The RB-47E differed outwardly from the B-47E in that its nose was 34 inches longer. An air conditioned compartment in the aircraft's redesigned nose housed cameras and other sensitive equipment. Included were an optical viewfinder, photocell operated shutters actuated by flash lighting for night photography, and intervalometers for photographs of large areas at regularly spaced intervals. The RB-47E had no bombing equipment, but the 20 millimeter tail armament and A-5 fire control system of the B-47E were retained. A photographer/navigator replaced the bombardier in the aircraft's 3 man crew. The RB-47E also featured the internal jet assisted take off system of the earliest B-47Es.
The RB-47E flew sooner than expected. Nonetheless, the problems and delays anticipated by the Air Force in March 1952 (when many B-47Bs were modified for reconnaissance) did occur. It took almost another 2 years for the RB 47E to become a real asset.
An initial RB-47E was assigned to an operational unit in November 1953. This plane featured an interim camera control system that was also due to equip temporarily the next 134 RB-47Es. The sophisticated Universal Camera Control System designed by the Air Force's Photographic Reconnaissance Laboratory, already tested on the RB-47B, and earmarked for the entire RB-47E contingent, would first appear on the 136th RB-47E. Problems with the interim camera control system soon altered the USAF plans. Because of the system's repeated failures, the Air Proving Ground Command recommended early in 1954 that further operational suitability tests of the available RB-47Es be canceled. No meaningful testing could be conducted, Air Proving Ground Command stated, without a RB-47E equipped with the universal system. This fell in line with General LeMay's thinking. The SAC Commander had already advised Maj. Gen. Clarence S. Irvine, AMC Deputy Commander for Production, that the day and night photo capability of the reconnaissance B-47E was unsatisfactory, be it at low or high altitude. General Irvine was quick to point out that minor improvements had been made to the interim camera control system. He willingly admitted, however, that the RB-47E's problems would not be entirely solved prior to the October delivery of the first Universal Camera Control System equipped RB-47E production. Further discussion of the matter ended in May 1954, when the Air Staff decided that the first 135 RB-47Es would receive a simplified camera control system. This seemed to indicate that the aircraft would not undergo retrofit as originally planned and that SAC would be saddled with 2 RB-7E configurations. Although the Air Staff reversed its decision later in the month, this did not mean that all difficulties were over. Shortages of government furnished equipment, chiefly of Universal Camera Control Systems, continued to hinder the program. The Air Force nearly reached its production total of RB-47Es by mid 1955, but many of the aircraft were not fully equipped. Yet phaseout of the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing recipient of the earliest RB-47Es was only 2 years away.
The Air Force took delivery of the 4 last RB-47Es in August 1955.
The Air Force accepted 97 RB-47Es in FY 54, 139 in FY 55, and 19 in FY 56
The Flyaway Cost Per Production Model was $2.05 million. Airframe, $1,409,441; engines (installed), $258,159; electronics, $49,163; ordnance, $6,303; armament and special equipment, $333,847.
On 5 November 1954, the Air Force officially agreed that 15 of SAC's RB-47Es would be fitted with special equipment for both weather and photo reconnaissance operations at low and high altitudes. These new configurations, featuring high resolution and side looking radars, were designated RB-47Ks. The first RB-47K was delivered in December 1955, as scheduled. In essence, the aircraft was an airborne weather information gathering system. SAC wanted the RB-47K to sense, compile, record, and make inflight radio transmissions of weather data. All these tasks were to be done automatically. The RB-47K was also expected to determine the size of clouds as well as to wind speed and direction. This was a large order, and severe equipment problems remained after mid 1956, when the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing reached an initial operational capability. The 55th Wing's 15 RB-47Ks were flown all over the world to provide weather data for SAC and to sample fallouts from foreign nuclear blasts. They were phased out in the early sixties, when some of the last and more efficient B-47Es were modified to assume the weather role.
255 RB-47Es were accepted in 1955 and 1956. Phaseout began initially in 1957, although some remained in service as late as 1967.
The RB-47E phaseout followed the B-47E's pattern, and the first RB-47E (Serial No. 51 5272) was sent to storage at Davis Monthan AFB on 14 October 1957. Nevertheless, a number of reconnaissance B-47s (mostly RB-47Hs) kept on serving SAC for another decade.
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