Fifty years ago, a now almost forgotten airplane was our front line of defense and offense in the Cold War.
“Oh, a B-Forty Thousand flies at forty-seven feet. Oh, a B-Forty Thousand flies at forty-seven feet…,” sung to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” rang from our young throats every time we marched to the flight line. We were U.S. Air Force aviation cadets, in training to transform ourselves from pussycats to tigers as we struggled through flight school in the mid-1950s. Another reference to that airplane was forcefully emphasized when an upperclassman had a lower classman in a brace (that’s standing at real attention). If he saw even a glimmer of light showing between the arms and body of the hapless scum, he would spit out, “Mister, I could fly a B-47 through that hole!”
In these days of the B-1, B-2, F-117 and the B-52, how many remember the Boeing B-47 Stratojet? The Seattle Museum of Flight, to its credit, recently recognized the airplane whose star was eclipsed by a follow-up design that came along a mere 4 1/2 years after the original first flew. But that design lived long afterward and still flies today in the form of the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, big brother to the B-47.
The B-47 came to America somewhat like some of my grandparents did, as an ?migr? from Germany, albeit a technological one. When the Axis powers disintegrated at the end of World War II, the United States fell heir to much of the inventive aviation and rocket know-how the Germans had developed.
We all remember Wernher von Braun and the V-2 program that seeded our own space program. Among the aviation spoils were concepts and hardware that gave us a kick start on making the most of the new aviation power plant, the jet engine that had been developed simultaneously by Britain and Germany (see “Editorial” in the March 1997 Aviation History).
The Germans had discovered that sweeping the wings back on a high-speed airplane reduced drag and allowed the higher powered jet engine, whose energy was now measured in pounds of thrust rather than horsepower, to propel an airplane to much higher speeds. By the end of WWII, engineers had wrung all the horsepower they could from piston engines without making them too big or heavy to be practical in aircraft, so something had to give. And the low-weight, small cross-section, high-powered jet engine was the Golden Fleece.
A classic configuration was born when Boeing engineers married a sweptback, top-of-the-fuselage-mounted wing with pod-mounted jet engines slung below the wings on pylons. The new design did away with the danger of fuselage-mounted or in-wing-mounted engines’ disturbing the airflow over the wing or making a mess of things if they shed turbine blades either because of malfunction or combat damage. The six engines were mounted two to a pod about halfway out under the wings, with singles near the end of the wings. Another innovation was to mount the main landing gear under the fuselage one behind the other, in tandem. Spindly, diminutive outrigger landing gear halfway out along the wings kept the whole thing from toppling over on the ground. That good idea has been passed along not only to the B-52 but also to different Boeing and other airline designs to this day.
The first of two original experimental 600-mph XB-47s built by Boeing in Seattle flew on the 44th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight–December 17, 1947.
The B-47 was an atomic bomb delivery vehicle and proudly wore the Strategic Air Command sash. It was the muscle behind the saying, “You can sleep tonight, America, your Air Force is awake.” Of course, it did not fly at 47 feet, but techniques were developed not only for conventional high-altitude bombing but also for low-altitude, radar-evading approaches to targets. Pilots would make last-minute climbs “up and over” to loose the bomb, and at the top of a half-loop, roll over and dive to get the hell out of there before the thing went off.
The B-47 was one of our “hero” airplanes, and it deserves its rightful place among the defenders of freedom. It saw more than 20 years of service, its peacekeeping function successful in that it never had to be used as a weapon in combat. The last B-47 was retired from active duty in 1969. Congratulations to the airplane, and to the museum that did not forget to remember it.
Arthur H. Sanfelici, Editor, Aviation History