Strategic Air Command

Air Force Days - Feb 10,2017


The Boeing B-47 represented a major advance in aeronautical engineering.  It was America's first multi-engine jet aircraft and it established the basic principle of design.  It introduced swept-back wings to large aircraft and the engines were hung below the wings on pylons. 
This design proved so viable that it was used on the B-52 bomber and the KC-135 tanker that followed.  The latter became the Boeing 707, the first American jet liner.  All modern passenger planes trace their design linage directly to the B-47.  This sleek aircraft was the backbone of SAC for many years..

   (From Strategic Air Command) 

When I got orders for reassignment from Korea in August of 1956 it was to Navigator School at Waco, Texas, "pipeline" to Strategic Air Command, B-47 aircrew.  Having never had any experience with jet engines, I was to be given six of them!  Navigator School was a six months course, and it was very interesting.  It resulted in my becoming "dual rated" - pilot and navigator.  A primary reason for navigator training was that copilots had to share some duties with the navigator by taking some sextant readings for celestial navigation.  Evidently there was some urgency about it, because after navigator training, I didn't get to go to the B-47 school, but was sent directly to Hunter AFB, Savannah, Georgia.  Since I already had a lot of flying time, I was selected to be an aircraft commander even though my copilot was senior to me and had been to the school (both of us were in the grade of captain).  I had to do a lot of solo study of the airplane.  When my crew was finally designated "combat ready," the joke was that "Standish can get the gas, Hampton (copilot) knows the airplane, and Falash (navigator) can find the target."  The very next day I was sent to England, and I'll tell a story about that later.
The B-47 was a beautiful flying machine, graceful and modern for its time.  I can't remember precisely, but the length was about 110 feet and the wingspan about 106 feet.  The design gross weight was 175,000 pounds, but it was being loaded to 221,000 pounds.  When fully loaded like this it was often (on hot days) fitted out with a rack of some 30+ rocket bottles (again, my memory grows dim) of 1,000 pound thrust each for 60 seconds of rocket assisted takeoff.  After takeoff the rack with empty bottles would be jettisoned (in our case, out in the Atlantic).  It was routine to have 9,000 pounds of water-alcohol mixture for 90 seconds of added thrust equal to an extra engine on takeoff.  The basic weight was 76,000 pounds and it  carried 110,000 pounds of fuel when fully loaded.  At 6.5 pounds per gallon, that's almost 17,000 gallons.  All fuel (except the external wing tanks) was in the fuselage, so that fuel management was critical to safe center of gravity. 

The airplane had no air brakes.  For the "jet penetration" (rapid descent to a landing field), we lowered the landing gear at 20,000 feet, put all engines in idle and came down at 260 knots indicated airspeed and a vertical descent of about 60 miles per hour. After slowing down on final approach and lowering wing flaps, if the landing weight was getting low, we deployed a man-sized parachute (28-foot canopy) so we could keep up some RPM on the engines for better power control.  Upon landing, we deployed a 60-foot canopy parachute to assist in braking.  In those days, jet engines did not have any reverse thrust.

 Being the mainstay of the Strategic Air Command bomber fleet, it got top priority for maintenance and aircrew health care. There were quite a few people who had arrived up to a year before I did, but who had not finished their checkout to be "combat ready," and my crew completed the process before some of those.

I think I had not yet had my first ride in the plane when I was sent for a ride in one of the KC-97 tankers, and I took these two refueling pictures.  I crouched down just behind the boom operator who would be prone in a "bubble" on the bottom of the fuselage, and took the pictures over his shoulder.  I was told that I qualified in aerial refueling on my first ride, so I got an accelerated checkout.  Even so, it was a lengthy process of several months.
Here the B-47 is approaching for hookup, and you can see that the refueling door is open.

(Below) Hooked up for refueling.  

We typically took on 35,000 pounds of fuel in practice sessions. For me, this was an intense experience, and my oxygen mask would get sweaty.  The KC-97 was a four-engine propeller driven airplane, and refueling was usually at about 13,000 to 14,000 feet altitude.

Every flight in the B-47 was a thrill.  It usually took a little over 7,000 feet (more than a mile) of runway to get airborne, making great quantities of smoke from the water-alcohol mixture.  We used to joke that when a B-47 takes off, the field goes IFR (Instrument Flight Rules).  However, a couple of times I got to take off with reduced weight, and that made a big difference.  Our cruising speed was Mach .74, which figured 425 knots, or about 490 MPH.  On a bomb run it was Mach .81.  That was the effective speed limit, because at Mach .84 the plane would get aileron reversal.  That means the aileron would twist the wing.  Although acceleration seemed unimpressive when the plane was loaded, it had the power to drive itself to destruction at low altitude, so our orders were to reduce power to 70% whenever leveling off at low altitude.

