Cold War

Designed in WW2, The B-45 Tornado Nuclear Bomber

The B-45, was designed in 1944. It owns the crown of being the world’s first jet bomber specifically designed for that purpose.

The performance of the new German Arado 234 jet bomber left a significant impression on the US Army Air Force.

The Ar-234, with its superior speed, outpaced most of the Allied fighter aircraft and demonstrated near invincibility when engaged in bombing missions.

Consequently, the USAAF resolved to acquire short-range jet bombers in the event that WWII prolonged, and longer-range jet bombers for operations against Japan in the Pacific. Specifications were laid out for the bombers, termed as the “Class of 45.”


War Department Contract

Cutaway view of XB-45. Note the intended radar-sighted tail gun position, later replaced by a conventional manned position.
Cutaway view of XB-45. Note the intended radar-sighted tail gun position, later replaced by a conventional manned position.

The North American B-45 and the Convair B-46 were chosen as the short-range bombers, while the larger, long-range bombers were to be the Boeing B-47 and the Martin B-48.

After carefully evaluating the contenders, the War Department awarded a contract to North American to bring its NA-130 proposal to life, and the construction of three prototypes began on 8 September 1944.

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However, the progress of the program was hindered by reductions in defense spending post-war but became a priority again amidst escalating tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

North American was granted a production contract by the USAF for the bomber, now designated B-45A, on 2 January 1947. The prototype achieved its inaugural flight on 24 February 1947.

After the first prototype was finalized at North American’s Inglewood facility, it was transported in segments to Muroc Field where it was reconstructed and prepared for flight tests.

RB-45C Variant: The reconnaissance version of the B-45 was designated RB-45C, which featured modifications allowing it to perform long-range reconnaissance missions.

As we read above, theinaugural flight took place on 17 March 1947, with George Krebs and Paul Brewer as the pilots. The flight test program encountered numerous technical difficulties and delays, including the loss of the first prototype.

Regardless, due to political pressures, the frantic pace of work persisted for the aircraft to be swiftly certified for service.

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Conversely, as the B-47’s development and testing progressed successfully, signaling the commencement of its production, the prospects for the B-45 became dubious.

Major Cuts in the Defense Budgets

By mid-1948, the U.S. Air Staff started to question the B-45’s utility. Following this, budget constraints imposed by President Truman scaled back Air Force spending, limiting B-45 production to 142 units.

In 1950, additional budget reductions forced the Aircraft and Weapons Board to withdraw 51 of the 190 aircraft initially ordered, an action publicized on 7 January 1949.

Role in Korean War: The B-45 played a significant role during the Korean War, performing both conventional bombing and aerial reconnaissance missions.

Between February 1948 and June 1949, 96 aircraft were delivered. North American proposed several enhanced versions of the B-45, some of which materialized.

Although the B-45B concept, equipped with a radar-guided fire control system, was never commissioned, the advanced B-45C was produced, featuring a reinforced frame, additional fuel capacity via tip tanks, and enhanced General Electric J47-15 turbojet engines.

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However, only 10 were received out of the 43 ordered. The RB-45C, a specialized reconnaissance variant lacking a bomb bay, saw 33 units delivered. Eventually, the B-45 was supplanted by the supersonic Convair B-58 Hustler.

B-45 and the Korean War

The commencement of the Korean War in 1950 spurred a decision to modify the B-45 for tactical nuclear roles, intending to deter potential Soviet aggression against Western Europe.

RAF Use: The Royal Air Force (RAF) also operated the B-45, utilizing it for intelligence missions over the Soviet Union.

However, the B-45 was not initially designed to deploy atomic bombs, after all it was a WWII design.

Due to the clandestine nature of the nuclear program, North American engineers were unaware of the dimensions of the early nuclear weapons, and the B-45’s bomb bay, hindered by a large spar, was unsuitable to accommodate them.

Extensive, costly adjustments were imperative to enable the B-45 to transport these bombs.

The introduction of smaller, lighter atomic bombs in the late 1940s did alleviate some constraints, but excessive secrecy and additional modifications remained obstacles.

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In December 1950, the Air Staff resolved to instruct AMC to adjust B-45s for atomic roles.

This initiative commenced with nine aircraft, designated with varying systems and equipment, and necessitated structural and electronic enhancements, including the integration of new defensive systems and additional fuel tanks.

Nuclear Ready

Modifications were undertaken at the AMC Depot in San Bernardino, CA, concluding in April 1952 under the program “Backbreaker”, intending to allocate the aircraft to the 47th Bombardment Wing stationed at RAF Sculthorpe in the United Kingdom. The station was a former WWII heavy bomber base.

Flightline photo of B-45A-5-NA Tornadoes of the 47th Light Bomb Wing, Langley Air Force Base, Va
Flightline photo of B-45A-5-NA Tornadoes of the 47th Light Bomb Wing, Langley Air Force Base, Va., before transatlantic flight to Sculthorpe, England, in July 1952.

The initial nuclear-ready B-45As started arriving in the United Kingdom in May 1952, with 40 aircraft deployed by mid-June.

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These aircraft underwent further enhancements, including the incorporation of a fuel flow totalizer and repositioning of supports to accommodate specific atomic bomb types and additional fuel tanks, with the entire program reaching completion in March 1954.

