the control wheel could not be budged from side to side. The author flew the B-47 at the 4925th Test Group (Nuclear) at Kirtland Air Force Base in the early 1960s, and flying the B-47 at fifty feet or less above the desert at 456 knots would whiten the reddest knuckles. The wings would be locked solid, and if any sort of emergency occurred, the only recourse you had was to chop the throttles, pull back on the control column, and let the airspeed bleed off until you had aileron control again.

The bicycle landing gear, first tested on Martin’s B-26 “Middle River Stump Jumper” and used on the Martin XB-48, required that you land and take off in a fixed attitude, without the customary flare or rotation of conventional aircraft. This was a little difficult to adapt to, but after a few flights, you became accustomed to it.

The General Electric J47 engines used in production B-47s grew in power from an initial 5,200 lbs of thrust to 7,200 pounds in the later, water injected versions. They were reasonably reliable for the time, but were very slow to accelerate and had to be handled carefully both on takeoff and landing. On a hot day, especially at higher field elevations, the B-47’s slow acceleration often made it seem doubtful that it would lift off before you ran out runway. But, as long as the calculated speeds were reached at the calculated points—and as long as the calculations were correct—it would lift off right at the last moment.

The B-47 was very clean, even with the huge Fowler flaps extended, so an approach chute was installed to make the long, flat landing approaches easier. When deployed, the approach chute allowed you to carry more power on the engines. In the event of a go-around, a throttle application gave quick acceleration, and the approach chute could be jettisoned if necessary. The airplane also employed a brake chute, and had anti-skid brakes which were very advanced for the time. The fixed-attitude landing technique required that you land on the rear truck first. If a pilot landed on the front wheels, the airplane would bounce, and this could lead to a porpoise-like series of lunges that tended to increase rather than decrease. When you became proficient in the airplane you could save another pilot’s bad landing by deploying the brake parachute at exactly the right time; the bouncing aircraft would seem to catch its breath as the parachute took hold, then settle gracefully to the runway on all four wheels. (This was not something to do if you were not sure of yourself. Done at the wrong time, you could vastly compound your problems.)

After herding around a ten man crew in a B-50, the B-47’s small three-man crew was a relief. The Aircraft Commander sat in in the front seat of the tandem cockpit, with the pilot in the rear, both under a superb bubble canopy. The pilot’s seat rotated so that he could operate the only defensive armament, the two 20-mm cannons mounted in a turret at the end of the fuselage. Down in the black compartment of the nose, the Radar Observer acted as navigator and bombardier. Everyone kept busy on a mission, which in SAC ranged from as few as six hours to (rarely) longer than twenty-four.

Boeing tankers permitted the extended range. The piston engine powered Boeing KC-97 was slow, and refueling was difficult and not as productive as it should have been. Initially, the tanker could maintain a speed convenient for the bomber, which would be at a relatively low gross weight. As fuel transferred, the situation changed, for the increasingly heavy B-47 had to fly faster to stay above its stall speed. The KC-97 would begin a descent to keep its speed above the B-47’s stall speed. Further the B-47 used fuel in its descent, refueling and climb back to altitude, so its net gain was much less than would be the case using a jet tanker. The advent of the jet powered KC-135 made things much better, for its speed, altitude and wake were compatible, as it has proved to be with the B-47’s successor, the B-52 for forty years and more.

The Competition


With the jet engine clearly the path to the future, the competition for the new United States Air Force’s primary bomber was extremely important, yet Boeing’s daring leap forward made it essentially no contest. The relatively state-of-the-art North American secured a production contract for its smaller, four-engine B-45 Tornado, which did its most important work in its reconnaissance versions. Convair’s entry, the slimly elegant XB-46, was handicapped by its straight wing and the fact that Convair was already under contract to produce large numbers of the huge B-36. Only one was built. Martin’s entry was the XB-48, also a straight wing aircraft with its six engines grouped in sets of three in huge, drag-inducing nacelles. Northrop’s XB-35 piston-engine flying wing nominally entered the competition later when modified to YB-49 status and fitted with eight jet engines. Lacking the computers that could sense the requirement for control inputs to dampen oscillations and maintain a stable bombing platform they were not available for another two decades), the YB-49 was relegated—for a time—to the reconnaissance role. None of the competition possessed either the performance or the potential of the B-47.

The Air Force eased into the B-47, recognizing that with all of the unknowns embodied in the radical design, there would be difficulties to overcome. Ten B-47As were purchased. These, built at Boeing’s mammoth Wichita plant, were essentially test aircraft, and did not have an in-flight refueling capability. A few were used by the 306th Bomb Wing at MacDill AFB to introduce SAC to its new weapon, beginning in May, 1951. This was forty-one months after the first flight, giving an indication of the development problems that had to be overcome.

Despite the ongoing troubles, in November, 1949, the Air Force made an initial order for eighty-seven B-47Bs. These had an in-flight refueling capability, but thanks to a terrible decision made by the Air Force to save weight, they lacked ejection seats. It is difficult to explain to a layman just how important an ejection seat is to the psychology of a crew member. No one ever wants to use it, but as you fly you are comforted by the fact that if all else fails, it is there as a last resort. A total of 399 B models were built, and many of these were later equippped with ejection seats and brought up to the B-47E configuration.

