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Heavy Bombers: Fearsome Angels of the Cold War

Link - article by Avi Abrams

It was a warfare of intimidation and a game of fear: and so it bred monstrous planes, pregnant with the load of ominous bombs

For all who lived through Cold War, or have heard the stories and seen the movies, the most recognizable and frightening symbol of this harrowing period in human history were heavy bombers - Strategic Air Command long-range planes capable of delivering inconceivable destruction around the globe.

(1948 Boeing B-50 strategic bomber; art by Academy Model Co. via)

We are going to highlight some of the most impressive flying machines of this sort, in a series of articles inside our Airplanes category. Let's start with a bomber that made its name during World War Two - the 1942 Douglas A-20 'Havoc'.

"The Bombsight That Crushed Nazi Germany"

The Douglas A-20/DB-7 Havoc was an outstanding "light bomber" and night fighter aircraft of World War II, also known as "Boston" among British pilots - more info.

(image via)

You will notive that this bomber's nose is covered by a yellow life raft - to conceal a secret bombsight device. This was Norden Bombsight, a groundbreaking piece of World War II technology, and "one of the most precious objects of its era" according to Malcolm Gladwell (watch his TED talk video here)

(image via)

Norden said that "with the Mark 15 Norden bombsight, he could drop a bomb into a pickle barrel at 20,000 feet." Such precision was unheard of at the time, and much needed beacuse it allowed to bomb only the targets you absolutely need to bomb and spare civilian lives - more info. Half as much money was spent on its development and implementation than was spent on the Manhattan Project itself!

"This is the bombsight that crushed Nazi Germany. The Norden bombsight was the most sophisticated device of its kind during WWII. The standing orders were that if the plane crash-landed you were to destroy the sight at ALL costs."

(image credit: Norden Bombsight)

True to the inventor's original claims, it delivered great precision in bombing, but alas, only under perfect conditions. War circumstances are, of course, almost always far from perfect, so in many bomb raids, only 10% of bombs would reach their intended targets, even with the help of Norden Bombsight. Ironically, the infamous Enola Gay bomber dropped a nuclear payload on Hiroshima using the bombsight (and still ended up missing the aiming point, the Aioi Bridge, by approximately 800 feet) - where they probably did not really need bombsight for accuracy at all.

A Sleek, Beautiful Shape with the Deadly Payload

The B-47 Stratojet (originally XB-47) looked significantly different from any other bomber at the time, described by some observers as having a "sleek, beautiful outline that was highly advanced". It was truly a magnificent, graceful jet, designed primarily with one sinister purpose - to drop nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union:

(images via)

Its engine-under-wing configuration will later be used for most large military planes and civilian airliners - and the swept wing would allow this six-engined bomber to fly at at high subsonic speeds and at high altitudes:

(image credit: National Museum of the US Air Force)

Here is Boeing XB-47 with the nose pointing down (from Model Airplane News, 1948, left image), and with nose pointed up! -

(images via 1, 2)

Boeing B-47E during a test of the rocket-assisted take-off system:

(image via)

This huge plane also sported so-called "Bicycle Landing Gear" (due to the very thin profiles of its wings) which consisted of "a pair of large wheels fore and aft of the bomb bay, with small outrigger wheels carried on the inboard twin-jet pods".

Here is the very first Boeing XB-47 ever built, before its first flight on Dec. 1, 1947:

(image credit: National Museum of the US Air Force)

You can tell that the shape really made an impact, judging by the interest of observers:

(image via)

You want drama? Here is a foreboding illustration of Boeing B-47 in bad weather:

(image via)

The Russians are certain to attack us, so we are going to attack first

Major Kong's B-52 heads over the Arctic toward its Russia target. From 1964 "Dr. Strangelove" movie:

(image via)

"Kubrick sent a special film crew to Greenland where they spent weeks filming the Arctic landscape from an old B-17 bomber."

Pilots are visibly tense inside a similar strategic bomber... (seen in the 1958 "Steve Canyon" TV series):

(image via)

This is the XB-52 Stratofortress taking off in 1952:

(image via)

This illustration is not entirely correct: apparently these huge beasts remained level at all times during lift-off and ascent... see the video here.

In the meantime, the likes of a heart-stopping 1953 illustration (shown below), intentionally or not, propagated paranoia about Russian sneaky nuclear attack:

(image via)

With Americans retaliating by unleashing... the nuclear-powered XB-70 Valkyrie prototype strategic bomber! -

(image via)

The Low-flying Aircraft

Watch this B-52 doing a high-speed, low altitude pass over a nameless beach... ready to fly right into your nightmares, resembling low-flying sinister aircraft from J. G. Ballard post-apocalyptic stories:

(image via)

Article by Avi Abrams, Dark Roasted Blend.




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Anonymous Anonymous said...

