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The B-45 Tornado: An Operational History of the First American Jet Bomber by John C. Fredriksen, McFarland & Company, Jefferson, N.C., 2009, $45.

The B-45 Tornado is the first comprehensive history of a shamefully neglected American aviation achievement. North American’s B-45 Tornado was the first jet-propelled bomber to enter service with the U.S. Air Force, breaking new ground technologically and operationally. It was the first jet to drop a nuclear bomb and the first to be refueled in midair. It served the USAF for a decade, including extensive combat during the Korean War. Yet despite all that, the B-45 is all but forgotten except by the few surviving personnel who served in it.

It’s not hard to understand why the B-45 has been overshadowed: Like the first American jet fighter, the ill-starred Bell P-59 Airacomet, the Tornado consisted of advanced engines mated to a fairly conservative airframe. As a result, both the P-59 and the B-45 were rapidly superseded by aircraft that had more advanced airframes, namely the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star and the Boeing B-47 Stratojet.

The Tornado was very much a product of its time, and its time was World War II. It was one of four jet bombers originally intended to counter the threat of new German jet fighters such as the Messerschmitt Me-262. The B-45 was not designed to accommodate nu – clear weapons, which did not yet exist at the time, but its 22,000-pound bombload would have included the British “blockbuster.”

With its straight wings and bulky engine nacelles projecting ahead of the wing leading edges, the B-45 retained much of the appearance of a WWII plane. Indeed, to a large extent North American based its design on technology developed for some of the company’s earlier aircraft. The low-drag laminar-flow wings were similar to those developed for the P-51 Mustang. Much of the technology used in the pressurized fuselage was derived from work on an earlier piston-engine high-altitude bomber the company had flown in 1942, the B-28, which never entered production.

Boeing’s original proposal for its B-47 was equally conservative, a sort of jet-propelled version of the B-29. But after assimilating the latest data on sweptwing technology from NACA, as well as similar data captured from the Germans, Boeing was allowed time to completely redesign its bomber into something much larger and far more advanced than any of its competitors’ designs. Early on it was clear that the B-47 was the plane the Air Force favored, but it was equally clear that it would not be available for at least several years. As by far the best of the three remaining contenders, the B-45 was accepted for production as an interim measure until the more desirable B-47 could be perfected.

John C. Fredriksen calls his profusely illustrated book an “operational history,” and it’s very much just that. He’s done an excellent job of incorporating firsthand accounts of the Tornado’s development and deployment— including a report on the B-45s loaned to the Royal Air Force during the 1950s, in a little-known episode of the Cold War. Also detailed are operations that have hitherto been classified, particularly the dangerous flights performed by unarmed RB-45 photorecon planes over “MiG Alley” during the Korean War, as well as over the Soviet Union.


Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here