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In late 1950, as USAF B-29s were bombing North Korean supply lines in support of UN ground troops, they encountered a swept-winged North Korean aircraft capable of great speed. While the introduction of the MIG-15 caught United Nations forces by surprise, its counterpart would prove to be a legend among jet fighter aircraft.
As early as 1944, North American Aviation had proposed a jet aircraft design to the US Navy, as a result of combat against the early German jet fighters, such as the ME-262. This design, the FJ-1 Fury was, in essence, a jet version of the P-51 MUSTANG. Though its speed was impressive compared to piston-powered fighters, its overall performance failed to meet expectations. However, within a few months, the USAAF approached North American with a requirement for a medium-range, single-seat, high-altitude, jet-powered day escort fighter/fighter-bomber. In early 1945, North American submitted four designs to the Air Corps with North American granted permission to produce three examples of the XP-86 (Experimental Pursuit) aircraft. While the XP-86 was a lighter plane than the Fury, and could attain 582 mph, as opposed to 547 for the FJ-1, the XP-86 could not meet the Air Corps requirement for a top speed of 600 mph. Furthermore, two rival designs, the XP-80 and XP-84 having speeds in the range of the XP-86 were already under development and might result in cancellation of the contract for the XP-86.
North American was able to solve this problem with a leapfrog in technology. The XP-86 was the first American aircraft to take advantage of captured German test data at the end of World War II, which indicated a thin swept wing could greatly reduce drag and delay compressibility problems when an aircraft approached the speed of sound. Further study of the tests revealed a swept wing would solve the speed problem, while a slat on the wing’s leading edge would enhance low-speed stability. Since the 86 was approaching an advanced stage of development, North American’s senior management was hesitant to incorporate a swept wing design. However, after a series of wind tunnel tests, a 35-degree sweep offered the best performance with automatic front slats and an electrically adjusted stabilizer based on the ME-262. As a result of combat experience gained in Korea, the front edge wing slats were phased out in favor of a leading edge chord extending 6 inches from the wing root to 3 inches at the tip.
Though much of the design work was delayed until after the end of World War II, the first F-86 SABRE was completed on August 8, 1947, with the first flight occurring on October 1 of that year. The SABRE was first assigned to the USAF Strategic Air Command in 1949 prior to its deployment to Korea in late 1950. The F-86 set a number of speed records during its early years, an official world speed record of 671 mph in September 1948, a 1951Bendix Trophy for an average speed of 553.76 mph, as well as the first woman, Jacqueline Cochran, to break the speed of sound in May 1953.
When the Soviet MIG-15 was introduced in November 1950, it outperformed all UN aircraft, such as the straight-winged F-80 and F-84. The MIG was clearly a generation ahead of both types, as well as the F9F PANTHER, flown by the US Navy from carriers offshore. Three squadrons of F-86s were dispatched to the Far East in December 1950. Though the F-86 and the MIG-15 were evenly matched and based on similar design concepts, there were a number of differences. SABRES were more aerodynamically stable and could turn, roll and dive faster than the MIG. The F-86 could also go supersonic in a dive, while the MIG would experience structural damage attempting to do so. The SABRE was also equipped with a radar gunsight, which allowed pilots to quickly aim their .50 caliber guns more accurately-even compensating for speed. The MIG-15s key advantages were faster climbing and acceleration rates, effective handling at high altitudes and being somewhat more maneuverable. Firepower between the two aircraft was a tradeoff, with the SABRE firing more smaller rounds more accurately aimed and the MIG firing less accurate but larger bore (23mm and 37mm) ammunition. Perhaps the deciding factor in the air war over Korea was the quality of pilots. Many of the MIGs were flown by Soviet pilots for about the first year of their deployment. Many of these were aces from World War II and were thus capable pilots. The USAF followed the same philosophy, sending a number of World War II aces to Korea as well. While the Soviet pilots were well trained, the USAF training program at Nellis AFB was both more broad and intense. As Soviet pilots were rotated home, they were replaced by less capable Chinese and North Korean pilots. As the war progressed, this was reflected in the loss ratio between the two aircraft. While the overall loss ratio was in favor of the SABRE of about eight to one by wars end (78 to 687), the loss ratio against Soviet pilots has been disputed in recent years, with a number of former Soviet pilots stating a loss ratio of two to one in favor of the SABRE. The most hotly contested battles were fought over an area near the mouth of the Yalu River known as MIG ALLEY.