The Cold War was punctuated by many crises—the expansion of the Soviet system of satellite states, the Berlin Airlift and the Korean War among them—and these all accelerated rearmament in the United States. This was reflected in the massive growth in the Strategic Air Command, which went from a rag tag collection of 556 bombers in 1948 (35 B-36, 35 B-50, 486 B-29) to 1,895 in 1956 (247 B/RB 36, 97 B-52, 254 RB-47, 1,306 B-47). B-47 strength would peak in 1958, when there were 1,367 B-47s and 176 RB-47s on strength.
The most produced version was the B-47E, of which 1,341 were built. The increase in numbers was matched by an increase in proficiency as the standards imposed by Curt LeMay percolated down to every unit. There was an increase in readiness, as well, with half the force ultimately being on a fifteen minute alert. This meant that the aircraft was “cocked” (already fueled, loaded with bombs, pre-flighted, inspected and ready to start engines) and could launch within fifteen minutes. The alert was necessary to counter the growing intercontinental ballistic missile threat from the Soviet Union. It wore our air and ground crews to a frazzle.

The primary example of the type, the B-47E had a top speed of 527 knots and a cruise speed of 434 knots. The range, because of in-flight refueling was of course unlimited, but crew endurance was pretty well exhausted at the end of a twenty-four hour flight. I recall just finishing one twenty-four mission, debriefing and falling into bed into a deep slumber, when the Alert siren went off—back to Castle Air Force Base for another mission. Fortunately, they recognized the problem and split our crew up to fly with other rested crews, otherwise we might well have slept through the entire mission.

Even a standard mission of six to eight hours was tiring, because you stayed busy the entire time, and it was difficult to get out of the seat and stretch—many people just stayed in the seat from take-off to landing.
There were many variants of the aircraft, but none were more demanding of their crews than those RB and EB versions which carried a pressurized compartment in the bomb bay to accommodate three Electronic Warfar Officers—known as “Ravens” or, more familiarly, “Crows.” The EWOs—all heroes in my book– were jammed into a tiny compartment that was less than four feet high and crowded with electronic gear. They were equipped with ejection seats—but there were no ejection hatches. Steel blades on the seat’s platform were designed to punch a hole through the fuselage floor, through which the ejections would fire. Successful ejection was improbable.

Nonetheless, the Crows carried on, flying long missions, essentially trapped in their capsule, performing vitally important work in interpreting Soviet electronic intelligence. Their worked presaged the incredible assets found today in the AWACS, JointSTARS, Rivet Joint, U-2 and other intelligence gathering aircraft.

Operational Problems
The radical design of the B-47 naturally endowed it with problems. This coupled with the inexorable demands to carry more weight resulted in structural difficulties. The aircraft’s original maximum 125,000 pound gross weight was ultimately increased to 230,000 pounds for taxi, with a maximum in-flight weight of 225,958 pounds—almost double. This placed a severe demand on the structure, which ultimately was limited to two positive “Gs” at maximum gross weight. No negative Gs were allowed. This meant that as maneuverable as the aircraft was, it had to be handled carefully even when new bomb delivery techniques were required.

The growth in Soviet anti-aircraft missile capability dictated a change from the B-47s high altitude mission. Tactics were evolved for two separate maneuvers. One, called LABS for Low Altitude Bombing System, involved the aircraft attacking on the deck, pulling up in a half loop and releasing the bomb at about the 45 degree point, arcing it out for as far as eight miles with considerable accuracy. The pilot continued the half-loop, rolling out at the top in an Immelmann turn—all without exceeding the G limits.

The second technique was called the “pop-up” and required the B-47 to fly low over the ground, then pull up rapidly to 18,000 feet, release its weapon, then turn away while dropping back down to ground level.

These maneuvers, and the intensive use of the aircraft in low-level flight (it was not unusual to fly eighty-hours per month as a crew member) resulted in a series of six crashes between March 13 and April 15, 1958 that rocked SAC and severely threatened B-47 air crew morale. A fleet-wide investigation revealed severe fatigue problems that ranged from fatigue in the lower wing skin to failure of the “milk bottle pin,” the main fitting that secured the wing to the fuselage. There followed a nightmare of fixes, new problems, new fixes and additional problems. Boeing, Lockheed and Douglas (the latter two companies also having built B-47s) eventually contained the problem, but at enormous expense. The alternative was to ground the fleet permanently, as would happen to the Royal Air Force’s Vickers Valiant in 1964.