A good selection, it'd be nice to see some of the efforts from those other than the US and USSR. Why not take a look at the giant V-Bombers of the Royal Air Force, they look arguably better in "Anti Flash" White!

Anonymous Al Denelsbeck said...

One of the more interesting aspects of the B-47 and its intended payload was how it was supposed to deliver a nuclear bomb and get away safely - look up "toss bombing" for a fun read.

Now, a couple of corrections. While the XB-70 Valkyrie was considered as a nuclear-powered aircraft, none of the prototypes were built that way; it used strictly conventional turbojet engines.

The B-52 only needs to remain level at takeoff and landing - this is because of the long body length and heavy load, which necessitates heavy-duty (low) landing gear with wide separation between them, straddling the center of gravity and the bomb bay. The wings are therefore set at a high angle-of-attack to generate climb while the body is level. It could not tip back on just the "main" gear to change the wings' angle-of-attack for takeoff, like most aircraft, because the aft wheels are too far back and the aircraft would already need a significant amount of positive lift to accomplish it.

In order to fly level, the body is actually canted downwards - this (and the wing angle) can be seen in the video of a flyby at http://youtu.be/NeLSv3n1PDw

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: Norden Bombsight
There are those who would say that the NBS was not all it was cracked up to be.

Composed of 2000 separate parts and time-consuming to produce, the Norden company couldn't meet demand. This resulted in manufacturing being contracted out to other companies, with degradation in the quality of the final product.

Loss of accuracy was not entirely due to inability to see the target ... the NBS also relied on accurate information for wind direction, airspeed, size and shape of ordnance.

The aircraft flew at ever increasing heights in order to avoid flak, thereby magnifying the effects of small errors.

The misconception that accurate strategic bombing could win the war meant that US planes flew during the day, exposing their crews to horrific losses.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course that line should read "The bombsight that tried to crush Nazi Germany by killing hundreds of thousands of civilians." Almost any sort of "precision" bombing by the Allies over Germany was carried out by smaller bombers carrying a single bomb on a low-level attack run to a dedicated target. What the bigger bombers equipped with Norden sights were mostly doing instead was "carpet bombing" whole areas, not precision bombing by any stretch of the definition. Of course those areas more often than not did contain some sort of alibi target that could serve to morally justify the attack, but especially later in the war the expressed intention nonetheless was to destroy entire cities and to diminish morale and workforce in the civilian population. Unsuccessfully, as it happens - Hitler had tried that approach before when bombing England and didn't succeed (civilian morale was rather reinforced), the Allies didn't learn from that and tried the same tenfold as payback. Japan ultimately saw the pinnacle of that kind of warfare once the nuclear bombs were ready.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where´s the B-36 "Peacemaker"... or the B-58 "Hustler"?

A poor selection.

Blogger Avi Abrams said...

Thank you guys. This is only Part 1, next part is in the making.

Blogger Scott said...

If you have an hour to spare, this is an interesting counterpoint to the importance of the Norden bombsight, and it begins with the very real question of "how do you bomb something with an optical sight when the weather is perpetually overcast?

The Secret History of Silicon Valley

The answer, of course, is radar plus precision radio navigation - it is arguable that the Norden device, though useful, was also used as a ruse to distract espionage efforts.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

In war time it gets so goofy that if an official were to say "I'm lying," you would have to refuse to believe him.

Anonymous Diego said...

This is my favorite post in BRB, It would be nice to see something with planes such as B 17, Avro Lancaster, Consolidated Liberators and planes from the Luftwaffe and the Japanese air force

Blogger james vaughan said...

Thrilled to see so many of my images from 'X-Ray Delta One- Cold War' at Flickr used! My plan is working- next World Domination! Bwahahahaah!
oops- sorry. Lot's more fun and frolic END OF THE WORLD stuff at 'Atomic Annihilation' my Cold War blog- feel free to reblog- then my plans will be unstoppable!!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

A bit too much retro handwringing over the threat of nuclear armageddon.

Deterrence worked. For forty years it worked until the reality of Soviet Communism finally brought it down.

Anonymous Tom said...

Great article and maybe look at a follow-up showcasing the Russian Bears (among others) and British Cold War V-Bomber fleet - as suggested by Anonymous. Have to disagree about the Anti Flash white though. Vulcans look far better in camouflage (IMO)!

Blogger Stickmaker said...

The XB-70 was not meant to be nuclear powered. It was a nuclear bomber in that it was intended to carry nuclear weapons. The engines were chemically fueled. The surviving example is at the Wright Patterson museum, near Dayton, Ohio.

I second the request for the B-36. This is the largest combat (as opposed to transport) aircraft ever to fly. You could park a B-17 under each wing.

Blogger Dave said...

re: Dr Strangelove...if you look at the scenes where the B-52 is flying low, the plane's shadow on the ground is that of Kubrick's B-17.


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