(WHTM) — The B-50 bomber is pretty much a footnote in the history of aviation. It’s an upgraded version of the B-29 Superfortress of World War 2 fame, with a beefed up structure, a taller tail fin, and more powerful engines, it began service with the Air Force in June of 1948 and remained in use for almost 20 years.
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But most of that service was not as a long-range bomber. Even as the first B-50s came off the production lines, it was becoming obvious the future of aerial combat was with jet propulsion. The B-50s were modified into aerial refueling and intelligence reconnaissance planes, as well as weather reconnaissance planes for the Air Weather Service. They were finally retired in 1965.
In 1949, one of these B-50s, Lucky Lady II, would make history by becoming the first airplane to fly around the world non-stop.
There had been round-the-world flights before, but they involved multiple stops along the way for the three Rs-Rest, Repair, and Refuel. The first flight around the world was made by the U.S. Army Air Service in 1924 using four planes, each holding a pilot and mechanic. It took 175 days, with 74 stops.
In 1933, Wiley Post made the first solo flight around the world. He made the trip in seven days, 18 hours, and 49 minutes, and made 10 stopovers along the way.
By the end of World War II, planes had become more reliable and could fly longer distances. They could fly a lot farther with the new technology of aerial refueling. The ideal way to test this technology-fly an airplane around the world without landing.
There was more to this, though, than just testing new technology. By 1949, the Cold War had begun in earnest. Winston Churchill made his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946, and in 1948 The Soviet Union blockaded Berlin, Germany, leading to the 11-month-long Berlin Airlift. The U.S. Military felt it was important to demonstrate to the Soviet Union and the world that the United States could now project its air power anywhere on the planet.
On February 26, 1949, Lucky Lady II, commanded by Air Force Capt. James Gallagher, with a crew of 13 airmen, took off from Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas, and headed east. They would refuel four times, over the Azores, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and Hawaii.
The refueling was done by the 43rd Air Refueling Squadron, using four pairs of KB-29M tanker planes (modified B-29s). The refueling method they used, “grab and drag”, was actually developed by the British in the 1920s. The refueling planes (tankers) flew above and ahead of Lucky Lady II (receiver) while crews unspooled a long refueling hose. The crew of Lucky Lady II would then grapple the hose, pull it in, refuel, then release the hose so that the tanker could reel it back.
The trip came with a cost; after refueling near Luzon, Philippines on March 1, the refueling tanker encountered poor weather conditions and crashed, killing all nine crew members.
Refueled four times, Lucky Lady II returned to its starting point on March 2, 1949, having covered 23,452 miles in 94 hours and 1 minute. The aircraft’s crew were each awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and received the National Aeronautic Association’s Mackay Trophy for the outstanding flight of the year. The Air Force Association presented them with its Air Age Trophy.
Today there are two main systems for aerial refueling. The “probe-and-drogue” uses a long hose like the “grab and drag”, but instead of snagging it in midair, the pilot maneuvers the receiver airplane so that a funnel-shaped drogue on the hose plugs into a probe for refueling. The flying boom method connects the two aircraft with a rigid boom. (The Air Force prefers this system because it can transfer fuel at a rate of 6,000 pounds per minute compared to 2,000 pounds per minute with the probe and drogue.) Aerial refueling is now a mainstay of American military strategy.
To see a newsreel about the Lucky Lady II flight, click here.
As for Lucky Lady II, she had a bit of bad luck. On August 13, 1950, she was severely damaged in a wheel-up landing following an engine failure, and only part of her fuselage is intact. It is now at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California.