By Walter J. Boyne
My first assignment out of flying school was to Castle Air Force Base , California, with the 330th Bomb Squadron of the 93rd Bomb Group. There in January, 1953 I was introduced to the Boeing B-50D Superfortress. The introduction was a little rough, for the day I arrived, a B-50D from another squadron had gone in, killing all on board, and no one knew why. They were pretty much not interested in a new second balloon for quite a while.
After flying T-6s and B-25s, the B-50 seemed enormous and capable, and so indeed it was. I’d like to take this opportunity to recap a little of the B-50’s history, tell about some of its lesser known but really important accomplishments, and finally, at the end, tell a minor hero-story about myself, one I’ve never written about before except in the novel The Wild Blue where I used a different character and a different airplane to tell it.
Curiously enough, even after all these years, I never realized just how capable the airplane was. Somehow I just assumed it was a B-29 with the bugs worked out, bigger and better engines, in-flight refueling and so on, but had never thought about its innovations or the number of important firsts in aviation that it was responsible for. The importance of the airplane did not really dawn on me until after a speech I had given Wichita in 1998, when a nice gentleman walked up and pressed a piece of paper in my hands. His name was Herbert Lee Ailslieger, and he had listed 21 B-50 firsts. In looking them over, I took issue with three of them as being “firsts”, but present the remaining 18 as follows:
The Boeing B-50 was the:
- First man-made object to circle the earth nonstop.
- First production aircraft to have in-flight refueling.
- First production aircraft to be built out of 75ST Aluminum.
- First production aircraft to be designed from the start as a nuclear-bomb carrier.
- First aircraft to drop five live atomic bombs. (Nevada, 1951.)
- First aircraft to carry atomic bombs to Europe.
- First aircraft to have a Weaponeer flight crew position.
- First new aircraft to join the Strategic Air Command.
- First bomber to participate in NATO war games.
- First bomber to be flown by a U.S. president. (Eisenhower.)
- First “Ultimate” weapon, with unlimited range and power.
- Last piston-engine long-range bomber for SAC, and for US, and perhaps in history.
- Last bomber with multiple machine-gun turret defense.
- End of the B-17 family tree.
- Only bomber to be out produced by its transport version (371 B-50s (including the XB-44) versus 935 C-97s.)
- Fastest piston engine heavy bomber ever built. (385 mph)
- Last airplane to be accepted by US Army Air Forces.
- Only piston-engine aircraft to be equipped for in-flight refueling.
Just these eighteen facts certainly make the B-50 worthy of another quick look.
The B-50 story began in 1944, with, appropriately enough, the XB-44.
This was a B-29A equipped with the new Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major engines. When production began at the Boeing plant at Renton, it was re-designated B-29D, but the designation was changed to B-50 before any deliveries were made.
The more powerful engines called for a stronger structure, provided in part by the use of the new and more expensive–but lighter–75ST aluminum, taller tail surfaces to handle the increased power and a new nacelle design. There were numerous other minor improvements.
Despite its derivation from the B-29, the introduction of the B-50 into service did not go smoothly. There were no experimental or prototype B-50s, but the first seven were allocated to testing. A number of difficulties were encountered, including fuel leaks and electrical problems, but the major difficulty came from the low-level of appropriations, which at one point threatened to terminate B-50 production. The first production B-50As went to the 43rd Bombardment Wing at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, in June, 1948, but the initial operational capability (IOC) did not occur until 1949. The principal reason for the delay was the shortage of parts; as always, when the budget was cut, spares were deleted, and brand new aircraft sat on the line waiting for parts.
The 79 B-50As were followed by 45 B-50Bs, all but one of which were the first to have in-flight refueling installed. Some fifty-seven of the A models were also converted to have in -flight refueling systems. The cumbersome and time-consuming hose-system was employed. The major aircraft in the series, the B-50D had its first flight on May 23, 1949. It was intended to use the new Boeing-patented flying boom system of in-flight refueling and had other modifications, including two huge 700 gallon external tanks and single-point refueling, a maintenance godsend.
Ironically, the "new and improved" B-50D would also encounter major difficulties upon its introduction. In mid-1949, the B-50Ds began to arrive in SAC, but they had so many problems that the command refused further deliveries. Problems were found with the main fuel cells, bomb-bays, inverters, turbosuperchargers, alternators, generators, and so on. Perhaps the most serious problem was that the first B-50Ds arrived without the receiver end of the new flying boom system.
The difficulties were ultimately worked out