Besides these very real problems, there were many rumors that circulated about the B-47 that were not so difficult to resolve. One of these was the infamous “coffin corner” where high speed stall and low speed stall were within a few knots of each other. It was possible to fly into the coffin corner if you took the aircraft above the best altitude for its current weight, but it was not something that occurred routinely, or that you could wander into casually. The requirement for precise speed control was another story that was often heard, and it was true. If you allowed your speed on approach to build up by an extra few knots, you added several hundred feet to your landing distance. However, it was easy to control the airspeed of the B-47 to exactly what you wished by minute adjustment to the throttle settings. If you wanted 140 knots on the gauge, and you were at 142, you simply throttled back slightly. And in a cross-wind, you could use asymmetric power on the one and six engines to keep you right on an ILS (Instrument Landing System) approach.

The entire fabric of the B-47 fleet was held together by the unremitting effort of the maintenance personnel who labored day and night to keep them flying. In the early 1950s, at Castle Air Force Base, I was struck by the fact that two of these beautiful $3 million dollar airplanes were supported by hard-working mechanics who had to share a $100 box of tools between them because hand tools were in short supply. As the aircraft aged, it became ever more difficult, but somehow, when takeoff time rolled around, the airplanes were ready.

Times have changed. Bombers are no longer procured by the thousands. Only twenty-one Northrop Grumman B-2A Spirits were purchased, and that number was reached only by equipping the static test article. No new bomber is expected to enter the fleet until sometime after 2037, and even then the number built will be very small. Never again will anyone experience the thrill and the pride that the B-47 crews did on a unit mission, when all of the aircraft in the wing, along with their tankers, would be started and serially wind their way around the taxiways to the run-up area and then onto the runway, doing minimum interval takeoffs (MITO). The B-47s, their wings drooping, their outrigger gear touching the ground, would moan and grown as they went into position and applied full power, waiting only fifteen seconds before following the preceding aircraft into the air. You could feel the vibration, hear the roar of engines, but see very little as water injection would darken the exhaust that drooped onto the runway obscuring visibility. The author recalls one of these takeoffs which had another hazard—off the end of the runway black smoke was rising from where an aircraft had crashed. Still the takeoffs went on, one after the other, through the exhaust and the through the smoke. It was another time—and it was a privilege to serve then, as it is now.

SIDEBAR 1: PERSONALITIES
As with every great airplane, the history of the B-47 was dominated by personalities at every level. At the very top, the nation owes a debt to General Curtis E. LeMay, the greatest combat air commander of all time, who whipped the Strategic Air Command into shape. He had the vision to look into the future and see that the tanker and the B-47 would provide an incomparable weapon system.

Boeing was fortunate to have its finely tuned engineering and management teams combine to create the B-47 at a rock-bottom price under the overall leadership of the famed William Allen. George Schairer was the chief aerodynamicist, and George Martin was the project manager. They were backed by Ed Wells and the rest of the company in an extremely demanding program that could have failed at many points. Schairer is the individual who had pushed Boeing to invest in its huge wind-tunnel, and this gave the company a tremendous advantage over its rivals.
Robert Robbins and Scott Osler made the first flight, and Robbins still speaks with affection and respect of the aircraft. Osler, unfortunately, was the first man to die in a B-47, losing his life to an unfortunate accident with a malfunctioning canopy.

Major (later Brigadier General) Guy Townsend, one of the most exacting test pilots in the business, as well as one of the most personable and far-seeing officers, stage managed the acceptance of the radical aircraft into the United States Air Force. It was Townsend who suggested the application of the ribbon-style approach chute to use on landing approach. At one point he induced a reluctant Major General K. B. Wolfe (the man who had introduced the B-29 to the USAAF) to fly in the airplane, and in that one flight convinced him to order the aircraft.

And mention should be made of the hardy Air Force instructor pilots at McConnell Air Force Base, Wichita Kansas, who taught thousands of young pilots how to fly this demanding aircraft.

SIDEBAR TWO: TAKEOFFS AND LANDINGS

For someone used to flying a Boeing B-50, the B-47 was a delight. The technique for takeoffs and landings were quite different, and reflected the jet engines of the era, with their comparatively low thrust and slow acceleration. The bicycle gear took some adjustment, but within a few hours, you could taxi the aircraft to the exact center of the runway, with the aft truck very near the beginning of the overrun area, for you wanted as much runway ahead of you as possible. Power was brought up on all six engines, and stabilized at 100 percent. Brakes were released, and water injection begun. The engine instruments were closely monitored, for if there was going to be trouble, you wanted to know about it as soon as possible. Prior to flight, the takeoff run had been calculated for the predicted temperatures and pressure altitude, and these were monitored prior to takeoff to be sure they were still applicable. There was no difficulty in controlling the aircraft during the takeoff, the rudder providing plenty of authority. Acceleration was pre-computed and monitored closely; if you were not accelerating properly, it was time to abort. There was no “rotation” you simply lifted off (if all was well) at the pre-computed unstick speed (around 155 knots at a typical takeoff weight), and as soon as a positive climb was established, the gear was retracted. Initial climb speed was unstick speed plus twenty. At 300 feet you could begin flap retraction, according to a previously calculated schedule. When the flaps were up you established a 310 knot climb airspeed.

