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RB-66A (Non-Production Aircraft)

On 12 February 1952 letter contract AF 33(600)-9646 initiated the procurement of a test quantity of 5 RB-66As. The purchase of 2 Navy A3Ds, also directed by the Air Staff, was cancelled after AMC pointed out that the testing value of the 2 would be negligible in view of the anticipated differences in the Air Force version. The February letter contract gave way to a definitive contract, which was signed on 4 December 1952. In spite of the configuration changes that were to be expected, the Air Force originally thought that the urgently needed RB-66As would be more or less off, the-shelf copies of the A3D. Hence, there would be no experimental or prototype B/RB-66s. Moreover, the December contract already called for production tooling for a peak rate of 12 airplanes per month by March 1955, and for a total of 342 airplanes. The Air Materiel Command warned, however, that since no A3Ds had been produced it could not properly assess the cost of changes necessary to satisfy USAF requirements. This precluded the usual fixed-price-firm (FPF) type of agreement then favored by the Air Force. Instead, the December contract covered cost, plus a guaranteed profit of 6 percent. In the meantime, Letter Contract AF 33(600)-16314 had been signed on 24 April 1952. This contract, providing for the fiscal year 1953 procurement of 127 RB-66As, also did not follow the standard procurement pattern. It was first negotiated as a FPF contract with a renegotiable clause, but reverted to the terms of the preceding letter contract in August of the same year, when the FY 53 procurement of the B/RB-66s was significantly altered.

The RB-66A's official mockup inspection was held at the Douglas Long Beach Plant, California, from 27 June through 2 July. Sixty-three of 83 changes requested by the board members were approved. Most of the endorsed alterations were minor, a main exception concerning the aircraft's landing gear. The Mockup Board determined that the landing apparatus of the RB-66A, now stressed to the 70,000 pounds of the configuration first sought by the Air Force, would be altered in order to accept the 83,000 pound limit of the B-66. The decision confirmed the Air Force's intent to keep reconnaissance and bomber versions as similar as possible. Obviously, it also promised to simplify production.

Instead of producing radical changes, the RB-66A mockup inspection merely verified the basic configuration that had evolved since February 1952, when the first technical inspection of the aircraft had taken place. This configuration had become quite different from the slightly modified A3D aircraft envisioned by the Air Force. Hence there would be only 5 RB-66As; these aircraft would be used for testing, and subsequent productions would be known as RB-66Bs. Finally, the letter contract of April 1952 that had called for 127 RB-66s would be immediately amended. The amendment would reduce the fiscal year 1953 procurement to 99 aircraft-73 RB-66Bs and 26 B-60s.

If the configuration changes, program revisions, and procurement amendments deriving from such changes seemed confusing, they were not particularly unusual. The Air Force was prepared to cope with these factors, its task greatly eased because selection of the basic A3D design had been unanimous, a rather extraordinary occurrence. Actually, the Air Force's essential concern was to ensure that no configuration changes would preclude the urgently needed program from proceeding as scheduled. To that effect, a conference held in August paved the way for prompt approval of the B-66B configuration. In the same month, the Air Force directed a review of available and forthcoming electronic countermeasures components that could possibly be installed in the entire B/RB-66 fleet. Early in 1953, the Air Force ordered procurement of the RB-66C, the RB-66's ferret version, and decided that the future B-66B would carry only atomic or modern conventional bombs, and not the bulkier high explosives from World War II. Late in the year, as the Allison J71 successfully completed its 50-hour test, AMC ended its search for an alternate engine, which until then had been considered an unavoidable form of insurance (The term "ferret" denotes an aircraft specifically equipped to detect, locate, record, and analyze electromagnetic radiation.).

The RB-66A's initial flight on 28 June 1954 was 6 months behind schedule and could hardly be called a success. Engineering flaws appeared that required immediate attention. The aircraft did not handle well, the landing gear doors did not function properly, and vision from the canopy was poor. Although the Air Force officially accepted the initial RB-66A (Serial No. 52-2828) in June, it did not take possession of the plane, leaving it with Douglas for correction of the most obvious defects, prior to the beginning of the usual contractor flight tests. Douglas pilots flew the plane thoroughly, accumulating by mid-1956 300 hours of flying time in 192 flights. Completion of the contractor's Phase I and Phase II tests in June 1956 marked the beginning of additional special modifications. When these changes were completed in October 1957, the plane was loaned to the Hughes Aircraft Company to participate in various experimental programs. However, Hughes pilots did not fly the plane, and it was returned to the Air Force in March 1958.

Flight of the first RB-66A was promptly followed by delivery of the 4 other RB-66As ordered from Douglas. The Air Force accepted these planes between August and December 1954, gaining nothing but problems in the process. Speed and load restrictions placed in effect in August hampered testing, actually preventing the early detection of many additional deficiencies. Yet, the restrictions could not be avoided. As suspected, even before the RB-66A's initial flight, the aircraft's flight control system was unreliable, and flying the plane using emergency manual control had proven hazardous. Besides, the RB-66A was unstable because its wings vibrated excessively, and the aircraft had the dangerous habit of pitching-up unexpectedly.

