The B-47 was the first all-jet production bomber in the Air Force and was the backbone of SAC's bomber fleet in the 1950s. The B-47 was classified as a medium bomber and was not intended for worldwide missions even though it could be refueled in flight. The Boeing B-47 Stratojet was considered a perfect match for requirements by American military strategic planners during the Korean War and Cold War periods. During the 1950s, the Strategic Air command formed 28 medium bomb wings along with a few RB-47E reconnaissance wings.
A number of model changes occurred over the life of the B-47 with several variations emerging. But the RB-47E was the was the best of the B-47s. The B-47E was later modified to perform specific duties needed for photomapping and weather reconnaissance. This version became the RB-47K. The last version of the B-47 was the ERB-47H model. As an electronic/reconnaissance version it was used to monitor enemy radio and radar stations and could detect their missions. These planes were based overseas and operated from friendly countries to fly reconnaissance missions off the coasts of Russia, North Korea, China and other areas.
The reconnaissance version of the B-47 was the only plane which flew actual combat missions that the military may have found necessary to perform in case of nuclear war. They were used to constantly check weather along projected bombing routes, photograph enemy installations and monitor defensive radar systems. The reconnaissance models of the B-47 provided invaluable data for Strategic Air Command's huge bomber fleet during the period 1954 to 1964. The secret to its success was versatility and the capability of the air frame to adapt to a number of varied missions while still maintaining excellent performance.
Following its first flight of on July 3, 1953, the RB-47E went on to perform some of the most sensitive reconnaissance missions of the Cold War.
On 8 May 1954, KC-97G tankers of the 91st SRW deployed at Brize were involved in one of the most secret incidents of the Cold War. That morning three of the new RB-47E photo-recce Stratojets took off from Fairford and refuelled from Brize-based KC-97G off Norway. At the North Cape, 2 of the RB-47s turned for home but one, piloted by Colonel Harold 'Hal' Austin, flew into Soviet airspace with a Top Secret brief to photograph Russian airfields at Murmansk and Arkangelsk. After flying for an hour over the Soviet Union at 40,000ft Austin was intercepted by new Mig 17 fighters which proceeded to open fire on the Stratojet, damaging the wing and fuselage. After a high altitude running battle, Col Austin and his crew crossed in to Finnish airspace and escaped their pursuers. However, their tanker had given up on them and returned to base. Austin's aircraft was damaged and very short of fuel. As they coasted out over Norway, he climbed to 43,000ft and set the most economical cruise speed. 150 nautical miles from England it looked like they would not make it and all their efforts would come to nothing with the loss of their invaluable film. Austin tried to contact the alert tanker at Brize Norton but the radio was damaged and only a broken message was heard by Jim Rigley, the captain of the waiting KC-97G. Rigley recognised Austin's voice and guessed he needed help. However, Brize ATC had an emergency in progress and refused Rigley permission to take off. Rigley tookoff anyway and met Austin's RB-47 as it descended towards Brize. He turned in front of the Stratojet and with Austin's gauges reading zero, he pumped in 12,000lb of fuel. Austin was able to land at Fairford where his Top Secret film was whisked away. Rigley faced a Court Martial back at Brize Norton but SAC Commander, General Curtis LeMay personally quashed the charges. The details of this mission remained classified until 1995 but it gives some idea of how SAC's Cold War warriors operated.
During its service, at least two of these planes were lost flying missions over the Soviet Union. On 01 July 1960 an RB-47H over the Barentz Sea was downed by Vasili Poliakov. John McKone, the navigator and Bruce Olmstead (the co-pilot?) survived. The pilot, Bill Palm was killed, as were the other three crewmembers, the ELINT operators.
These models were eventually phased out and replaced with the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|