What is not covered in the above is that often you rolled out to the runway in the blazing sun, with cockpit temperatures reaching well above 100, and you would be sweating so hard that the oxygen mask would slip on your face and the helmet slide down. One of the great boons of the B-47 was its air conditioner, and on climb out there would be a sudden refreshing blast of ice cold air that quickly chilled you down. Once established in flight, the aircraft’s temperature was quite comfortable for the pilots, but less so for the navigator.

The approach and landing were also refreshingly different from a piston-engine bomber. In the B-50, you might return to base to find yourself in a stack of ten or fifteen aircraft, and forced to orbit around a navigation aid descending in 1,000 foot increments as aircraft below you were cleared to land. The B-47’s thirst for fuel precluded this, so descents from altitude were made at high speed—6,000 feet per minute—and you were picked up by approach control and vectored in for an instrument approach, or cleared for a visual approach. . Landing the B-47 required a long flat approach, and careful management of speed. The “best flare” speed was based on aircraft weight, of course, and you entered the local pattern at “best flare” plus 30 knots. (For example, at a landing weight of 115,000 pounds, with flaps down, the best flare speed would be 137 mph with a touchdown speed of 128 mph.) The downwind leg was about two miles out (in a no-wind situation). Landing gear was down, the approach parachute was deployed and flaps were set for landing. You began the turn to base about forty-five seconds after passing the approach end of the runway, using about 30 degrees of bank, and of course varying this to compensate for any wind. The initial rate of descent was about 400 feet per minute. The turn was continued into the base, where you rolled wings level briefly to check for traffic, reduced your airspeed to best-flare plus twenty knots, and rolled in again for your final approach. When lined up on final, rate of descent maintained at 400 feet per minute, with a speed of best flare plus ten. As you crossed the numbers, you wanted to be at best flare speed, you reduced power further, slowed to touchdown speed, touched down, popped the brake chute, and then applied the anti-skid brakes.

Again, this rather clinical approach does not consider cross winds, turbulence, fatigue and the other normal factors that make landings interesting. But the B-47 was under normal circumstances not a difficult aircraft to land.

Suggested Readings:

B-47 Stratojet: Boeing’s Brilliant Bomber, by Jan Tegler, the Walter J. Boyne Military Aircraft Series, McGraw Hill, New York, 2000

Boeing B-47 Stratojet by Lindsay Peacock, Osprey Air Combat series, Osprey Publishing Company, United Kingdom.

B-47 Stratojet by Alwyn T. Lloyd, Detail & Scale, Volume 18,
TAB Books, Inc. PA, 1986

The B-47 Stratojet Association has a great website at http://www.b-47.com/

50 Responses to Boeing B-47 – The Most Significant Multi-Jet Aircraft of All Time

  1. Msgt joseph Dechant

    the B=47 was probally one of the major factors leading to my enlistment in the USAF I used to sit up on top of the windmill north of the barn and watch as they banked for their electronic bomb run on laJunta co the windmill was tall enough and they were low enough that I could see the entire top of the wing as they banked

    • Great to hear from you Msgt Dechant! First let me say that the USAF, and the other services, are able to function only because of the high quality of our non-commissioned officer corps, which has no equal anywhere in the world! Yes, the B-47 would have lots of energy in a turn like that, and you can bet that the dihedral (wing angle with fuselage) increased during a turn like that; at low altitudes, at about 425 knots, the ailerons would be rock solid–you couldn’t move them because of the thin wing inducing “aileron reversal” at that speed. To make a sharp turn at low level, you wanted to be down considerably in your airspeed, and the sharper the bank, the lower the airspeed. Poor Col. McCoy pulled the wings off an early B-47 doing a sharp turn at a higher speed than the plane could tolerate. I used this incident in my novel (with Steven Thompson) The Wild Blue. All best wishes, Joe!
      walt

  2. Having flown the b 47 for about ten years. I think the reason for so many crashes was the labs maneuvers. We liked to call it one a day in Tampa bay. But quite a few were in the gulf of Mexico.I seem to remember these things were started at 425 kts and you had to pull back quite a bit for the aircraft to match the timer in climbing. I seem to recall having to pull 2 1/2 g for a long time. At the top you had to let the nose fall thru the horizon and began to pick up speed to roll out and continue

    • Thanks Paul, I salute you for having ten years in the B-47, which was practically its entire service life. Yes the lab maneuvers were tough on the airplane and the milk-bottle pin modifications were expensive, but had to be done. 2-1/2 Gs was the max as I recall–. It was a great plane for it’s time and served as the format for a lot of follow-on airplanes, right down till today.
      Best regards
      Walt

  3. MSGT James Brown, USAF (Ret)

    I have many memories of working on the B-47, some good and some not so good. She was a beautiful acft. I was assigned to the 308th BW 57-59, then to the 380th BW 59-63. My last duty was as the crew chief of B-47 53-2399 at Plattsburgh AFB, NY. Then I moved on to the KC-135 at Seymour-Johnson AFB, NC.

    • I salute you for your service; I think air crews and ground crews of the B-47 got much closer than on prevous bombers because so many of the tasks were mutual, e.g. liquid oxygen re-filling, refueling, getting the drag and brake chutes locked up, etc. Thanks so much for all your heop and thanks forhaving a great career!