I was always amazed at the speed.  For example one of my navigator's favorite celestial navigation runs was to take off from Savannah, Georgia, and head for Lake Erie.  It was 1 hour and 10 minutes to turn over Lake Erie.  On one of my early training flights, I took off from Savannah and practiced refueling over Nova Scotia.  Often we would have a practice bomb run on Tampa, Florida, and from there back to Savannah was 40 minutes.  All of our bombing practice was at radar bomb scoring sites, and my navigator was consistently rated excellent.

In the early days with refueling behind the KC-97, we followed a schedule that considered altitude differential and our weight to determine where to begin our descent.  When about 75 miles behind the tankers, we would put all engines in idle, descend to 500 feet lower than the tankers, and then coast(!) for the closing distance of seven miles.  Refueling behind the KC-97 was difficult because we would be close to stalling speed, whereas the KC-97 would have difficulty maintaining enough speed, and would sometimes have to make a slow descent.  Later when the tanker pilots got the KC-135, we had difficulty keeping up with them.  But then aerial refueling at cruising altitude was glassy smooth and easy.

This must have been a test for rocket assisted takeoff, because you can see what looks like a T-33 flying alongside for observation.  I made only two or three such takeoffs.

This plane is on alert duty at Rabat in Morocco, loaded and "cocked" for being sent to war.  It was my last flight overseas, and I'll tell about it below.  Note the relative size of the truck next to it.  I also made four flights to stand alert duty in England. This was my plane, and my crew slept in a mobile home close to the aircraft so we could get to the plane in a hurry if "the call" came.
Now I want to tell some of my experiences with the B-47.  All of our flights were very carefully planned, and they were always about 6.5 to 8.5 hours duration, except that my flights overseas would often take 10 hours.  That's a long time to have an airplane strapped to your butt!  For routine training flights, we planned one day and took off the next day - or night.  Planning was in minute detail, down to elevator trim at liftoff. The planning factor for fuel included 2,000 pounds of fuel burned from engine start to release of brakes on takeoff.

Except when delivering an airplane to the factory or when returning home after landing somewhere else because of weather, we never flew the airways system, but were always practicing for war, which would mean that all the radio aids to navigation would be turned off. With no radio aids or ground radar, we would have to use our own resources to navigate.  The Navigator did this, but I always used the radio aids as a backup to monitor our position and for making position reports.

I said that refueling behind the KC-97 posed a problem with incompatible airspeeds.  We sometimes practiced a night refueling mission in a formation of six bombers - we called it a "mass gas."  I was a relatively new captain, low on the totem pole for seniority, so I was usually out on the end of the formation, where being a little out of position was like playing crack the whip.  On one such night flight, my tanker was somewhat behind where it should have been, so my approach (as described above) caused me to over-run the tankers to some extent.  All I could do was move off to the side for safety and attempt to "back up."  Looking back over my shoulder, I allowed the airspeed to get too low, such that the plane stalled and fell down into the clouds below.  I was literally falling out of the sky, in the clouds at night out over the Atlantic Ocean.  I had to recover completely on instruments, and get back up into position.  But I was still first one to finish refueling!

I think I was pretty good at in-flight refueling.  I think I never got an automatic disconnect for being out of position. However, we did get disconnects when the boom operator would change tanks. On one of those "mass gas" missions at night, it happened that the KC-97 wing commander was flying the tanker from which I was taking on fuel.  After we all got on the ground, he came to our building and told me that while hooked up he could take his hands off the controls and I was flying both airplanes - surely an exaggeration.

Finding our assigned tankers at night was interesting because of the color of the rotating beacons they had.  The code was Green, Amber, White, Red, Green, Amber.  How do you remember that? "Warner Robins (a military base at Macon) is in the middle of Georgia."  At night I have seen those beacons from 200 miles away.

Often we were privileged to see great beauty.  One time I was at 41,000 feet over Florida in the daytime and could see both coasts.  Sometimes at night, out over the Atlantic, we would get the most spectacular displays of St. Elmo's fire all over the airplane, especially the cockpit canopy and antennas.  One time with the sun directly overhead, we had a circular rainbow all around the airplane.  It was also pretty to see the airplane lit up by the remaining "afterglow" just after sunset.  Thunderstorms over the United States normally top out above 30,000 feet, but at latitudes further north they might be less than 30,000 feet.  One time on a night trip to England I flew over a thunderstorm and could look down at all the lightning and violence below.

