The Strategic Air Command air crews who flew the B-47 loved it, and feared it.
The Air Force’s first jet-powered bomber allowed SAC commander Gen. Curtis LeMay to build a formidable nuclear force during the 1950s. He used the planes for reconnaissance missions and electronic warfare jamming, too.
SAC veterans believe that they prevented World War III.
“The B-47 was the backbone of the Strategic Air Command,” said retired Col. Don Cassiday, president of the B-47 Stratojet Association, which held its final reunion in Omaha this week.
The group has met 11 times since its first get-together in 1998, which was also in Omaha.
But there will be no more reunions. This week, the group’s Board of Directors voted to disband the organization.
“We’re getting old,” Cassiday said. “It’s heartbreaking to see it go down. But it has to go.”
The plane that these Cold War veterans flew had an atrocious safety record. Of slightly more than 2,000 built, 203 crashed. Four hundred and thirty-six SAC crew members died aboard B-47s.
Up to 90 of the bombers flew out of the Lincoln Air Base (now the Lincoln Airport) from 1955-65. Some of them turned into flaming hulks on or near the airfield.
On April 6, 1956, a B-47E crashed near Ceresco after a failure of the tail section, killing all four crew members. Less than a month later, a B-47E crashed a mile short of the Lincoln runway. Four more crew members died.
In July of that year, a Lincoln-based jet carrying three unfused nuclear weapons crashed and burned at a base in England, killing the crew. A report to LeMay called it “a miracle” that one of the bombs didn’t explode.
“It was fun to fly, but it was also a very dangerous airplane,” said Cassiday, 84, who served in the Air Force from 1956-77. “You could get into trouble.”
When it was developed in the late 1940s, the B-47 was a revolutionary design — the first mass-produced plane to feature swept-back wings, podded engines and “bicycle” gear beneath the fuselage, among many other innovations.
“It was breaking all sorts of technological boundaries,” Cassiday said.
But it had significant drawbacks, too. Its six slow-starting engines delivered too little power during takeoff and landing, said C. Mike Habermehl, the association’s newsletter editor and chaplain. It was prone to stall or spin in critical phases of flight. Some crashes occurred while the speedy jet was conducting aerial refueling with slower tankers.
Habermehl described the plane as “unforgiving.” He is the co-author, with Robert Hopkins III, of a new history of the aircraft called “Boeing B-47 Stratojet: Strategic Air Command’s Transitional Bomber.”
The book quotes a former crewman’s assessment of the plane: “I didn’t love the B-47. I considered it an adversary that would have killed me if I had given it a chance.”
LeMay’s dislike for the plane was legendary. Still, it was crucial to the nation’s defense in the 1950s. LeMay established bomber bases across the United States, including the one at Lincoln. He boosted SAC’s personnel from 144,525 in 1951 to 224,014 in 1957, and the number of B-47s from 12 to 1,285.
“They banged them out as fast as they could,” said Dick Purdum of Bellevue, an RB-47 veteran, former Offutt Air Force Base commander and the organizer of the reunion. “(LeMay) didn’t have years and years and years to keep the Russian Bear from knocking at the door.”
In the book’s foreword, Cassiday said the crews loved their missions. They knew that they were protecting the free world from grave peril.
“We took great pride in our role in America’s defense,” he said. “We thought little of the losses, unless they were our close friends. We knew that SAC relied on us, and we were ready to do what we had to.”
The almost 100 B-47 veterans who gathered at Omaha’s Magnolia Hotel remembered those good times.
The group toured Offutt and the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum in Ashland, where they were allowed to inspect the inside of the museum’s B-47E display model. The association has supported the museum and its restoration of the B-47, which was donated by SAC in 1964. The veterans held a memorial service for fallen crew members at the museum’s chapel and presented a plaque in their honor.
Gen. John Hyten was scheduled to speak to the group. He is the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, the successor to SAC, which was disbanded in 1992 after the U.S. won the Cold War.
The association set aside $1,000 to allow its webmaster, the son of a B-47 veteran, to maintain the group’s website, B-47.com. And the members are donating their leftover funds to the SAC Museum to help finish the restoration of its Stratojet.
The men who flew them, and survived, want to keep the memory of the feisty old bird alive.