      Walt

    • David Sargent

      Dear Sir,

      You mention your service with the 308thBW. Did you visit Bruntingthorpe for exercise Snow Flurry, which took place with the arrivals on Monday March 10th 1958 until Sunday March 16th 1958. I cycled up to the base from nearby Lutterworth, the day before they departed with another B-47 enthusiast, Brandon White. It was an unforgettable site to see, at very close range over twenty aircraft (the rest of the wing were at Fairford at this time doing TDY). Missing from our logs was tail number 53-1876 – this was involved in the Mars Bluff incident on Tuesday March 11th. I also recall a B-47 leaving Bruntingthorpe in the early hours, over Lutterworth. Yes, the B-47 will be remembered by aa UK air enthusiasts of that era.

      • Dear David,
        I was with the 93rd BW, and wasn’t at Bruntingthorpe ever, to my regret. Yes a gaggle of B-47s was an impressive sight. I can recall sitting in a line they ultimately amounted to about 45 aircraft–the complement of the 328thm, 329th and 330th Bomb Squadrons taking off on a unit simulated combat mission. On one such event, a tanker had crashed before the B-47s began taking off, and we flew through the smoke. Everyone had the same thought, sorrow for the guys who had bought it in the KC-135, and for their families, and the recognition, that the family of every crew members would know of the crash before they knew who was in it, and all would be worried sick. The notifications were not made, of course, until the deceased crew members had been identified for sure.
        All best wishes

        Walt

  4. When I was 8 years old I sat on my front doorstep in the afternoon and watched LABS practice runs upon my hometown, Kingsport, TN at the foot of the Shenendoah Valley.

    The valley runs from North of Washington, DC to Kingsport on its Southwest corner. Interstate 81 runs down the center of the valley. All along 81 as you go Northeast there are munitions plants aka practice targets. Kingsport was the last and the LABS target.

    They entered low, crossing Chestnut Ridge and began their pull up crossing it. This had them at a perfect release point about 1/2 way up Immelman to point their nose toward Kentucky border as they pulled down and awy low.. 56 years later I can finally replicate this with out 1/8.7669 scale B-47 jhet measuring 158″ w/s by 150″ long. Gotta love it guys! ! !

  5. We are looking for pilots and crew of WB-47B-30-BW 51-2115 / aka / 51-D12115 the dolled up International Orange striped WB. We are looking for personal photos shot either on the tarmac or in the air during missions to accompany other images in that plane’s documentation binder. This is the King Bee graphic with the “stinger” tail.

    • Thanks, Ed, and congratulations on your experience watching and more on your experience building. It must take a great deal of courage to actually fly your B-47 model after all the years you must have spent building it!. You are no doubt a member of AMA, part of NAA, of which I am chairman, so I will be cheering your efforts in the FAI World Championship!
      Best of luck and thanks again
      Walt

  6. Col Sanford Graves

    Walter,thanks for a fabulous article about a fabulous bird. Brought back many memories. I flew 47’2 for eight years at Barksdale and Pinecastle/McCoy. Probably the best, most interesting years of my career.
    Praise to the crews but also unlimited kudos to all the NCO’s and enlisted men who worked tirelessly, not only daily but on our any deployments. Thanks again for remembering. sandy graves.

    • Dear Sanford, thanks for your comments. You are so right about the NCO’s and enlisted forces, who gave their all, every day. And it was a time when the U.S. had AIRPOWER, 600, 800 bombers ready to go within a half hour; today we have the fantasy of stealth and PGMs, all susceptible to cyber attacks, and so pathetically few in number that it makes me sick.

      Best
      Walt

  7. Dear Walter,
    My new book, Jet Age Man: SAC B-47 and B-52 Operations in the Early Cold War (Helion hardcover), should be available within the next couple of weeks. In the B-47 section, titled “The Sweetest Killer I Ever Flew,” I echo many of your conclusions, especially that the B-47 was probably the most influential aircraft ever built. You can read my Jet Age Man interview at http://www.helion.co.uk/blog/. If you wish, I can send you a .pdf copy of the final galley proof or request a review copy, whichever you prefer. Please feel free to contact me by email.
    Regards, Mac

    • Mac, I believe I replied to this befoer, but congratulations, and good luck with the book. I would prefer a review copy, as pdfs are hard on my eyes for some reason. I’ll be glad to do a review as well.
      Best
      Walt

  8. A little known fact. The B-47 standing as a gate guard at Whiteman AFB MO (currently home of the B-2) was used for high alitiude flight inpsection. USAF AACS needed an aircraft that could flight check the high altitude TACAN approaches and airways as well as long range radars. The only aircraft capable of performing this mission for extended time was the B-47. The remainder of flight check aircraft were C-47s and C-54s. With the arrival of the C-140A jetstar, the B-47 was retired from the mission.

