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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

XB-54 / B-50C Superfortress

XB-54 / B-50CThe B-54 program was an outgrowth of the B-29 design which had been ordered when Soviet activities in Eastern Europe first indicated an unsettled postwar world. The aircraft that started as the B-50C eventually came to be designated the XB-54. It had substantial new design features including four R-4360-43 turbo-compound engines, also known as Variable Discharge Turbine (VDT) engines. These new engines demanded a redesign of the B-50's airframe that gave it a wider wingspan and longer fuselage. This made the takeoff weight of the B-50C 50,000 lbs. greater than previous B-50s.

An early B-50A, set aside to serve as prototype for the model due to follow the B-50B, did not fare well. Initially known as the YB-50C, this aircraft was expected to feature a longer fuselage, a single bomb bay, larger wings, and 4 new R-4360-43 turbocompound engines. The Pratt & Whitney development was usually referred to as the VDT (variable discharge turbine) engine. The YB-50C's take-off weight was tentatively set at 207,000 pounds, a significant 50,000-pound increase over the weight of most B-50 models.

By November 1948, the B-50C mockup had been completed, inspection of the prototype was scheduled for May 1949, and 43 production aircraft (14 B-50C and 29 RB-50Cs' were already on order. In late 1948, because of the many changes embodied in its design, the future B-50C became the B-54, the original quantity of aircraft under contract remaining unchanged. By this time 14 standard and 29 reconnaissance versions of the plane were on order. In addition, the next two annual procurement programs provided for 43 and 58 other B/RB-54s, respectively.

The new designation, however, did not help the aircraft's prospects. President Truman's curtailment of the fiscal year 1949 defense budget forced the Air Force to make some difficult adjustments. While the B-54's high price was known, the cost effectiveness of the aircraft was not clear. Yet for good reasons, neither Secretary of the Air Force W. Stuart Symington nor General Vandenberg wished to give up the new aircraft. No B-54s had been produced, but work was underway by the manufacturer and subcontractors. Therefore, the program's cancellation would entail some financial loss and disturb the industry.

Col.Clarence S. Irvine, assistant to the chief of staff of SAC, noted that since preparation of the “Report on Heavy Bombardment” in November 1947, he had continued to study the heavy bomber concept in connection with work at SAC on two B-50 mock-up boards. This work led to new data and a possible reappraisal of heavy bomber capabilities. Although information available to the Aircraft and Weapons Board indicated poor propeller performance at speeds over 450 MPH, more recent studies by propeller companies showed that blade efficiencies over 80 percent could be attained at speeds up to 540 MPH.

Irvine suggested an aircraft design that was discussed informally with Boeing engineer George Schairer. The airplane would have a range of 8,000 miles, a speed of 520 MPH over 4,000 miles of enemy territory, a wing area of 2,400 square feet, tail armament only, and a gross weight- with a 10,000-pound bomb load-of 280,000 pounds. Several aspects of this design would be taken from the advanced model of the B-50C. Hence, this design would require relatively little research to achieve.

The B-36 emerged a source of controversy in late 1947 and early 1948 when letters critical of the bomber were published in several newspapers and journals. The B-36 was sixty knots slower than the B-50 at maximum over-thetarget speed. However, when its greater load-carrying capacity and range were compared with those of other bombers, speed differentials became less important. While aerial refueling promised to extend the inadequate range of a faster plane like the B-50, the B-36 would be the only means over the next few years of delivering the atomic bomb to any overseas target from bases in the United States.

Some attacks were the work of Hugh L. Hanson, a Navy employee with the Bureau of Aeronautics. He had also made his views known to Congress and Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal. Hanson's interest in the development of shorter-range bombers, such as the B-50C (B-54) and the B-49, convinced Air Force leaders that he and others were trying to turn the Secretary of Defense against long-range strategic bombing. Secretary of the Air Force Symington complained to Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan that such actions did not foster a spirit of unity among the services.

On the other hand, certain facts could not be overlooked. The XB-54 faced shortcomings. Whether known as B-50C or B-54, the aircraft had no growth potential; its design represented Boeing's effort to extract the last ounce of performance out of the final development of the basic B-29. Actually, the B-54 configuration provided an undesirable outrigger landing gear requiring wider taxiways than existed at operating bases; jet engines could not be added without designing entirely new wings; and the new K-1 bombing system could not be installed without sacrificing a belly turret or without a drastic alteration of the aircraft's fuselage.

