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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

B-50A Superfortress

The decision to produce the B-50A, first model of the B-50 series, was confirmed on 24 May 1947, nearly 2 years after the aircraft's initial procurement had been authorized.

Official records revealed that 60 B-29s were authorized for procurement in fiscal year (FY) 1946; 73 B-50s in FY 47; 82 in FY 48, and 132 in FY 49. Production of the last B-50 type, a trainer, as decided on 4 May 1951, did not entail any new procurement, only the amendment of an order previously increased for a different model. This order involved an extra 24 aircraft, the quantity eventually built in the trainer configuration. Procurement logs did not reflect such transactions, but the lack of specific procurement data, contract identifications, exact dates, and the like was not unusual. The aircraft's historical documentation in the immediate post-World War II period often proved meager. In the B-50's case, however, the paucity of details was most likely due to the secrecy which shrouded the project from the start. Nevertheless, the B-50 program's production total was accurately recorded. This total reached 370 aircraft, including the first 60 planes ordered as B-29Ds, but excluding 1 prototype, taken out of the FY 47 procurement order, built in 1949, and paid for with development funds.

Officially, there were no experimental or prototype B-50s. In actuality, 7 of the 79 B-50As produced by Boeing were allocated to testing. The first B-50A, Serial No. 46-002, initially flew on 25 June 1947, was accepted by the Air Force on 16 October and delivered on the 31st. The airplane was salvaged at Eglin AFB, Florida, on 12 July 1957, after being finally used to verify a stellar monitoring inertial bombing system. Little remains known of the first aircraft's use during the interim 10 years. It was flown a grand total of 769 hours, of which Boeing logged 324 hours and 13 minutes in 176 flights. The aircraft was also lent to the Bell Aircraft Corporation, which flew it 69 times for a total of 199 hours. The test aircraft then stayed with the A. C. Spark Plug Company of Detroit, Michigan, for almost 2 years, from 26 February 1954 to January 1956. During this time, more than 156 hours were accumulated in 43 flights. Air Force pilots flew the remaining 89 hours, and available reports revealed that Air Materiel Command (AMC) made 4 flights of about 6 hours at the Boeing plant before the aircraft's delivery in October 1947. The first B-50A accepted by the Air Force was reclassified as an EB-50A in March 1949, a classification assigned to any aircraft being modified for the electronic countermeasures role or other related purposes. The aircraft retained this classification until January 1956, when it became known as a JB-50A, indicating that the aircraft was then used for the testing of special instrumentation.

The second B-50A, Serial No. 46-003, accepted by the Air Force also in October, followed its predecessor's path. It was designated EB-50A in November 1947, 1 month after being formally accepted, sent back to Boeing in October 1949, returned to the Air Force on 15 February 1950, and again lent to Boeing in June of the same year. The second EB-50A continued to be tested at the Boeing plant until January 1952, but was retained by the Air Force from then on. The rest of the airplane's operational life was given over to testing, by both Air Research and Development Command and AMC. Most of this was done at Aberdeen, Maryland, where the aircraft was involved in a fatal crash on 24 November 1952. Available records indicate that Air Force pilots only flew the plane 59 times.9 Five of the other B-50As, earmarked for testing from the start, were obviously used to devise the special modifications required by the upgraded and highly classified atomic program. Basic testing data, therefore was also highly classified and strictly disseminated. An extra and vastly improved B-50A was entirely confined to testing in order to develop the canceled B-54.

The AAF thought that some B-50s would be available in September 1947, and that 36 of the aircraft would be immediately delivered to the Air Materiel Command for atomic modification. It was also believed the programmed modifications would be easier to accomplish than the latest performed on the B-29s, because part of the work would have already been done in production. These estimates proved wrong. Slow delivery of the B-50 postponed the beginning of the modification program to 1 February 1948, and the time spent modifying each B-50 jumped from an estimated 3,500 to some 6,000 manhours. In retrospect, however, there seems to have been scant ground for criticism. The B-50 modification program, together with that of the B-29, promised all along to be complex. As it turned out, the project became far more involved than anticipated.

As an improved version of the B-29, the modifications of the B-50 were of necessity closely interlaced with those performed on the basic aircraft. For the same reason, aware that the B-50's performance would be only slightly better than that of the B-29, the Air Staff by late 1949 had ceased to contemplate large-scale production of the planet' The B-50 was to be a stopgap, to be used until an aircraft more suitable for the delivery of atomic weapons became available. Its extended operational life in this role was dictated by circumstances, not by choice. Therefore, additional, unanticipated modifications became necessary and proved costly.

As directed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in January 1948-when the B-36 program appeared once again on the verge of collapse 12 and only 3 B-50s had been delivered-the large-scale atomic project to improve SAC's operating capability called for numerous separate projects. Modification of bombers to carry new atomic bombs was the primary requirement, but other required changes were important. The bombers needed a greater range, which meant that they would have to be modified for in-flight refueling and tankers would be needed. In addition, the bombers would have to fly in the worst climate, which also meant that most of them would have to be winterized. Finally, the Joint Chiefs' project required that several bombers be fitted with electronics that could withstand the cold weather of the arctic, and that other significant modifications be made to various types of aircraft in order to make sure that the atomic carriers would be given the best chances of survival.

