Brigadier General Paul W. Tibbets, Jr, Pilot of the “Enola Gay” B-29, Headed Up B-47 Program at Boeing-Wichita!
Few aviation historians are aware that General Tibbets was instrumental in developing the Air Force’s B-47 Program at the Wichita, Kansas Boeing plant.
In 1948 the Air Force was moving rapidly into the jet age and General Tibbets certainly wanted to be a part of it. Having just graduated from the Air Command and Staff School, he was assigned to Washington, D.C., as director of operations in the office of the chief of the Air Force Requirements Division. Because of his experience, General Tibbets was placed in charge of the bombardment branch at a time when a controversy was building up over the need for an all-jet bomber force.
Most of the argument at the time concerned the Consolidated B-36, built in Fort Worth, and the all-jet B-47 that Boeing had designed. The B-36 was a flying monster. Early versions had six pusher-type reciprocating engines in the wing. The airplane had a high ceiling, great range, and could stay aloft for hours. Unfortunately, it lacked speed. The B-47 didn’t have the range we desired because its six jet engines burned fuel at a tremendous rate. But this shortcoming could be solved through air-to-air refueling. It was apparent, of course, that a larger longer-range jet bomber would be developed as soon as technology permitted. In the meantime, the B-47 would serve a useful purpose. As it turned out, the B-36 was retired from service without having taken part in any military action. The fact that we had it was enough, to deter any would-be aggressor.
General Tibbets commented, “I did everything in my power to promote the development of the B-47. It was my baby, and I knew the Air Force needed it. I was finally able to sell the Air Force on the idea of buying a limited number of B-47s. The Boeing plant at Wichita, which had produced B-29s, had been shut down after the war, was reopened to produce the planes.
By the summer of 1950, Boeing was ready to turn out the first production models of the B-47, and in July 1950 I reported to Boeing at Wichita.”
The big six-jet B-47 is nearly the size of a B-29. Its wings drooped almost to the ground and raised up to generate lift as the plane gathered speed. The
B-47 is a three-place airplane. The commander or pilot sits up front and handles the controls, with the copilot behind him, tandem fashion. The third crewman sits ahead of and below them, in the plane’s nose. He’s the busiest guy on the airplane because he is the bombardier, the navigator, the radar man, the electronics countermeasures operator, and generally the one who keeps the other two on the ball.
Regarding training, General Tibbets said, “The ground school at Wichita was run by Boeing technical representatives called, tech-reps. They gave me a comprehensive training and really the first formal introduction I had ever had to a new airplane. Up to this time, someone always said that this is the airplane and to get in and fly it. The schooling went on for 30 days, a little longer than necessary because we didn’t have a B-47 available at the time. When it came time for me to check out in the B-47, I was lucky to have one of the best pilots in the business: A.M. “Tex” Johnson, a big man who always wore cowboy boots and, when not flying, a big Stetson hat. I knew what the B-47 was supposed to do. Tex Johnson showed me what it COULD do. He flew far enough away from Wichita that we would be out of sight of the Boeing people, who might not have approved of the demonstration that was in store for me. We did slow rolls, loops, Immelmanns – just about everything you would say was impossible in a big airplane with six engines.”
They started out the test program by wringing out the airplane, finding out the problems, and what to do about them. General Tibbets insisted on taking one airplane and flying it for 1,000 hours, using enough crews to keep it in the air all the time it wasn’t being worked on by the ground crews. This accelerated program soon showed all the bugs and kinks that might develop in two or three years of operational service, and it is now standard procedure for at least one airplane of each new model that is developed for the Air Force. Prior to that time, it took about seven years for tactical units of the Air Force to get an airplane after it was ordered.
General Tibbets reported, “We cut that time to three years with the B-47, and the engineers at the Wichita plant told me it was one of the best things that had happened in aircraft testing and procurement. I lived with the B-47 for three years.”
In 1954, Boeing Field at Wichita was renamed McConnell Air Force Base in memory of two of the three McConnell brothers, both bomber pilots. They were, Captain Fred J. McConnell and Lieutenant Thomas L. McConnell. Fred was killed in a private plane crash in 1945, and his brother Thomas died in a bombing raid on Bougainville in the Pacific. Edwin McConnell retired in 1945.
McConnell Air Force Base became the training base for B-47 crews. They were sent from Strategic Air Command (SAC) bases all over the country for transition training in the six-jet bomber. The Air Force developed a cadre of specialists at McConnell, and turned out SAC crews that were doing some of the most precise flying ever required of regular Air Force outfits. Wichita’s McConnell Air Force Base turned out top flight crews and General LeMay’s program kept them sharp. They had to meet and maintain strict standards or they didn’t fly. The B-47 Project WIBAC – code for Wichita Boeing Airplane Company – continued into 1954 and was absorbed into the Air Training Command at McConnell Air Force Base.
One of “Wings Over Kansas” valued contributors, Walter J. Boyne took his B-47 flight training at McConnell. Colonel Boyne’s accounts of history can be found here on the History and 100th Anniversary of Flight pages.
The above information was from General Tibbets book, “Return of the Enola Gay,” and can be found on General Tibbets website at www.theenolagay.com/. We appreciate General Tibbets contribution to “Wings Over Kansas” and sincerely appreciate permission by Gerry Newhouse to publish information from the Enola Gay website and book excerpts.