After the Korean War, the SABRE was exported to a number of nations to include NATO allies such as the United Kingdom, Canada, West Germany, Greece, Spain, Norway and Turkey, as well as Taiwan, Japan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The last SABRE was retired from the Bolivian Air Force in 1994. Though the SABRE was in service for many years, the high point of its career was in Korea-in which a few brave pilots and planes made the difference in saving a nation.
In late 1945 the USAAF was at a crossroads. While the B-29 Superfortress was a capable platform in carrying the war to Japan, future requirements dictated an aircraft of intercontinental range, in excess of five thousand miles. The Convair B-36 Peacemaker met this requirement, but would not enter service for three more years. Further complicating matters, General Curtis LeMay and several other forward thinking generals were considering a jet powered bomber. However, within a few years, the generals and engineers got together and designed a truly great jet bomber – the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. During this blog we will tell the story of the B-52, its development and its long service record with the USAF.
In addition to the range requirements of the aircraft, other performance characteristics specified by the Air Material Command in 1946 were a cruising speed of 300 mph. at an altitude of 34,000 ft., with a minimal payload of 10,000 lbs with five or six 20mm. gun turrets. The AMC issued bids later that year with Boeing, Glen L. Martin and Consolidated Aircraft submitting proposals. The Air Force accepted the Boeing proposal, an aircraft powered by six turboprop engines with a range of 3,110 miles. The Boeing plane, designated Model 462, was a straight-winged aircraft with a gross weight of 360,000 pounds – a heavy plane for its day. As a result of the weight issue, the Air Force began to have doubts about the ability of the aircraft to successfully perform its mission. Boeing then offered a smaller follow-up design, Model 464, having four engines and a 230,000 pound gross weight. While the 464 aircraft was deemed acceptable, the Air Force changed its requirements within a few months to a plane having a 400 mph cruising speed, with a 300,000 pound gross weight. Additionally, the Air Force wanted an aircraft with a range of twelve thousand miles, capable of delivering a nuclear weapon. These modifications increased the gross weight of the plane to 480,000 lbs.
Boeing responded by proposing two bombers, Model 464-16 and Model 464-17. Both planes were four engine turboprop designs, with the Model 16 being a nuclear only aircraft carrying a ten thousand lb. payload. The Model 17 bomber was a conventional bomber, able to mount a 9,000 lb. payload. By mid 1947 the Model 17 aircraft was deemed acceptable by the Air Force, except for the range requirement. By now, designated the XB-52, the aircraft offered only marginal performance in speed and range over the Convair B-36, which was about to enter service. The Air Force then postponed the project for six months in order to evaluate its potential. After a series of intense discussions between Boeing and the Air Force, the XB-52 project was back on track in January 1948, with Boeing urged to include the latest aviation innovations in the bomber design such as jet engines and aerial refueling. In May 1948, jet engines were substituted for turboprops which satisfied the Air Force. However, the Air Force still wanted a turboprop design, since jet engines of the era lacked fuel efficiency. October 1948 proved to be a crucial month for the XB-52 project. Boeing engineers George Schairer, Art Carlsen and Vaughn Blumenthal presented a refined turboprop design to Colonel Pete Warden, Director of Bomber Development for the USAF. After reviewing the proposal, Warden asked the Boeing design team if they could prepare a proposal for a four engine turbojet bomber. The following day Colonel Warden scanned the design, requesting an improved version. After returning to their hotel room, Schairer, Carlsen and Blumenthal were joined by Ed Wells, Boeing Vice President of Engineering, in addition to two other Boeing engineers, Bob Withington and Maynard Pennell. After eight hours of intense deliberation, the Boeing team had designed an entirely new airplane. The new concept of the XB-52 had 35 degree swept wings, based on the B-47 Stratojet, with eight engines paired in four pods below the wings with bicycle landing gear and outrigger wheels underneath the wingtips. The XB-52 also had flexible landing gear, which could pivot 20 degrees from the aircraft centerline to compensate for crosswinds upon landing. Warden approved the design the following week and the Air Force signed a contract with Boeing in February 1951 for an initial production run of 13 B-52As.