The Air Force knew that an improved cockpit, giving the pilot better visibility, might not appear on the B/RB-66s before production of the 100th aircraft, but it did not anticipate the many aerodynamic shortcomings that came to light as soon as the RB-66As were flown. AMC's San Bernardino Air Materiel Area, responsible for the new weapon system, faced a difficult situation in the fall of 1954. TAC thought the first aircraft would be forthcoming in February; Douglas admitted this could not be done, but insisted that deliveries could start no later than July-which was still unrealistic. The contractor, naturally enough, contended that the B/RB-66 was a good aircraft, which could be improved in several stages. Yet., Douglas was unable to estimate the impact of the future modification work, since not enough was then known to define the number and types of changes needed. Tb the contractor's credit, Douglas at the time was also asking for an accelerated and intensified flight-test program. Meanwhile, the Air Force plant representative had reported that the contractor, to prevent further slippage of its original production schedule, was excessively resorting to expensive overtime. In late December, as recommended by the Air Materiel Command, Headquarters USAF cut off all overtime at the Douglas Plant and asked AMC to consider stopping or at least limiting production. In early 1955, the Air Staff began to investigate which aircraft could be substituted for the B/RB-66s, should this program be canceled. No rash decision had to be made, but the Air Staff wanted AMC and Air Research and Development Command to complete as soon as practicable their on-going evaluation of the new aircraft's many problems.

Even though AMC and ARDC gave the Air Staff their appraisal of the Douglas program in February 1955, the B/RB-66's fate was not immediately determined. There were valid reasons for the delay. Phase II flight-test results were an essential part of the combined review. However, because of the flying restrictions still imposed on the RB-66As, the Air Force tests, like those conducted by the contractor, were not totally conclusive. For example, the airplane's high-speed limitations were still unknown. A great deal remained to be done. The static test program was incomplete, and the majority of the aircraft's equipment and subsystems had yet to be tested. Finally, the modifications needed to correct most of the aircraft's problems had been identified, but not verified. In essence, the 2-command evaluation of February 1955 pointed out that immediate termination of the program would cost the Air Force $300 million, a total that would double by mid-May. If the potential loss of $600 million influenced the Air Force to retain the program, the lack of suitable replacement aircraft undoubtedly was an equally important factor. At a meeting held in Washington on 17 May, General Nathan F Twining, Air Force Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Clarence S. Irvine, Deputy Chief of Staff for Materiel, Lt. Gen. Frank R Everest, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, and Mr. Roger Lewis, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Materiel, all agreed to stay with the program. However, this was not a blanket endorsement of the B/RB-66 aircraft, and several conditions, listed by the Air Materiel Command, qualified the decision, which in the long run would prove to be sound. As so often the case with many of the Air Force's new aircraft, the B/RB-66s had a shaky beginning, underwent many changes, but ended paying dividends.

Retention of the B/RB-66 was accompanied by a significant reduction of the program. Yet, it took several months to study the cost and logistic aspects of various possible changes. The Air Staff's goal, as related to AMC in late May, was to "reduce the B-66 program by the most economical and feasible method and still retain an RB-66B/C capabilty" By mid-August, a revised program, developed by AMC and Douglas, was approved by Headquarters USAF The revision reflected an overall decrease of 48 aircraft from the total once approved for procurement. As directed, the brunt of the decrease fell on the B-66Bs.

Engineering changes, as worked out between the Air Force and the prime contractor, were many. Forty-seven of them had been approved by the end of March, and additional ones most likely would be necessary in time. As a start, the Air Force wanted the B/RB-66 aircraft to be equipped with a parachute brake and an anti-skid device; it also desired immediate revision of the cockpit enclosure and relocation of the cockpit instruments. In addition, the aircraft's 2 J71-A-9 engines had to be replaced by more efficient J71-A-1 Is. Of course, these changes did not exempt Douglas from correcting the many problems already uncovered during the aircraft's flight tests. Moreover, none of the aircraft thus far produced by Douglas would be accepted by the Air Force before completion of so-called "turnaround" modifications. Set on preventing further costly mistakes, the Air Force by June 1955 had also imposed various administrative adjustments on the contractor. To begin with, production would not exceed 7 aircraft per month until the fall of the year. All fiscal year 1955 subcontracts, not related to the RB-66C, had to be canceled. Finally, Douglas had to stabilize its labor force at the June 1955 level and keep overtime at or below 7 percent of the total labor effort.

By mid-1955, Douglas had significantly modified 1 RB-66A. The reworked plane featured an improved control system, a reconfigured tail turret, and heavier wing tips. Better engine pylons had been installed, and the J71 -A-9 engines had been replaced by production articles of the Allison J71-A-11. In short, all modifications, recently identified but yet to be verified, had been incorporated into the plane. As directed by the Air Staff in late April, AMC began testing the aircraft's performance in July, which was very soon considering the RB-66A's many changes. Even more rewarding were the test results. Buffet appeared to have been reduced to an acceptable level, the control system worked fairly well, and the aircraft's speed had been increased to 550 knots. AMC was sufficiently impressed to predict that TAC could now expect delivery of its first RB-66s by year's end.

The RB-66A cost per aircraft was: $15.5 million: Airframe, $14,547,896; engines (installed), $719,500; electronics, $122,215; ordnance, $1,557; armament (and others), $125,043.

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