Inevitably, estimates of modification costs proved highly unrealistic. To make matters worse, the many extra modifications directed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff took place when money was particularly scarce. For example, in August 1948 lack of funds nearly stopped the B-50 modifications being done at the Boeing-Wichita Plant. Moreover, as time went by and a variety of more sophisticated bombs entered the stockpile, the program's complexity grew and new modifications were needed. Obviously, overall costs also rose.

Meanwhile, three-fourths of the additional bombers earmarked by the Joint Chiefs to carry new atomic bombs had received the necessary primary modifications by 15 December 1948. In addition, except for 15 B-50As, all modified bombers had received new standard electronics. Every one of the 72 B-50As involved in the project had been winterized; 57 of them had been fitted for air refueling, and 15 had been given arctic electronics. Production difficulties, program changes, and funding uncertainties delayed some of the modifications. But, save for a few minor exceptions, the Air Force met the Joint Chiefs' extended completion deadline of 15 February 1949.

As usual, modification of the B-50As and of other aircraft connected with the project was split into 2 phases. The contractor, Boeing in the B-50's case, installed all items that became an integral part of the bomber, while removable parts were furnished as "kits" to Strategic Air Command units which then completed the installation.

B-50A deliveries to SAC's 43d Bombardment Wing, at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, began in June 1948, and by the end of the year, 34 B-50As were on hand. Nevertheless, a true initial operational capability was not gained until 1949. Problems of all sorts contributed to the delay. In June 1948, the 43d Wing had only 25 percent of the parts required for the new aircraft, and most of the available parts consisted of bolts, nuts, and gaskets. Even though about 25 percent of the B-50A parts were interchangeable with B-29 parts, and some others could be manufactured locally, the wing considered its parts shortages intolerable. Expedients, such as pilot pickup of parts either from the factory or from AMC depots, would "not be feasible with a large number of aircraft." In addition, since only 60 percent of all special tools and equipment had reached the wing, much time and many manhours were lost in getting any work done. In late 1948, the overall situation was getting worse.

Because of its atomic bombing mission, the 43d Bombardment Wing was accorded various prerogatives: war-strength manning was one of them. The percentage of effective manning was 97.8 percent for officers and airmen by the end of 1948. In addition, the wing's personnel overages could not be used to fill lower priority requirements which ensured that, once the wing acquired its full complement of aircraft and was brought to complete war strength, such personnel would take over the additional assignments. Meanwhile, however, the wing was particularly short of electronics, air control, and photo interpretation officers. Among the airmen, there were shortages of airplane electrical mechanics, airplane and engine electrical accessories repairmen, and camera technicians.

As early as February 1948, 3 Boeing representatives had come to Davis-Monthan and organized classes to teach personnel how to service in-coming B-50As. Operation of a B-50 Mobile Training Unit had actually started in March-regular squadron maintenance slowing down appreciably in the months that followed because of the time maintenance crews had to devote to learning how to take care of the new aircraft. Also, in keeping with the global concept of the upgraded atomic forces, the maintenance of aircraft operating in extreme cold weather had received major attention from the start. Much time was therefore spent preparing and sometimes slightly modifying the aircraft before they left the United States for less clement environments. Also time-consuming was the training of personnel this preparation entailed.

As extensive as these preparations were, the rotation of B-50 bombers overseas, initiated in November with the deployment of 5 aircraft, disclosed unsuspected problems. Once in Alaska, 1 of the B-50As crashed, the other 4 being grounded until the cause of the crash was determined. Although no definite conclusions were reached, the congealing of oil in the small-sized tubing of the aircraft's manifold pressure regulator appeared to be the correct assumption, and modified regulators, successfully tested by AMC, were installed in all B-50s. Also, in keeping with the usual vicissitudes accompanying the introduction of any new aircraft, the B-50As soon exhibited engine malfunctions. In addition, faulty constant speed drive alternators significantly increased the heavy workload of maintenance crews. But progress was made, and the B-50A's performance steadily improved during 1949.

Although generally satisfied with the B-50A's initial improvements, SAC knew that forthcoming modifications, program changes, and the reconfigurations usually dictated by such changes, would create new difficulties. These problems could become insurmountable if skilled personnel remained at a premium. The command, therefore, in early 1948 began to plan an extensive cross-training program. As established, the program required that all bombardiers be trained as radar operators, while all radar operators were to master the difficult bombardment skill. Moreover, all pilots were to be trained as loran operators; all navigators, as radar operators; all co-pilots, as flight engineers; all flight engineers, as crew chiefs, and all crew chiefs, as assistant flight engineers.

