Edited By Mark Natola, with an introduction by Robert M. Robbins
Schiffer Publishing, Atglen PA Published August 2002
A REVIEW BY WALTER J. BOYNE
True Stories Of The Cold War In The Air is a welcome addition to the literature. It is a wonderful collection of true first person stories, most never-before-told about incredible experiences in the radical B-47 aircraft. As such it is a tribute to the thousands of people in the industry and in the Air Force who made its great success possible. In reading these stories, one quickly realizes that the great cost of a mighty weapon system is never the dollars spent on it; it is instead the investment of time, careers, and all too often, lives that represent the greatest investment. Mark Natola, who helped found and was a founding member of the Boeing B-47 Stratojet Association, has assembled sixty-three stories from fifty-six authors, who helped design, build, fly or maintain the B-47. These snapshots of life with the B-47 are invaluable in telling its story, and it makes one wish that other editors would do the same for other aircraft-there is simply nothing like hearing it from the mouths of the participants.
In reviewing books in which you have a conflict of interest, it is always best to come clean early on. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that the Boeing B-47 is my favorite aircraft, having flown it for several hundred hours, nor that I’ve a piece in this excellent book. The editor Mark Natola is a friend of mine, and so is the remarkable man who wrote the introduction, Robert M. Robbins, about whom, more later. Having said all of this, I will still give an even-handed appraisal of the book because it is easy to do so: it is first rate!
There is much to be said about Robert M. Robbins, from the fact that he was the first man to fly the XB-47, to his twenty-one year association with the aircraft. He began his work in 1946, as an Engineering Flight Test Consultant, going on then to become Experimental Test Pilot on the first and subsequent flights. After retiring from test flying he became an Assistant B-47B Project Engineer, and progressed successively to Chief Project Engineer, Assistant Director of Engineering and eventually Military Programs Manager with overall program responsibility for the B-47, B-52 and KC-135 programs.
The enormity of this responsibility is overwhelming-think about it for a moment, and you realize that he had broad fundamental responsibilities for the three most important aircraft weapon systems of the Cold War, as well as two of the most important weapon systems of the current day, the B-52 and the KC-135.
Robbins kicks off the book as he kicked off his first flight in the XB-47, with an unsubtle direct plea for divine help, i.e. “Oh _God, please help me through the next two hours.” The date was December 17, 1947, the 44th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight and the most radical aircraft ever to roll out of a Boeing factory, the swept-wing, six jet, bicycle gear, tandem seat XB-47 was ready to roll from the Boeing field runway. The aircraft’s appearance was so startlingly different than even Bob Withington, the aerodynamicist in charge of the vital wind-tunnel testing that had ultimately determined the XB-47’s configuration, momentarily thought “That’s a mighty strange looking airplane-I wonder if it will really fly!!”
It flew of course, right into history as the most important multi-engine jet aircraft ever built. From the XB-47 flowed not only the immortal B-52 and KC-135 designs, but also everyone of the Boeing transports from the 707 to the 777. The configuration of the B-47 also had direct influence on the designs of many competing aircraft, domestic and foreign.
The B-47 became the big gun of the Strategic Air Command, which purchased more than 2,000 of the type, and had as many as 1,300 in first line service at one time. By modern standards the life-span of the B-47 was relatively short, being phased out by a Secretary Robert McNamara economy drive in 1967, just twenty years after the first flight.
Those twenty years saw the B-47 at the height of its power, but as this book records, it was not a tranquil two decades for the aircraft by any means, as much had to be learned about the operation of a high-speed, high altitude jet with aerial refueling capability. Boeing did its best to anticipate both requirements and problems, but most of the latter developed in the field, where the flights were made and the troubles discovered-often under tragic circumstances.
Just a sampling of the names of the contributors to the book will give you and idea of its visceral appeal and its historical important. The list includes such names as the great test pilot, power boat pilot, motorcycle rider and arm wrestler, Colonel Russ Schleeh; the terrific test pilot and master psychologist Brigadier General Guy Townsend; the daring over-flight pilot of the Cold War, Colonel Harold R. Austin along with many more less famous, but no less distinguished veterans of the program. The subjects range from Guy Townsend selling the XB-47 to General K. B. Wolfe with an inspirational test-flight to testing the downward ejection seats in a the words of Colonel Jesse Jacobs. Danger and laughter seem to go together, and while most of the stories necessarily involve high drama or far-out (for the time) technology some, such as “Runaway RB-47 (Unmanned) by Major John P. Noonan are hilarious.
This is a superb, inspirational book, one of which author Natola may well be proud. It is certain that everyone who ever had any association at all with the B-47 will wish to have a copy, but it is really far too important to be confined to that audience, as large as it is. This is the sort of book that ought to be on the reading lists of the military services, their academies and their service schools, for it portrays both the military and civil participants in the B-47 programs as exemplars of the American way. The airplane was tough, demanding and required sacrifices to be used to its limits, but those operating it knew that it was the very best means to deter war and they rose to the occasion, risking their lives to master the aircraft. In doing so, they provided lessons that can well be used today.