One special thrill I had was as we were approaching England for landing. Although unusual, we were directed to descend to 20,000 feet a little before making landfall, so I had the special experience of being able to look down and see the very house near Land's End in beautiful Cornwall where I had spent a weekend while on the mission to get the baby daughter we were adopting.

I mentioned fuel and center of gravity concerns. At first I didn't appreciate how critical this was.  If a B-47 tried to take off without the fuel tanks being full, the acceleration would drive the fuel to the rear of the tanks, so the center of gravity would be so far aft that there might not be sufficient elevator to control the plane.  Even with our normal procedures of full tanks, I used almost full nose-down elevator trim for takeoff.  And on landing, it was nearly the same thing because, although fuel was low, the wing flaps put the center of lift so far forward that there was not much nose-down elevator remaining to control the airplane.

Whenever we were approaching destination for alert duty at a foreign base, we were always asked to report remaining fuel on board.  Since I had little else to do on those long flights at night, I used to manage fuel consumption through selection of tanks to keep the center of gravity at optimum position to reduce drag.  I always had about 2,000 pounds more fuel than any of the other planes in the flight.

This matter of center of gravity entered into a particular flight I made.  Because of fog at the home base, I had been sent to Homestead AFB, south of Miami, Florida to spend the night.  The next morning we left to fly the relatively short distance to Savannah.  The external wing tanks were empty, but all fuselage tanks had to be full for safe takeoff.  But if we flew at normal cruise altitude we would still be too heavy for landing at Savannah, because a jet engine burns far less fuel at high altitude, so we flew all the way to Savannah at 3,000 feet with the gear down!

I had two instances of having to shut down an engine and complete the mission with five engines.  In both cases, it was a matter of fuel fumes in the cockpit, and it was caused by fuel getting into the cockpit pressurization system.  It wasn't much of a problem, but it took some time to find which engine was causing the leak.   In one of these instances, we were part of a "mass gas," and I was slow in catching up with the group that was to refuel in flight.  I barely caught up to the rest at cruising altitude when it was time to descend for the refueling.  After the refueling, each plane went to a different "target," so I didn't have to stay with the group.  On that flight we had a lot of other mechanical and electronic failures, but completed the mission anyway, so that when we landed we were received as "conquering heroes."

Sometimes we had interesting radio talk.  One time on one of those night refueling missions, my friend Jim Wysong (people called him "that Chinese officer," but he was Caucasian) had some kind of a failure that made it difficult for him to find the tankers.  We had no way to "home in" by radio direction finding, but the tankers could home on us.  So Jim - out over the Atlantic in the dead of night - was heard to recite the complete nurses creed, word for word!  In those days, the air route traffic control centers used the same voice frequency for the whole area, but they had local ground transmitters, and the procedure was that when an aircraft was to give a position report, they would begin by giving identity and the city over which the report was to be given, so Traffic Control would know which ground station to use for reply.  One time I called with "Air Force Jet 12345 (whatever our number was), Charleston, over."  Then a voice out of the night said, "Charleston West or Charleston South?"

I made four flights to England and one to Morocco.  We were sent in groups of three, but there was always a spare airplane sent part way, ready to fill in if one plane had to abort for any reason.  From Savannah we always took off shortly after dark, gained five hours from the time zone difference, and landed in England about 0900.

For my first trip to England - the day after my crew was designated combat ready - my plane was not quite ready, because it was getting a starter replacement on one engine.  At the last minute, with it still not ready, I took the spare aircraft, and the spare crew came along about half an hour later in my plane.  The weather in New England was not good enough for the tankers to make the rendezvous, so we landed at Plattsburgh, New York to refuel.  The spare crew came along in what was supposed to be my plane, and flew into a mountain during descent.  Because of the last minute changes, the Air Force still had my name on record as crew, so they telephoned my wife to tell her I had been killed.  Years later, I met and talked with an officer who had been on the accident investigation team, and he said they "concluded" that the crew had made their let-down on the wrong navigational aid.  However, I don't think it was proven, and I always wondered if it would have happened to me. I'm told that in a crash like that it's difficult to find any recognizable body parts, so I think they could not really determine the cause of the crash.