"Precision bombing" also occupied a place in the overall training program outlined by the Strategic Air Command. In the late forties, because of the limited supply of atomic bombs, "precision bombing" was scrutinized by the highest Air Force authorities. In July 1948, as the SAC training program was just beginning to take shape, the Air Staff underlined the importance of "precision bombing" by pointing out that ". . . each bomb must be employed as though we had a rifle with but one (1) cartridge per man and very few men, thereby placing all the emphasis on the single 'shot' where decisive results will be dependent upon the accuracy with which these few 'shots' are placed." Even though the supply of bombs increased as time passed, the Air Force continued to emphasize bombing accuracy.

In November 1948, as a few B-50As were already available and an all out effort was being made to upgrade SAC's atomic striking power, Lt. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, in charge of the command since October, took a dim view of the overall program, "I am shocked;" he wrote to Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, "by the deficiencies of air bases and forward airfields earmarked for the new forces . . . . as we are responsible for dropping the atomic bomb, I maintain that to be unable to dispatch aircraft into and out of these fields at night during marginal weather is ridiculous." Most places, General LeMay pointed out, were without even elementary operational facilities such as suitable control towers, radio aids, night lighting, crash and fire fighting equipment, and the like. In short, regardless of the severe shortages of funds, a minimum of construction money had to be found, and this project was to receive top priority until more permanent improvements could be made. Closely related to the necessary upgrading of the special bases was the development of standardized procedures to prevent the disaster of an accidental atomic detonation. The SAC Commander's demands could not all be satisfied with dispatch, but progress was made in all cases. And of primary importance, the achievements realized did sustain the test of time.

Meanwhile, as base facilities were being improved and strict safety procedures were devised, new problems began to plague the B-50As. At the end of 1949, the planes were prohibited from flying above 20,000 feet, because of turbosupercharger deficiencies. Then, cracking of the metal skin on the trailing edge of the wings and flaps dictated unexpected modifications. Later on, failure of the rudder hinge bearing caused the temporary grounding of every B-50A. To complicate matters, while these problems were being worked out, new requirements were levied on the aircraft.

Despite its substantial cost-$35.5 million-the modification ordered by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in January 1948 turned out to be a mere preamble. Growing international tension heightened the urgency of the whole endeavor. Hence, on 16 October 1948, the Air Staff directed a new round of special modifications for 1949. Once again, the Air Materiel Command was instructed to give the highest priority to the project, a priority that even the outbreak of the Korean War would not affect.

Even though the entire modification project was carefully outlined, changes occurred. At first, 15 B-50As that did not have air refueling capability were to be fitted with receivers and other necessary equipment. A directive in early 1949 changed this in favor of equipping these 15, plus 5 more B-50A atomic carriers, for a reconnaissance role. As foreseen, this was about the extent of the B-50A's involvement in the second portion of the atomic project. Additional modifications were reserved for subsequent versions of the B-50As and for different aircraft-mostly B-29s, but also some C-97 transports, and new B-36Bs. Later on, however, as the B-47 program faltered, new requirements arose that directly affected the B-50As.

In January 1952, Sacramento area teams began working on the B-50As to allow 50 of them to carry 2 new types of atomic bombs, and Boeing undertook the preparation of the necessary kits. But the B-47's shortcomings created workloads of staggering proportions for both the Air Force and the contractor. For example, 180 additional B-29s left from World War II had to be reactivated and modified for the atomic task. Although Boeing was placed on a 24-hour day, 7-day week schedule to supply B-50A and B-29 kits, established deadlines could not be met. The modifications to the B-50As, due to be completed in May, slipped several months. Still, the last B-50A, a straggler, was finished before November 1952.

Production of the B-50A ended in January 1949 with delivery of the last 3 aircraft.

The B-50As began phasing out of SAC in mid-1954, when the 93d Bombardment Wing started receiving eagerly awaited B-47s. But retirement from SAC did not mean that the B-50A's operational life was over. Under one designation or another, many of the B-50 aircraft remained in the Air Force's active inventory for about another decade."

On 2 March 1949, Lucky Lady 11,28 a B-50A (Serial No. 46-010) of the 43d Bomb Group, completed the first nonstop round-the-world flight, having covered 23,452 miles in 94 hours and 1 minute. Carswell AFB, Texas, was the point of departure and return. Lucky Lady II was refueled 4 times in the air (over the Azores, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and Hawaii) by KB-29 tankers of the 43d Air Refueling Squadron. For this flight, the B-50A crew of 14, commanded by Capt. James Gallagher, received numerous awards and decorations. Foremost among these were the Mackay Trophy, given annually by the National Aeronautic Association for the outstanding flight of the year, and the Air Age Trophy, an Air Force Association award given each year in recognition of the air age. The Air Age Trophy was later renamed the Hoyt S. Vandenberg Trophy in honor of the second US. Air Force Chief of Staff.

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Page last modified: 24-07-2011 04:35:00 ZULU