  9. Walter,

    1.) Another quick question if you don’t mind. The WB’s mission platform was or was “not” focused by the need-to-know relative to radiation fallout sampling? I understand the obvious “pathfinder” mission relative to 24/7 atmosphereic data for mission planning… However, with massive onboard particulate sampling instrumentation, it would appear the mission plan focus was fallout sampling to identify Soviet atmostpheric nuclear weapon testing dynamics.

    http://www.wattflyer.com/forums/attachment.php?attachmentid=151105&d=1311364830

  10. While stationed in the 3rd Aviation Depot Sqdn. At Andersen AFB on Guam in 1956 we went on alert when we almost went to war over the Suez Canal. We broke out “war reserve” 20MM point detonating high explosive incendiary ammunition, ran it through the repositioning machine and transported it to 45 – B-47 aircraft, then loaded all 45 aircraft with external JATO racks, then loaded 18 JATO bottles per aircraft. By then we were sufficiently tired. We hoped the call would not come down to load the nukes. We knew that if we loaded them, we really were going to war. As history will recall, we finally got the call to off-load everything that had been loaded. While we were glad to do this, it certainly made for a very long night (the entire alert was at night).

    • Thank you Randy for a great story and some insight into the kind of power our non-commissioned officers provided the service. No other nation has anything like them for their responsibility and capability. I’m going to forward your message to my wife, a Hungarian freedom fighter, and her Hungarian friends, who always feel that the U.S. did not do what it should have done 56 years ago at the time of the Suez crisis and the Hungarian Revolution. I salute you and your comrades for their service.
      Walt

  11. As an observer in the 305th BW, 366th Sqdn., I spent 953 hours in this plane in the late 50′s. We were based at MacDill field and later Bunker Hill AFB. I flew many low-level missions using one of the two techniques I believe were in use. We would drop to 750 feet off the deck about 30 or 40 minutes prior to bombs away and fly at 425 IAS until about 60 seconds til bombs-away, climbed to 3500 ft, levelled off, dropped the bomb and made an immediate turn. 425k, by bhe way, was the redline speed on this aircraft. Our (make-believe) bomb was equipped with a chute to slow its descent. This maneuver was not as damaging to the aircraft’s frame as the alternate which was the LABS maneuver including the Immelman.
    The nut-case who thought this one up, knowing the tenderness of the 47′s structure (or not?), must have been high on something. Our maneuver plus the mere beating the plane took absorbing ground-effect for lengthy periods still caused the damage mentioned in some above comments about the ‘milk-bottle’ episodes. By the way, after each flight the ground crew would inspect the wing roots and if the crack length reached a certain point, ( Boeing certified) the plane would be ferried to Tinker AFB. My crew delivered a few of these over many months. As an indication of the USAF’s concern for civilians’ safety, we flew from Tampa over the gulf to a point south of Houston before going north over land. We hardly ever flew over the gulf otherwise on legs of missions.
    This was a great plane to be a part of even with its faults. I am sure each of the three crew-members got a lot of satisfaction being associated with it.

    • Thanks so much for this Bob; it is a great description of the “pop-up”. The Air Force simply asked too much of the aircraft, and it cost to many lives, as we both know from experience. I didn’t do the pop up in SAC, but did in AFSC at the 4925th Nuclear Test Group. On one mission i flew the aircraft at 456 knots as low as possible across the desert with, of course, no aileron control available at all. If something had happened, all you could do was retard the throttles and pull back reasonably gently on the stick. As you say it was a great airplane, we are lucky to have lived through it (more than 200 were lost) and iut gave the U.S. power that was undeniable around the world. Now we spend our time in an expensive assassination by drone and PGM that works, but at tremendous cost, and to no real avail, as there will always be 8 terrorists to replace every one we hit with a precision guided missile.

      Best regards

      Walt

  12. Mr. Boyne it is a pleasure reading your article, stories like these makes a young man want to enlist and defend our country. My grandfather told me to give your article a read and made a comment a couple up above, he’s told me a number of stories that has left me wondering what it’d be like to experience something as thrilling as being part of a B-47 bomber. Anyhow I appreciate the article and wish you and your family a happy holiday season.

    • Thanks, John, and give my best to your grandfather. I can tell you it was thrilling to be young, part of a B-47 cerw, and taking part in the exercises of the time,which were deadly serious. I have an article coming out in Air Force Magazine early next year on the hazards of flying the aircraft–between 1956 and 1959 they were losing about two B-47s a month, almost all with fatal results. Nonetheless, there was nothing like it in the air at the time and it was a privilege to fly it.
      Best regards
      Walt

  13. Anybody recall the lone RB stationed at WPAFB during the early 60′s? A few of us newly-minted 2nd Lieutenants got on a hazard duty panel to “test human performance” picking out ground targets in real time. We froze our you-know-whats in long missions in the observer’s station while the pilots cranked up the air conditioning in the topside greenhouse. Those sadistic pilots had “games” arranged for us rookies. One during startup was to arrange for carbon dioxise flakes to spew out the air conditioner that vented onto the observer’s lap. Yelling “smoke! smoke! over the intercom tested how fast the rookie could abandon ship. I may have set the record by accidentally snagging my D-ring while scrambling down the ladder. Shroud lines payed-out behind me as I sprinted away, only to be knocked flat when it snagged. The crew nearly died laughing. As a gift my wife just got me a flight manual on CD. I looked for the bizarre maneuver specified for low altitude ejection, but didn’t find it. Is it true or just more teasing that during a low altitude emergency the pilot is required to roll the troubled aircraft upside down to safely eject the observer, then right it to eject the pilots? (Then the knowing “looks” about whether that we in fact “possible” etc etc.) Any chance that stuff was just more jazz to keep a rookie sweating?