When the B-52 entered service in 1955, it was assigned to the Strategic Air Command (SAC) to deliver nuclear weapons under the doctrine of massive retaliation. Carrying a 50,000 lb. payload coupled with the capability to fly nearly half way around the globe, the Stratofortress was ideally suited for its role and soon became the standard for future bomber aircraft. Three B-52s from March AFB set a record around the world flight in 1957. However, it had its share of teething troubles, as with all aircraft. For example, the split level cockpit had climate control problems, while the pilot and co-pilot had sunlight exposure on the upper deck, the navigator and observer nearly froze on the lower deck. Early B-52 models were often grounded due to both electrical and hydraulic issues, with the Air Force assigning contractor teams to B-52 bases, troubleshooting problems as they arose.
By the late 1950s, advances in Soviet surface to air (SAM) missile capabilities brought about a major upgrade in the electronic countermeasure capabilities of the B-52. This situation also caused SAC to change its philosophy from high altitude bombing to low level penetration. The switch to low altitude bombing required a number of modifications to B-52 component parts. Such features as an updated radar altimeter, structural reinforcements, modified equipment mounts, an enhanced cooling system, as well as terrain avoidance radar were necessary to support missions flown at altitudes as low as 500 ft. By the end of the decade, B-52 capabilities increased with the addition of the Quail and Hound Dog missile systems. The Quail, a decoy missile, was carried in the aft bomb bay of the B-52 and launched while in flight to the target. The missile was programmed by the crew to match the speed and altitude of the B-52, thus confusing Soviet radar. Each Stratofortress carried four of these, in addition to the regular nuclear payload. North American’s entry, the AGM-28 Hound Dog was an offensive missile launched from the B-52 to carry a nuclear warhead to its target. With a mach 2 speed and an altitude variance of from 500 to 60,000 ft., the Hound Dog was able to penetrate enemy air defenses to a range of 600 miles. The primary drawback of the Hound Dog was its weight. At 20,000 lbs. each, the B52s could only carry two of them with a corresponding fifteen per cent loss of range.
The 1960s saw a change of doctrine for SAC. With the emergence of both land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), as well as sea-launched (SLBM) missiles from submarines, the manned bomber force became a leg of a nuclear triad. The primary advantage of the missile legs were their relative invulnerability to enemy attack. They were also cheaper to operate than a manned bomber fleet. Both ICBMs and SLBMs offered a quick response to an enemy attack, while a response from manned bombers was more time sensitive. The growing threat from Soviet ICBMs was another factor countering the effectiveness of the manned bomber leg. Due to the potential for conflict in Berlin, Cuba and a number of third world countries, the Kennedy Administration decided to scrap the policy of massive retalation, replacing it with the doctrine of flexible response. Instead of having a large nuclear umbrella with small conventional forces, those forces were increased in order to keep any potential war from escalating to the nuclear threshold. Under the flexible response doctrine, nuclear weapons were to be used in a limited role against selected targets. Thus, the B-52 had a new mission, to loiter on patrol at the edge of Soviet airspace, ready to strike designated targets in a retaliatory role. The Stratofortress was the ideal plane for the job, having the range, speed and payload, as well as an aerial refueling capability.
While the B-52 was designed as nuclear weapon delivery system, it served an entirely different purpose in Viet Nam. In 1964 seventy-four B-52s were modified with external bomb racks, which could carry an additional twenty-four 750 lb. bombs. The following year Operation Rolling Thunder began, in which the USAF commenced bombing missions in both North and South Viet Nam, with the primary role of the Stratofortress to support ground operations in the South. The first mission, Operation Arc Light was conducted by B-52s in June 1965, bombing a suspected Viet Cong stronghold in the Ben Cat District in South Viet Nam. Twenty-Seven B-52s participated in the raid, bombing a one mile by two mile box. Though only partially successful, the raid proved the potential of the B-52 as a ground attack weapon. Later that year, a number of B-52s underwent modifications to increase their capacity for carpet bombing. These raids were devastating to anyone in or near the target areas. B-52s bombed North Viet Nam in late 1972 during Operation Linebacker II. These missions were successful in leading to the peace talks which ended the war, although at a loss of 15 Stratofortresses. During that campaign, B-52 gunners claimed two North Vietnamese Mig-21s – the first hostile aircraft shot down by the plane.
