As we come over the hill on the freeway, the museum comes into view. For once I’m not driving, so I get to crane my neck without worrying about the road. There’s lots of gear outside; the Concorde is (of course) completely obvious, but I’ve seen one bank away at 90 degrees like a fighter jet over my head. No, I’m there for the one I’ve never seen before in person, the one that probably gets overlooked.
WB-47E serial number 51-7066. Last flight October 30th, 1969. It was the last B-47 in active USAF service.
My phone rings. That’s odd. Why is my boss calling while I’m on vacation?
The B-47 was a huge step for aviation. It was the world’s first large, multi-engined swept-wing aircraft. Its engines were held on pods under the wings to reduce potential fire hazards; that design would become the gold standard for all modern airliners. The plane was so aerodynamically clean that Chuck Yeager himself had trouble making it land on his maiden flight. Even in his hands, the airframe merely floated above the near-entirety of Rogers Dry Lake’s 24,000-foot bed.
Oh shit, this is bad, isn’t it, I weakly plead, knowing it’s already over. My heart freezes, the car parks and everyone leaves me alone inside. I barely notice.
The Stratojet was the first real bomber of the Cold War, 103 tons fully loaded with fuel and nukes. In-flight refueling capabilities made it the first truly intercontinental bomber. At maximum capacity, it needed rocket assist to get in the air. Once at optimal cruise altitude—37,000 feet—it took the devoted attention of all three crew members to keep it in the air while maintaining best fuel economy. That tradeoff between safety and efficiency is known to aviators as the “coffin corner,” and it was exceptionally narrow on the B-47; there were only about five knots’ difference between airframe failure at Mach 1 and a complete stall of the aircraft. Airliners today have a luxurious 50+ knot envelope at altitude, by comparison. Autopilot was so rudimentary at the time—all of the flight instruments and computers were vacuum tube-based—that it could not be trusted during this phase of flight. The pilot would have to manually adjust the throttle constantly on long flights, lest the plane fall out of the sky.
I’m standing outside the car now. I’m not sure when I got out. I tell my friends to go on ahead inside without me, that I need time to get myself back together. Truth is, I have no idea what I need. I wander aimlessly in the parking lot, barely noticing the cold wind. I look to the entrance, and it’s standing there in the grass. There are a lot of reasons why I’m there that night, but at that moment it’s the only one that makes any sense. I walk that way.
Despite its size and weight, the B-47 handled like a fighter jet. Early chase planes used in flight test couldn’t keep up with the Stratojet when it maneuvered. Its distinctive bubble canopy sat the pilot and copilot almost completely in the open, in stark contrast to the almost office-like flight decks of the big propeller bombers it replaced. The navigator/bombardier sat in a compartment in the nose; the difference in windowing made climate control between the two spaces difficult. For all the difficulties, though, crews liked the plane; its handling and design helped debunk the conventional Air Force wisdom that bombers were boring to fly.
I step onto the grass at the wingtip. She’s only roped off at the landing gear, so I can actually reach out and touch it. To this day I don’t know why that’s important, but for whatever reason it’s special when I can. I walk along the wing and under the engine pod. Everything about her screams 1950s in a way nothing else from the era does. The lines around the inlets, the rounded point of the nosecone that would be perfectly at home on a pulp fiction spaceship. Everything about her must’ve said “The Future!” when she came off the line. I walk around her slowly, trying to stretch out how it’s making me forget the cold and the trauma for a little bit.
The B-47’s fighter-like qualities led to an interesting side note in its service: loft bombing. A major concern in the early Cold War was how to deliver nuclear weapons without the delivery aircraft being caught in the blast. A novel solution to this problem was to have the aircraft release the weapon at the top of a loop, essentially lobbing the bomb up in a large parabolic arc. The aircraft would continue the loop, exiting in the direction it came from, and depart at high speed. This had the added bonus of not having to overfly the target, which would be beneficial if it was heavily defended. The Stratojet had the performance to execute these maneuvers even with its size. The stress this placed on the airframe, however, led to premature metal fatigue, rendering the maneuver impractical at best outside of testing.
When we’d talk about it later, I’d note that it was good that it happened where it did, since we had so many friends on hand. She smiled at me and said, “And all your airplane friends, too!” It was said with complete understanding and no rancor at all, but I flushed with embarrassment all the same.
It sounds weird said out loud, even if it’s true. Airplanes have been the one constant in my life, even though it wasn’t a thing I actively pursued. Whatever else happens in my life, it always comes back to them.
The B-47 never saw combat in its primary role, since it was placed into service directly between the Korean and Vietnam wars. Variants were built that would do photographic and electronic surveillance; several of these aircraft would actually be shot down by the Soviets in events that were kept secret for years. Thirty-four standard B-47Es would be converted to the WB-47E, which would perform weather research for the Air Force for several years, flying into and above thunderstorms and dropping sensors through storms. These would be retired by the end of 1969, though a handful of B-47s would fly as various experimental and research platforms as late as 1986.
I get to the tail and stop, desperately not wanting the moment to end and reality to start again. It seems darkly appropriate that this is my first time meeting the Stratojet; I feel like I’ve been loft-bombed myself, without even the benefit of a vacuum tube-powered targeting computer. I’ve got no choice but to ride it out. It makes me smile. I whisper a thank you and turn to go inside. I’ve got to meet my friends.