    • Hello Dave, what a great inquiry!!! I was at WP during that period, but flying conventional aircraft out of Wright field. I’d never heard of the carbon dioxide gag, which was a good one. In terms of rolling the B-47 to let the Radar Observer eject it was never (ovviously) a procedure, by my R/O, Captain John Rosene, would routinely ask during take off that if we got in trouble would we roll a bit to the side so that he could eject. Thank goodness we neer had to, for in most B-47 crashes after takeoff the plane never reached an altitude where a roll would not have stuck a wing into the ground. Having a flight manual on CD back then was unusual, wasn’t it?
      The observers who flew in the “hold” in the RB-47s were heroes in my book–cramped, dark, miserable, and truly, no way out in trouble, unless the difficulty was something whee the A/C could keep the airplane straight and level for a long time.

      All the best, and I salute your B-47 experience!

      walt

  14. In your write-up you mentioned “a series of six crashes between March 13 and April 15, 1958.” My father was in the pilot seat of the B-47E that went down in Tampa Bay on April 15, 1958. He had more than 1,000 hours as an instructor pilot in B-47s, but because we had just been transferred to MacDill the month before, he was required to make two qualification flights with MacDill instructors. Supposedly the airplane had been checked for wing spar cracks in the days before the flight, but apparently not checked well enough. The plane took off in turbulent weather, and achieved an altitude of less than 1,000 feet before the right wing separated. Though the copilot (instructor Maj. Carter) initiated the ejection sequence, the crew had insufficient time to eject. The canopy separated, and the copilot’s seat had started up the rail when the plane hit the water. All four crew members perished.

    • I’m very sorry to learn of y our loss Mr. Ferreira, it was the sad fate of so many B-47 crew-members. The airplane was simply too advanced in aerodynamics and insufficiently advanced in structure, training and safety procedures. I will have an article on the B-47 appearing in Air Force Magazine in the next couple of months in which I deal with the problem of B-47 crashes.
      Best regards
      Walt

      • I’m very sorry to learn of y our loss Mr. Ferreira, it was the sad fate of so many B-47 crew-members. The airplane was simply too advanced in aerodynamics and insufficiently advanced in structure, training and safety procedures. I will have an article on the B-47 appearing in Air Force Magazine in the next couple of months in which I deal with the problem of B-47 crashes.
        Best regards
        Walt

  15. Dr. Don Mackison

    Walt: I just read your B-47 article in Feb. Air Force. I was far from that part of the USAF (Nav School, Harlingen, 1958, back to college 1959-1961), I applied for a flying slot upon graduation in 1961, got a Minute Man assignment instead. By that time I was in grad school, left the USAF and spent three years working nuclear sub nav at Johns Hopkins before getting into space assignments. My neighbor in Colorado Springs, 1973-76 was an IOC B-47 IP at Schilling (Mike Moser) who had a collection of B-47 horror stories- at the top of an Immelman at night indicating 63 kts, instead of 135 (survived). A fellow instructor at that time was flying from the back seat, at night. The bomb release light blinked on, then off. The IP lost situational awareness, hit the bailout bell. By that time the a/c had completed a loop, and was just off the deck. The nav went straight into the ground, and was killed. The student pilot was ejected, but because of the 8 second lap belt release delay, his seat hit the ground with him in it. The IP was thrown clear, good chute, and survived because he was flying w/o his lap belt fastened. He was grounded for improper airmanship- because of the lap belt.

    While at Denver U., 1959-61, several navs who I had known at Harlingen punched out at the Lowry Bombing Range. Some survived, some did not.

    Regards,
    Don Mackison

    • Don, that was really horrifying. The lowest number I’d heard of previously for the top of a LABS was 85 mph; why this one did not fall straight out of the sky as rock, I don’t know; what a tragedy. The IP was extraordinarily lucky , but deserves the blame.
      Take care
      Walt

    • Don, I think I replied to this by email. But that is a true horror story. The lowest recorded airspeed I had read of in the past at the top of the LABS maneuver was 85 mph. You’d think the airplane would just fall like a concrete brick, but I guess the momentum carries it forward to get flying speed. It was a tough time for casualties, no doubt about it.
      Walt

      • Dear Sir:
        The aircraft accident described above sounds like the one I remember from the 379th BS of the 310th Bomb Wing out of Schilling. I was in the 310 A&E at the time and remember that accident. It was a sad day for the 379th on that day.

