Today the clone and I visited the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum near Savannah, GA, in the company of said clone’s grandfather. Having been thoroughly spoiled at an early age by the Wright-Patterson AFB Museum in Dayton, OH, which is either the second-best air museum in the world or the very best depending on how you like the Smithsonian’s politics, John was slightly confounded by a facility with a total of four aircraft under its roof. The Mighty Eighth Museum has a lovingly restored B-17 displayed with a decent P-51 and a ratty-looking Bf109, but Wright-Pat has all of that plus pretty much every other significant plane that flew over Europe back then.
To be fair, the Savannah museum isn’t really about the planes; it’s about the people who flew them. A detailed tribute to the Greatest Generation, the place is faithfully manned by expert staff who can tell harrowing tales of collapsed wings and frostbite amputations that verged on the commonplace. Furthermore, there’s a garden outside with a gently decaying example of a plane that was once ubiquitous above this country but is now almost gone from memory: the Boeing B-47 Stratojet.
Which is a shame, because there are plenty of reasons to remember the Stratojet, not the least of which is this: it once dropped a Mark 15 nuclear bomb on Savannah.
As the old joke goes, the B-47 was both good and original; the good parts were not original, and the original parts were not good. Left to their own devices, Boeing would have made this a straight-wing jet plane, kind of a B-17 Flying Fortress with fewer crewmembers. Happily for them, an Allied scientific group got a look at some German facilities in 1945. A Boeing engineer embedded with the group noticed the swept-wing concepts being developed by German scientists and sent some notes back to the States.
Loaded up with six Allison (yes, that Allison, meaning GM) J35 jet engines, the B-47 was perhaps one of history’s fastest subsonic aircraft and certainly almost without peer when it rolled out in 1947. Designed around the nuclear bomb from the start, the B-47 used a bizarre “bicycle” landing-gear setup with two tandem wheels in a row, balanced by tiny outriggers on the wing. This arrangement made it almost impossible to take off conventionally so the “Stratojet” was pre-positioned in takeoff/landing attitude.
The B-47’s service history was one of massive production (over 2,000 examples built) combined with nontrivial problems. At altitude, the plane wanted to stall. Takeoffs and landings were fraught with difficulty, with fully-loaded missions often requiring the use of rocket assist at takeoff. The plane had considerable service needs. It had a tendency to kill crew. An after-the-fact maintenance campaign to reduce (but not eliminate) wing failure involved jamming a big aluminum tube through the wing and fuselage.
From what I can tell, it wasn’t widely advertised at the time, but a couple of B-47s were shot down by MiGs while poking around the edges of the Soviet Union, particularly after their speed advantage was eliminated. The most worrisome B-47 incident, however, occurred near the end of the plane’s service life, in 1958. You can read the summary here but it goes something like this:
A B-47 carrying a Mark 15 nuclear bomb had a mid-air collision with an F-86 Sabre fighter plane at two in the morning. The Sabre pilot ejected. After falling more than 10,000 feet through the sky, the B-47 pilot regained control. A few attempts were made to land the plane; they were unsuccessful. It was decided to jettison the bomb and try again. The final attempt was successful, with all three crewmembers surviving.
A nine-week attempt to locate the bomb outside Tybee Island in Georgia failed utterly, after which everyone agreed to forget about it. Most sources agree that the bomb was carrying a lead dummy device in place of the primary fission material. However, it is also possible that the bomb was upgraded to Mark 2 specification in 1956, which would have made such a swap impossible. In any event, as a two-stage fission/fusion bomb, the Mark 15 always had some fissionable uranium in it, even when deactivated.
It is believed that the Mark 15 is probably buried in the seabed and should not be disturbed, which sounds like a good idea to me.
As B-52 production ramped up, the B-47 was unceremoniously scrapped as quickly as possible, with a few converted to various reconnaissance and/or test purposes. A surprising number of them can be found in static display around the country, but none of them can fly. In general, however, the B-47 has disappeared from the public memory. It existed more or less between wars and never did anything particularly praiseworthy.
That being said, it’s worth noting how quickly it was conceived, built, and put into use. The fact that it used a German wing and a fighter-jet engine doesn’t mean it was easy to follow such a schedule. In the modern era, where programs like the F-35 and B-21 are measured in terms of halting, uncertain decades, it’s perhaps appropriate to ask what’s changed, and what’s been lost. Certainly the fundamental, motivating idea of America is nothing like it was in 1945. Will there ever be a Museum Of The Mighty Keyboard Warriors to celebrate the folx who oversaw the gradual but extremely effective removal of that fundamental idea? Will the museum of the future instead contain a narrative of how those people were removed from the public discourse along with their enervating delusions? Or will the last remaining Stratojets endure past the existence of the country that created them, until they are essentially Sphinxes, found objects with no story left alive to tell?
For Hagerty, I wrote about the unlikely future of the electric vehicle.