In the annals of U.S. military aviation, a fair number of fighter planes’ monikers have been passed from one generation to the next. You have names like “Thunderbolt,” which passed from the WWII-era P-47 Thunderbolt to the A-10 Thunderbolt II, which celebrated her 50th birthday last year. You have “Lightning,” passed from the WWII-era P-38 Lightning to the fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter. And you have “Phantom,” first used for the relatively obscure FH-1 Phantom before being passed to the famous F-4 Phantom that served American pilots faithfully from the Vietnam War to the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
But when it comes to American heavy bombers, only one nickname has been passed along in a similar way: Superfortress. First came the iconic B-29 Superfortess of WWII. It was followed by the warbird that is our current subject: the B-50 Superfortress.
B-50 Superfortress Early History and Specifications
The Boeing B-50 Superfortress made her maiden flight on June 25, 1947, and entered into official operational service the following year — interesting timing considering her B-29 namesake was still very much in service at the time. The resemblance between the two “Superforts” is no accident, as explained by a now-archived fact sheet from the National Museum of the United States Air Force:
“The Boeing B-50A Superfortress was the result of a program started in mid-1943 when Pratt & Whitney offered to adapt a B-29 for its more powerful R-4360 radial engines…Although the end of WWII signaled the end of most production contracts, the Army still needed a long-range bomber capable of carrying atomic weapons…Boeing engineers redesigned the basic B-29 airframe for the Pratt & Whitney engines using XB-44 specifications. They also designed a stronger wing and a taller vertical stabilizer for a production aircraft initially designated B-29D. An order for 200 aircraft placed just before WWII ended was in serious jeopardy of being canceled outright; however, the Army redesignated this design B-50A in December 1945. The designation change was partly due to the extensive design changes incorporated into the B-29D and partly to make the aircraft appear as a completely new design to gain funding for production.” ]
Specifications included a crew of 10 or 11, a fuselage length of 99 feet, a wingspan of 141 feet 3 inches, a height of 32 feet 8 inches, an empty weight of 87,714 pounds, and a maximum takeoff weight of 168,500 pounds. Max airspeed was 385 miles per hour, with a combat range of 4,650 nautical miles and a service ceiling of 37,000 feet. Armament bristled with twelve .50 caliber machine guns and one 20mm cannon, not to mention a payload of 20,000 lbs. of bombs.
Operational Performance: Making Aviation History
Though nowhere near as famous as the B-29, the B-50 made plenty of history in her own right, serving as the primary atomic bomber of Strategic Air Command (SAC) for nearly seven years. She was the last piston engine-powered bomber built for the U.S. Air Force. In her bomber configuration, she was replaced by the B-47 Stratojet and phased out from the SAC inventory by 1958, although the WB-50 weather reconnaissance iteration soldiered on until 1964.
Interestingly, the B-50 was never used for bombing missions during the Korean War — the Air Force was content to stick with the B-29 for that purpose. The RB-50 version of the plane was used for photographic reconnaissance in that conflict.
Last but not least, there was “Lucky Lady II,” a B-50A-5-BO bearing Serial No. 46-010, which made the first nonstop around-the-world flight, accomplishing the feat over a timespan of 94 hours, 1 minute between February 26 and March 2, 1949.
Spawning the Stratofreighter
The B-50’s airframe also served as the direct basis for the design of the Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter military cargo plane, which, as noted by Airliners.net, “formed the backbone of the US Air Force’s Military Airlift Transport Service (MATS) during the early 1950s, and more than 800 were built for use as freighters and air-to-air refuellers.”
What’s more, my fellow fans of the late great action-adventure novelist Clive Cussler and his bestselling Dirk Pitt series will recognize the C-97 as the plane bearing the titular call sign of the 1978 novel “Vixen 03,” and whose crash during the Prologue sets the novel’s plot in motion. The cover art of the original 1978 Viking Press hardcover edition as well as the early Bantam Books paperback editions, correctly depict a C-97, but the current Bantam paperback incorrectly shows a Superfortress instead, complete with gun turrets.
Also, with all due respect to the memory of Cussler, he repeatedly refers to the plane as the “Stratocruiser,” which was actually the appellation of the rather luxurious Boeing 377 civilian airliner derivative of the C-97, as opposed to the correct military designation of Stratofreighter.
Where Are They Now?
Out of 370 B-50 “Superforts” built, a mere five survive today, none of them airworthy and all of them at stateside museums. First and foremost, Lucky Lady II’s fuselage is lovingly stored at the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California. As for completely intact airframes, we have a KB-50J variant at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona; a KB-50J at the Air Mobility Command Museum at Dover AFB, Delaware; a WB-50D at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio; and last but not least, Flight of the Phoenix – which also has the distinction of being the last B-50 “Superfort” ever to be flown – at Castle Air Museum in Atwater, California.
Christian D. Orr is a Senior Defense Editor for 19FortyFive. He is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).