Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
30 September 2011
Review by Jonathan D. Beard, New York City
The B-45 Tornado: An Operational History of the First American Jet Bomber
By John C. Fredriksen
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. Pp. vii, 264. ISBN 978–0–7864–4278–2.
Descriptors: Volume 2011, 20th Century, Korean War, Cold War Print Version

Pity the poor North American B-45 Tornado. It ought to be one of the most famous planes in US Air Force history, yet even military aircraft buffs often do not recognize it or know anything about its story. The B-45 was America's first jet bomber, it served briefly as an important part of NATO's nuclear deterrent force, it was the first multi-engined jet to cross the Atlantic, and it carried out dozens of spy missions during and after the Korean War. Yet its very pioneer status doomed it to an early death: many of the planes ended up as hulks used to train airbase firefighters, the rest were scrapped, and today only three examples exist in museums.

The Air Force first got interested in jet bombers in 1944, when Luftwaffe jet fighters and bombers took to the skies over Europe. By February 1946, when construction of the first XB-45 prototypes was authorized, World War II was over, but it was apparent that future wars would be fought with jets. Besides North American's entry into the competition to build the first US jet bomber, Consolidated, Boeing, and Martin received, respectively, XB-46, XB-47, and XB-48 prototype designations. North American got its first big break when the Consolidated and Martin planes failed and Boeing, though its design was obviously superior to the rest, conceded that it would need years to produce an operations-ready plane. If the Air Force wanted a jet bomber soon, it would have to be the B-45. This was the craft's blessing and curse. It guaranteed the Tornado's pioneering role and all the records it would set, but made the Air Force reluctant to build many of the planes while eagerly anticipating the debut of the B-47. And indeed, once the Boeing jet did become operational, the Air Force quickly discarded the B-45s.

John C. Fredriksen, a veteran writer of both military history and warplane books, spent years reading unit histories and Air Force reports and interviewing the men who flew and maintained the B-45 between its maiden flight in 1947 and its retirement in 1972. The result is a thorough, though often tedious, operational history of the airplane.

North American's team, faced with a new challenge, relied heavily on their XB-28 design. This twin-engine propeller plane, built and successfully flown during the war, was a conventional aircraft except for its pressurized cabin design for high-altitude operations. The Air Force ultimately decided it did not need such a specialized medium bomber. The Tornado's designers used its pressurized cabin, shoulder wings, and high tail, but replaced the engines with four J35 jets in twin nacelles on each wing. The result was a sleek, aerodynamically clean aircraft with impressive performance compared to the existing propeller-driven B-29s and B-50s. It could carry up to eleven tons of bombs almost a thousand miles, cruise at over 450 miles per hour, and reach an altitude of 45,000 feet. Several trials demonstrated that the contemporary, straight-winged Air Force and Navy jet fighters could not intercept the new bomber.

Since the B-45 never dropped a bomb in earnest, much of Fredriksen's volume chronicles the struggle to make the aircraft truly operational. Its crews, on the ground and in the air, faced many challenges. The original J35 engines proved barely adequate, and even though they were soon replaced by the J47 turbojets that powered most American jets in the 1950s, short engine life always plagued the Tornados. Moreover, even with more powerful engines, the planes needed long runways to take off—preferably 10,000 feet of strong concrete. Landing posed its own problems: the B-45's streamlined shape made it hard to slow down, since it lacked the drag chutes that later bombers would feature. Thus, both take-offs and landings occasioned many accidents (meticulously recorded in the book).

Fredriksen also details the B-45's stint as a nuclear deterrent. In 1952, two Tornado squadrons were deployed to England to carry atomic bombs. In the event of war, they were to drop tactical nuclear weapons on advancing Russian troops to buy time for NATO forces. These were conceived of as suicide missions, for the planes' short range combined with the radiation effects of their bombs and Soviet defenses made it unlikely that any would ever return to base.

In the event, the Tornados proved their worth by carrying not A-bombs but cameras, extra fuel, and intelligence officers. Fredriksen describes in some detail their many classified missions, often overflights of Soviet, Chinese, and other communist-bloc territories. In April 1954, a Tornado, painted in RAF livery and manned by a British crew (to facilitate US deniability) flew over the USSR:

The RB-45C coasted placidly along while its highly modified APQ-24 [radar] performed splendidly; navigator Lieutenant Rex Sanders reported capturing some very fine images. Gazing ahead, Crampton suddenly perceived a series of flashes, similar to an electrical storm, erupting distinctly below him. Sanders then cut in and requested that the plane's course and speed be maintained on the final approach to Kiev, which was done. Everything, at least on the surface, was normal. "My reverie was rudely interrupted by the sudden heart-stopping appearance of golden anti-aircraft fire," Crampton stated. "There was no doubt about it; it was very well predicted flak—dead ahead and at the same height as we were. My reaction was instinctive—throttles wide open and haul the aeroplane round on its starboard wing until the gyro compass pointed west." Apparently the Russians had massed several hundred antiaircraft guns in a wide belt directly under the Tornado's flight path, then let loose with a single salvo (182–83).

The Tornados were replaced—as both bombers and reconnaissance planes—by the faster, longer-ranged Boeing B-47 and Martin B-57 Canberras; later, of course, the famous U-2 spy planes flew the hazardous missions over communist countries.

Unfortunately for his readers, Fredriksen has spent too much time poring over official documents, as evidenced by his constant casual references to individual planes by their serial numbers and his mind-numbing specification of precisely how many thousands of gallons of fuel aerial tankers delivered each month (!) to the B-45s, identified unit-by-unit. Nonetheless, he does succeed in telling the B-45's story from beginning to end in a well-documented book equipped with notes, a good bibliography, and an adequate index.

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