Still Remains Classified

On 4 December 1950, a landmark event occurred as a jet bomber was successfully intercepted by a jet fighter for the first time.

MiG-15 pilot Aleksandr F. Andrianov managed to shoot down an RB-45C over China.

Captain Charles McDonough was the sole crew member, out of four, to parachute from the aircraft, but he is presumed to have perished while detained by either Chinese or Soviet forces.

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Due to the confidential nature of such missions, details regarding this flight and analogous intelligence operations have largely remained undisclosed.

Engine Type: The aircraft initially utilized J35 turbojet engines developed by General Electric before transitioning to Allison J47 turbojet engines in its later variants.

Despite this, the USAF employed the aircraft effectively during the Korean War, where it executed conventional bombing and aerial reconnaissance missions.

The first successful interception of a jet bomber by a jet fighter occurred on 4 December 1950, when a B-45 was downed by a Soviet-made MiG-15 within Chinese airspace.

Swiftly Outdated

All 33 constructed RB-45Cs were allocated to the 322nd, 323rd, and 324th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadrons under the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing.

During the mid-1950s, the RB-45C executed several extensive reconnaissance operations over the Soviet Union.

Nuclear Capability: B-45s were modified to be capable of delivering nuclear bombs, making them a critical part of early Cold War deterrence.

On July 29, 1952, an RB-45C accomplished the first uninterrupted trans-Pacific flight, facilitated by two refueling sessions from KB-29s en route.

Major Lou Carrington and his crew, part of the 91st Reconnaissance Wing, traversed from Alaska to Japan in 9 hours and 50 minutes, earning the MacKay Trophy for this feat.

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By 1954, within the 91st SRW, the RB-45C was succeeded by the RB-47E. The decommissioned RB-45Cs were then transferred to the 19th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, serving until their operational retirement in spring 1958.

By the 1950s’ close, all B-45s had been retired from active duty, although a handful persisted as experimental units into the early 1970s.

Top Secret Operation Jiu Jitsu

Sanctioned by the then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Harry S. Truman, these reconnaissance overflights necessitated conducting extensive incursions into Soviet territory, utilizing American-owned aircraft operated by RAF aircrews.

The United Kingdom was the only other country to operate the RB-45C, primarily employing crews largely from Nos. 35 and 115 squadrons in an ad hoc unit.

World War II Design: The design process for the B-45 began during World War II as a response to German jet bombers.

While the President of the United States had prohibited the USAF from overflying Soviet territories, US allies positioned closer to the European war zone had the liberty to do so.

In the United Kingdom, the return of Winston Churchill and a Conservative government to power ushered in a more collaborative approach to joint intelligence ventures, after previous refusals by successive Labour governments.

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Consequently, as part of Operation Ju-jitsu, four aircraft were loaned to Britain from the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing in July 1951, forming the ‘Special Duties Flight, Sculthorpe,’ led by Squadron Leader John Crampton.

Fifty Year Rule

The aircraft, devoid of USAF insignia and adorned with RAF markings, were assigned to a USAF squadron at RAF Sculthorpe, Norfolk, in eastern England.

They were charged with conducting extensive reconnaissance missions over Soviet territory to collect electronic and photographic intelligence. Special Duties Flight executed these missions between 1952–54.

On April 17, 1952, three planes were slated to fly over Kyiv from Germany and return to Sculthorpe ten hours later.

A preserved USAF B-45C Tornado at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Dayton, Ohio
A preserved USAF B-45C Tornado at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Dayton, Ohio

Crampton’s aircraft, flying at 36,000 feet, was detected by ground radar and subjected to antiaircraft fire. He responded by immediately diverting to Germany under full power, narrowly evading Soviet night fighters dispatched to intercept.

Subsequent missions over Ukraine were conducted using English Electric Canberras, codenamed Project Robin, flying at elevations around 54,000 ft.

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The clandestine missions remained undisclosed until 1994, revealed under the “fifty-year rule” of the Public Records Act 1958.

Only three B-54s survive today can be seen at  Castle Air Museum at the former Castle AFB in Atwater, California. National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, Ohio, and at the Strategic Air and Space Museum in Ashland, Nebraska.


Interception by MiG: In 1950, an RB-45C was intercepted and shot down by a Soviet-made MiG-15 over Chinese airspace, marking a significant incident in Cold War aerial engagements.
Initial Flight: The B-45 Tornado took its maiden flight on March 17, 1947.

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First Jet Bomber: The B-45 is recognized as the first operational jet bomber in the United States Air Force (USAF).
Structural Design: The aircraft featured a straight-wing design, which, while standard at the time, was eventually succeeded by swept-wing designs in subsequent bomber models for better high-speed performance.

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Role in the Korean War: During the Korean War, the B-45 played roles in both conventional bombing and aerial reconnaissance missions.
Four Engines: The B-45 was powered by four jet engines, initially General Electric J35s and later upgraded to Allison J47 turbojets.
Development model of RB-45C 48-017
Development model of RB-45C 48-017
Operation Ju-jitsu: The B-45 was involved in top-secret reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union under Operation Ju-jitsu in the early 1950s.