The Stratofortress went on to provide ground support in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Operation Allied Force in Serbia in 1999, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001, as well as Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. During its career, the B-52 has proven itself both a durable and an adaptable plane, receiving a number of modifications during its 63 year career. It has dropped bombs, launched missiles, served as an experimental platform, in addition to launching the X-15 rocket plane. Current efforts by Boeing to re-engine the Stratofortress are projected to extend its service life through 2040. One could say of the B-52, it’s the plane that keeps on flying.
While many of our ancestors arrived in this nation by ship – the only practical means of mass transit at the time, the subject of this blog chose a different but no less dangerous path to freedom. In his case, timing made the difference between life and death.
Kenneth H. Rowe (No Kum-Sok) was born in Sinhung, Korea on January 10, 1932. When Rowe was twelve years old, Korea was a part of the Japanese Empire and both Japanese culture and companies dominated the peninsula. Though Korean traditions and culture were officially shunned, Rowe’s father worked for a Japanese corporation and made a relatively good living, providing Ken with both material and social advantages. By his teen years, Ken could speak both Korean and Japanese fluently. In 1944 the Japanese military began sending its pilots on suicide missions against the American navy in the Pacific and requested Korean volunteers. Although Rowe was only twelve, he asked his father if he could volunteer to serve as a kamikaze pilot. The father was able to discourage Rowe, and conveyed an attitude that the United States would ultimately win the war. This aroused a curiosity in Ken about the United States and its people.
While Rowe began to express pro-American sentiments to his classmates, he had to be careful about them since the Soviets occupied Korea north of the 38th parallel after World War II and installed a Communist regime. After several years of dictatorship under Kim ll Sung, Ken became convinced he had to leave North Korea but ironically decided being an ardent Communist would give him the means to do so. Rowe’s zeal caught the attention of the North Korean military and he soon trained to become a fighter pilot.
Ken began flying combat missions in Soviet-built Mig-15 jet fighters in 1951. Although he flew nearly a hundred missions during the course of the war, he sought to avoid dogfights with USAF jet fighters, which enjoyed both qualitative and quantitative advantages. In September 1953, two months after the end of the Korean War Rowe (No) saw his chance. Rowe’s squadron was on a training mission from Sunan Air Base, just outside of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. With near perfect flying weather, Rowe was able to veer away from from his unit and set a course for the 38th parallel into South Korea. He knew the odds were against him to land safely at an American air base, but after a fifteen minute flight Rowe landed safely at Kimpo Air Base, just outside the South Korean capital of Soul. He later discovered the USAF radar was shutdown for maintenance work that morning, though he barely missed a collision with an American jet fighter landing on the same runway from the opposite direction.
Rowe (No) spent the next six months on Okinawa as a consultant to both the USAF and CIA on the capabilities of the Mig-15, as well as providing insight about North Korean air combat strategies. Ken arrived in the United States in 1954, working as a paid contractor to a number of US intelligence agencies. During that time, he often traveled by rail between Washington DC and New York, passing through Newark, Delaware – home of the University of Delaware School of Engineering. Intent on pursuing his education, Rowe enrolled in the UD engineering program, earning degrees in both mechanical and electrical engineering. He was well situated upon graduation, with the $100,000 reward received for defecting with the Mig (of which Rowe was unaware) invested for him and yielding a high rate of return.
When Rowe sought assistance from his CIA handlers in securing a green card to work in the US, they refused. He could only get temporary visas as a result of an agreement between the CIA and the government of South Korea, who wanted him to join their air force upon graduation. From a close relationship with a history professor at UD, Ken was introduced to a Senator from Delaware, who introduced a bill granting him citizenship. The bill was eventually signed by President Eisenhower. The CIA was instructed not to interfere if Rowe sought permanent immigration status on his own.
In 1957 Ken was reunited with his mother, who had been living in South Korea. Though he wasn’t fluent in English, he quickly adapted to life in the United States. Rowe pursued a varied and successful career in aeronautical engineering, working for a number of key aviation firms such as Grumman, General Dynamics, Lockheed and Boeing, as well as General Electric, DuPont and Westinghouse. After leaving the corporate world, Rowe served as an aeronautical engineering professor at Embry-Riddle University, making him a true hero of aviation – both inside and outside of the cockpit.
This blog is the fifth of a series about the heroes of aviation.