Immediately after landing at Brize-Norton on my first trip to England, we three crews were taken to the airport control tower and shown a video of a disastrous attempt to land.  What happened was that - probably because of fatigue - the pilot touched down on the front landing gear first, and probably a little too fast.  This caused the plane to pitch up while it still had some flying speed.  The pilot attempted to nose it down, but the response of the plane was too slow, so that by the time the nose got down where it should be, the whole aircraft was still rotating downward, and it hit the ground again nose-gear first.  All this was making PIO, or pilot induced oscillations.  The pilot also attempted to apply full power, but jet engines of those days took quite some time to accelerate and produce power.  The end result was that the plane veered off to the left and crashed into a hangar, with great destruction, fire and several deaths.  After that, when landing after a long flight, I always charged my copilot to pay close attention to everything I did on landing approach and to alert me to anything out of the ordinary, and when he was landing I did the same for him.  On those trips we flew all night, and fatigue was a major concern.  I had my copilot "take turns" with me for takeoffs and landings.

I loved England!  We stood alert duty at Brize-Norton Air Base and stayed in quarters that had been used by British military officers during World War II, and they were plush.  I made friends with a lady who cleaned our rooms, and she brought me fresh flowers every morning.  She also made arrangements for me to spend a weekend with some of her friends, and I slept in a 400-year-old bed, had a guest tour of the Whitney blanket factory, visited Oxford University, and went rowing on the Thames.  We always spent two weeks on alert and then had one week off for sight-seeing.

Several incidents were interesting - On one of my flights to Brize-Norton, one of the (two) front tires had gone flat in flight without anyone being aware of it, so it was quite a surprise to have a violently wobbling front landing gear on the landing roll.  Sometimes we carried miscellaneous goods to people serving at the forward base.  For example, one time I took a set of automobile tires (on a luggage rack in the bomb bay), and once I carried a big watermelon under my legs, because the bomb bay was not pressurized.

There were some interesting return flights. On one, we were to refuel behind KC-135 jet tankers. I had never seen one, much less practiced with one. We rendezvoused in a condition of milky clouds, so we couldn't see more than maybe one or two hundred feet. I couldn't find my tanker for quite a long time.  Finally I saw a contrail and said, "There has to be an airplane on the end of that contrail!" So I followed it to the tanker that was waiting for me. The basic aid for this was for the navigator to use the radar altitude hole. At high altitude, a radar set will display a large area on the surface of no return called the altitude hole, unless a delay is set into the system. So for finding an aircraft nearby, the navigator can remove that setting so that objects nearby will be displayed.

On another return from England, we went by way of the Azores, and stopped for refueling there.  It gives an uneasy feeling to think that some emergency could arise on the field on an island out in the Atlantic, and then would we have enough fuel to go anywhere else?

On my return from the trip to Morocco, there were strong headwinds for a direct flight, so we went to Goose Bay, Labrador to refuel.  Landing was quite a challenge for two reasons: there was a strong crosswind, and the snow had been piled up about 30 feet high on each side of the runway.  The tower operator said the weather had "warmed up - it's only 9 below." The standard runway width was 150 feet and our wingspan was something over 100 feet, leaving less than 25 feet on each side of the wings for landing in a strong crosswind. Crosswind landing (at least for touchdown) requires one to slip the plane by lowering one wing and counteracting that with rudder. In the B-47 it could spell disaster if one didn't land on the rear gear first. However, with those swept-back wings, there was a limit to how much one could lower a wing and raise the nose without dragging the wingtip.  Well, we managed it, and got out of the plane in our summer flying suits! From there to home, I flew formation on another B-47 all the way to Savannah, just for the sport of it. I loved that airplane!

CLOSING THOUGHTS - The plane I was flying could easily annihilate 1,000,000 people with one weapon. Would you call me a warmonger because I participated in the military service? Of course, my easy answer to this is that if I didn't fly it, someone else would. A more sober reply would be: If you are a US citizen and so against it, why do you continue to pay for it?  Every US citizen who makes enough money to pay income tax is paying part of the bill for the whole military establishment, with its destruction of natural resources, ecology and all the rest. In addition, s/he is paying for all the other folly of our Government that makes us hated by some around the world. Not only that, but it's almost impossible to avoid contributing to the waste and extravagance of our collective lifestyles.

What's the answer to this systemic problem? Where is peace to be found or created? In my thoughtful opinion, the all-inclusive, master formula is Albert Schweitzer's famous motto, "Reverence for Life." Everywhere we go, in our contacts with all people, all animals, all the plant kingdom, and the earth beneath our feet, the mandate is to be the embodiment of compassion, friendliness, respect, service and love. Nations don't by themselves make war; war is caused by the individual and collective behavior of all humans put together. You and I are responsible!

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