        Also, the B-47′s and KC-97′s were in England for the Hungarian revolt and the Suez Canal. We where on alert the full time and given 2 minutes tio catch the nearest plane and leave England for Iceland or Greenland. We where stationed at Upper Heyford RAF Station with the KC-97′s. Our B-47′s where at Greenham Commons. Brings back a lot of memories. Latter I worked on the Milk Bottle Program at MccLellan AFB in Sacramento. I left the AF when I returned to Schilling in the late fall of 58′ That was a very interesting article on the B-47, which I thought from a maintenance of the radio and navigation equipment was a good aircraft.

        • Thanks very much for your insight, Tom; it was a great time to be in the Air Force and a great airplane to be associated with. I took one B-47 to McClellan for the Milk Bottle fix, and as I recall, it was very very hot!
          All the best
          Walt

  16. Mr. Boyne, what a great article! My former father-in-law was one of the first Nav’s in the -47, having come from -29′s on Guam, 1945. I was fortunate to have flown as a b0mb/nav on the -47 myself in the early 60′s. I closed down the 340th at Whiteman, 40th at Forbes, and the 310th at Schilling. A couple of stunts come to mind: at altitude in clear skies we would open the sextant port in the nose, stick the water thermos in it, open the valve and ice over the windshield; and, remember the yaw string ? One could again open that sextant port, secure ones T-shirt around a finger and feed it out into the slipstream causing the AC to think his vision was going. Loved that B-47. Regards, Bob Irvine.

    • Bob, I salute you and your former father in law–we are all survivors of the best–and most dangerous–airplane of the time. I’d never heard of your stung of using the sextant to spray water and ice over the windscreen and yaw string!. A great story!
      All best wishes

      Walt

  17. Thanks for finally writing about > Boeing B-47 – The Most Significant Multi-Jet Aircraft of All Time |
    The Surly Bonds of Earth < Liked it!

  18. Myron Berliner

    On February 5th, 1958, during a B-47E, night training mission over water near San Miguel Island off the coast of Southern California went off the radar screen of the Naval Radar station on the coast. The mission was to have each of the three pilots perform an immelman turn manuever at night in preparation for each pilot’s crew to become combat ready for a night mission! All three were Aircraft Commanders of Select Crews, two were on Stanboard, and all three had extensive flying time. They went off the radar screen, and after two days of searching with KC-97′s the search was terminated. To the best of my knowledge/recollection, I was never on a hairclipper mission again.
    The instrument used for this maneuver. It was a “G and Heading” Meter patterned after an ILS Meter. The bomb release mechanism was automatically controled.
    Major Crump’s crew had previously used a concrete replica of the payload in a drop over a Naval Bomb Site.
    The A/Cs were Lt. Col. Lloyd, Lt. Col. Griffin and Maj. Elvis Ray Crump.
    We had performed about twenty Immelman Turn maneuvers before our A/C, Major Crump was killed that night.

    • What a sad, revealing story; can you imagine what the media would do with a story like this today? At the time, it was virtually ignored. A night LABS maneuver over water was if not suicidal at least extraordinarily demanding. Thanks for your comments, and a salute to all three crews and their families!

      Walt

  19. Samuel (Sam) Bell

    I was in the 367 Bomb squadron at McDill AFB when the first B 47 arrived. I had finished aircraft / power plant ( engine) school, the first jet aircraft and first jet engine school the A/F had. It was 12 of us mechanics that finished all of these schools together and was sent to the 367 for the arrival of the B47. We were a little ahead of time and helped the 367 Sq. finished getting rid of the B 29 and B 50. (What a dirty job for us jet guys). We were the first mechanics assigned to the B 47 ‘s that arrive at McDill. What a great experience.

    • It must have been a wonderful experience Sam, and I congratulate you on it! Yes the B-47 was a lot more fun to fly and to maintain than the piston engine bombers!
      All the best

      Walt

  20. Glenn C. Bingham

    I, a life long model builder, have purchased a 1/72 scale Hasegawa B-47E kit and several upgrade sets with the intention of building the RB-47E that Harold Austin flew over Russia on 8 May 1954. I only recently became aware of this mission when I read William E. Burrows “By Any Means Necessary”. Can you recommend a source of accurate drawings of the RB so that I may build a new correct nose. When I was about eight, living in Deming, NM, H. R. Austin was married to one of my Aunts, and he took me up in a cub, my very first airplane ride. Alas a year or so later they divorced.

    • Glenn, I salute you for your model building skills, which I sadly lack. I think that your best source, although not a drawing, but really good photographic coverage from which you can induce the drawing information, is Al Lloyd’s great book on the B-47, available used from Amazon. The title is Boeing B-47 Stratojet. Al was an engineer at Boeing, and had access to the best of drawings and photographs. Sadly he passed away a few years ago, much before his time.
      Best wishes

      Walt

  21. doug constantine

    Walt, I accidently came across your web site this am. I want to thank you for all you have done and the very pleasurable approach that you use. I also appreciate the way you always treat everybody equally and with respect. You are a great human being.

    Your admirer, Doug Constantine

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