Sunday, March 2, 2014

Around the World in a Plane Non-stop—The Flight of Lucky Lady II

Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington and all Air Force top brass greeted the Lucky Lady II crew.

There was a time when a big aviation first would be a huge deal—newspaper headlines, magazine covers, weeks in the newsreels, ticker tape parades, a hand shake with the President, may be even a movie.  The pilot would become a household name and instant celebrity. 
Those days were passed.  Aviation was out of its infancy and after years of war—much of it conducted in and from the air—it accomplishments were beginning to seem routine.  The public had other things on its mind, shiny new technologies like infant television to tantalize their interest.
Not that the event escaped notice.  It made headlines.  Very big wigs indeed were on hand to congratulate Captain James Gallagher and his14 officers and men including two other pilots and two complete flight crews when they landed the Lucky Lady II, a B-50 heavy bomber, at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas on March 2, 1949.  They had just completed the first non-stop flight around the world—23,452 miles—in 94 hours and one minute.  The flight was made possible by mid-air refueling.
Pictures of the crew with the welcoming committee of Secretary of the Air Force W. Stuart Symington; Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt S. Vandenberg; Lieutenant General Curtis LeMay; Commanding General of the Strategic Air Command (SAC); and Major General Roger M. Ramey, Commanding General of the Eighth Air Force did make the papers.  That’s was a hell of a lot of brass and an indication of how important the flight was considered in the new Defense Department.
If the American public did not remain long enrapt by the story, the real intended audience far away in the Kremlin certainly got the point.  In the USSR Joseph Stalin clearly got the message even if General LeMay had not pointedly made to the press that the Air Force now had the capability of flying bombing missions from anywhere in the United States to “any place in the world that required the atomic bomb.”  And by anyplace, he meant Moscow.  Secretary Symington, who knew that the Soviets would be aware that there was only a small fleet of B-50 and other heavy bombers, upped the ante by pointing out that with mid-air refueling even medium range bombers could carry out such long range missions.
American relations with the Soviet Union had deteriorated badly since the heady days of the end of World War II.  The Russians had moved decisively to create a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and established vassal Communist Republics from the Baltic to the Balkans.  It was pressing hard to bring in neutral Austria and backing a civil war in Greece.  The Allied Zones of the divided city of Berlin, deep within the Soviet Occupation Zone in Germany, had been blockaded since May of 1948 and survived only by a massive airlift operation.  The Cold War was on and threatening to heat up.
Officials at the highest levels had decided only in January that it was time to send an unmistakable message to Moscow.  Five planes and crews from the 43rd Bombardment Group were selected to train and prepare for the mission in six weeks.  The B-50 was an upgrade and modernization of the B-29 that had come into service at the end of the War and delivered the Atomic Bombs to Japan.  Like its predecessor, it was designated the Superfortress.  The planes were modified by the addition of an extra fuel tank in part of the bomb bay and were armed with 12 .50-caliber machine guns.  They were to carry no payload, atomic or conventional.
Each crew and plane was to stand by to take off on the mission in succession until one would succeed.  The first, Global Queen, took off from Carswell on February 25 but was forced to abandon the flight in the Azores after an engine fire.
Lucky Lady II, named for a famous 8th Air Force B-17 shot down in 1943, took off the next day.  She headed east over the Atlantic Ocean following a flight plan that would take her well south of the Soviet Union and only clip a remote region of China before undertaking the long trip across the Pacific.  The plane was refueled four times by KB-29M tankers—converted B-29 bombers—over the Azores, Dhahran Airfield in Saudi Arabia, Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, and Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii.  The three pilots rotated on four hour shifts and the two flight crews every six hours.
If Capt. Gallagher and his name never became household names, they were honored.  All crew members were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and they won the Mackay Trophy recognizing the outstanding flight of the year by the National Aeronautic Association and the Air Age Trophy of the Air Force Association.
The B-50’s would soon be phased out as the Air Force’s prime strategic bomber by the huge new B-36 with its six piston push engines eventually supplement with two jet engines.  The B-36 would have intercontinental capabilities without refueling.  By the later 1950’s that aircraft would be replaced by the all jet B-52 Stratofortress.
Just eight years after the first non-stop flight Lucky Lady III, a B-52 flew a similar mission in 45 hours and 19 minutes, less than half the time the Lucky Lady II required.
As for the target audience of the stunt, it certainly got Stalin’s attention.  He ramped up the Soviet atomic bomb project and was able to detonate a weapon later that year on August 29.  He also put a program to build an intercontinental bomber fleet into high gear, and put a lot of chips on a missile program that he hoped would leapfrog the USSR ahead of the USA in the now full blown Arms Race.

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