Finally, and of great importance, General LeMay 39 wanted no part of the B-54. General LeMay was sure that the B-36 could do everything as well as, and in most cases better than, the B-54. Because it was a derivative design there was little growth potential for the aircraft. It also carried a high price tag and required a wider than standard taxiway. If it were to go into production air bases would have to be modified. The design was also hindered by the fact that jet engines could not be installed without redesigning the aircraft's wings. Finally, installing the K-1 bombing system would require removing the belly turret or redesigning the fuselage.

These problems raised doubts about the feasibility of the XB-54. General Curtis LeMay argued that the program should be scrapped and production of B-36s expanded. However this would have upset a balance of medium and heavy bombers that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had approved. While some, like Air Force Secretary W. Stuart Symington, proposed substituting some B-54s with B-50s General LeMay felt it would be better to cut production for the B-54 entirely and instead order more B-47s.

In February 1949, General LeMay recommended to General Vandenberg that the Board of Senior Officers review the B-54 program to determine the feasibility of curtailing or canceling it, because the B-36, installed with jet pods, was testing impressively. LeMay had previously favored the B-54 because it was already procured and represented a considerable advancement over the B-50D. He felt that the B-54's margin of superiority over the B-29 and B-50 no longer justified its high cost in view of the markedly improved jet bombers coming into production-the B-47 and B-52. He added that the B-36 could best accomplish SAC's heavy bomber mission until B-52s were manufactured in quantity.

On 21 February 1949, while appearing before the Board of Senior Officers, General LeMay again strongly reiterated that the B-54 program should be canceled in favor of additional B-36s, since development of the B-36 with jet pods indicated superior performance in speed, altitude, and range. Pending quantity production of the B-52, the SAC Commander stated, the B-36 provided the best capability to carry out his command's primary mission, a mission vital to national security.

Although Secretary Symington and General Vandenberg did not question General LeMay's expertise, both remained reluctant to terminate the procurement of the B-54. The crux of the problem was that canceling the B-54s and getting more B-36s would alter the medium/heavy bomber group-combination, included in the program recently approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As an alternative, Secretary Symington then suggested substituting less costly B--50s for the B-54s. But the SAC Commander quickly pointed out that the substitution, even if acceptable on the basis of economy, would still be a very bad solution. Instead, General LeMay testified, if all programmed B-54s could not be replaced by B-36s, the best ,ourse of action would be to secure extra B-47s, as soon as possible.

The board carefully reviewed the comparative performances of the B-36, B-50, B-47 (production version) and the B-54. The B-36 with jet pods was faster, operated at a higher altitude, and had greater range and bomb-carrying capacity than the B-54.

Eventually the Board of Senior Officers agreed with LeMay and in March 1949, it was decided to cancel the B-54 contract and increase the procurement of B-47s and B-36s. The B-54 program was cancelled on April 5, 1949. No aircraft were ever actually produced. The board unanimously recommended to the Chief of Staff and the Secretary of the Air Force that B-54 production be cancelled, that B-47 production be stepped-up, and that additional B-36s be purchased.

On August 9, 1949, former Assistant Secretary of War for Air, Robert A. Lovett, appearing before Congressman Van Zandt's Committee, testified that he could not recall any protests from competing aircraft companies when the award of contract to Consolidated for 100 B-36s was announced. Nor could he think of any connection that his former employer, Brown Brothers Harriman, had with any aircraft manufacturing company. Many prominent Air Force general officers also testified, chiefly on their rationale for proceeding with the B-36 over the B-54 and the YB-49, among others.

General Vandenberg testified that he followed the recommendation of his staff in March 1949 and cancelled the B-54 contract in favor of increased B-47 and B-36 procurement. As a result, according to Vandenberg, Secretary Symington requested recertification of funds on March 31, 1949. His request was approved by the Secretary of Defense on April 14, 1949, and by the President on May 4, 1949.

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Page last modified: 20-01-2018 18:13:49 ZULU