Flightline: 150 - North American B-45 Tornado
Ordered by the USAAF to match the jet bombers of Nazi Germany, the B-45 was the first jet bomber for the USAF, and was operated through the 1950s.
Development of the B-45 was begun on 17 November 1944 when the War Department, concerned by the appearance of jet bombers like the Ar 234, issued an RFP for a bomber of 80,000 to 200,000 pounds gross weight propelled by jet engines for the USAAF. Three companies responded with designs: North American Aviation's XB-45, Convair with the XB-46 and Martin's XB-48.
Orthograph of the North American XB-45. | Illustration: Dr Dan Saranga
Orthograph of the Convair XB-46. | Illustration: Dr Dan Saranga
Orthograph of the Martin XB-48. | Illustration: aviastar
North American's XB-45 was of conventional design, featuring tapered wings and a dihedral tail. Four GE J47 jet engines were placed into two pods under the wings, which also housed the mounting points for the main landing gear. The pilot and copilot would be seated under a common canopy (similar to a two seat fighter), while the bombardier/navigator ('B/N') would be seated in the nose and gunner would man two .50 cal M3 machine guns in the tail. The XB-45 could carry up to 22,000lbs of bombs, including nuclear weapons, and had a range of nearly 1,200 miles.
Cutaway drawing of the XB-45, showing internal arrangements. The pictured radar-guided tail gun was replaced by a manned version in the production B-45s. | Illustration: USAF
Orders for prototypes for all three planes were awarded, but the end of WWII saw work slow on the so-called "Class of '45" bombers until 1946, when rising tensions with the USSR pushed the USAAF to reassign priority to jet aircraft, especially bombers. This shift in planning saw the XB-45 and -46 competing for the light bomber contract, while the XB-48 was now up against Boeing's XB-47 as more advanced medium bombers. On 20 January 1947, nearly two months before the prototype flew, the Army signed a contract for eight dozen B-45A Tornado production bombers, with plans to equip five light bomb and three light reconnaissance groups with the new plane.
The first XB-45 was completed at NAA's Inglewood facility, then trucked in sections to Muroc Field for testing. The first flight of the plane was on 17 March 1947, making it the first multi-engine jet bomber to fly in North America. The test program of the XB-45s proved to be dangerous, with two of the three planes being destroyed in accidents and the third eventually being turned over to Air Training Command for use as a ground trainer. The USAF judged the XB-46 to be inferior to the XB-45, as the narrow fuselage precluded much of the bulky early radar equipment needed for a bomber. The XB-45 was also felt to be a safer bet, being essentially a WWII bomber in construction, only fitted with jets instead of piston engines.
North American delivered the first batch of Tornados , retroactively designated B-45A-1s, to the USAF in April of 1948. These aircraft differed from the XB-45s in having ejection seats for the pilot and copilot as well as redesigned escape hatches for the B/N and gunner, an a full suite of navigational and communications equipment. The B-45As also had fully functioning pressurization systems. Some A-1s were also fitted with Allison J35 jets as the more powerful J47s were in short supply. This handicap was later rectified by the B-45A-5, which was equipped with two each of the J47-GE-7 or -13 and two each of the J47-GE-9 or -15. Many of the early B-45A-1 models were subsequently reclassified as TB-45A trainer/familiarization aircraft while the B-45A-5s were reaching acceptance with the USAF in 1948. By March of 1950, production of the B-45A had concluded with 96 aircraft. The early B-45As suffered from a host of technical issues, including engine fires and explosions (a problem shared by many 1st and 2nd generation jets), as well as gyrocompass failures at high speed, poorly designed bomb shackles that unhooked during certain maneuvers, and inaccurate cockpit gauges.
North American B-45A-5-NA (S/N 47-057) undergoing servicing. | Photo: USAF
The B-45B would have seen new radar and bombing equipment, as well as other upgrades, but production was deferred. The B-45C also had many of the upgrades from the B-45B, as well as a mid-air refueling receptacle, a reinforced canopy, permanent addition of two 1200gal tip tanks, and provisions for the attachment of two JATO bottles. Only 10 C models were completed before production shifted to the RB-45C, which was the final production model of the Tornado.
B-45C Tornado (S/N 48-001) in flight. The large size of the tip tanks is apparent in this shot. | Photo: USAF
Developed from the B-45C, the RB-45C's nose was faired over and had a small protuberance at the tip for an oblique camera. The RB-45 was internally quite different from the earlier models, and now featured five stations capable of mounting up to 10 cameras, or alternatively a single camera with a 100" focal length lens could be flown. The engines on the RB-45 were also fitted with water injection system, with provisions for two 214gal drop tanks under the nacelles, or two JATO bottles could be fitted instead.
The JRB-45C, prototype for the RB-45C reconnaissance variant. | Photo: USAF
Will you do the Fandango?
With the outbreak of the Korean War concentrating US and UN forces in the Pacific, NATO forces began to grow concerned that should the USSR choose to attack, they would not be able to blunt a thrust by Moscow. As a result, the USAF initiated Operation BACKBREAKER (sometimes recorded as FANDANGO instead), which would see 5-6 dozen B-45As modified for the tactical deployment of nuclear bombs, should an attack occur. Modifications done under Backbreaker included upgrades to the AN/APQ-24 or AN/APN-3 navigation/bombing systems, as well at the addition of a Norden M9C bombsight. Internally, an additional spar was added to the wing spanning the bomb bay, and new cradles for the Mk. 5, 6 or 7 nuclear bombs. New defensive systems including chaff dispensers, as well additional drop tanks, were also added. 55 Backbreaker-modified B-45s were deployed to the UK in 1952 and were the first of a long line of TAC bombers to act as a deterrent in Europe over the next 40 years.
Veni, Vidi, Vici
While the B-45As were being flown to England, RB-45Cs of the 322nd, 323rd and 324th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadrons, 91st Strategic Recon Wing, were transferred to Japan and Korea to provide photo intel for UN forces on the Korean peninsula after Soviet MiG fighters started disrupting flights of older RB-29 and -50 recon ships. Despite a limited number of aircraft available, the RB-45s provided invaluable intelligence, flying both daylight and nighttime missions. Despite their advantage over the older B-29s and B-50s, the RB-45s also proved vulnerable to the speedy MiGs, with MiG-15 pilot Aleksandr F. Andrianov scoring a kill against a Tornado on 4 December 1950 somewhere over China. Details of the incident are still classified, although it's believed that Captain Charles McDonough was the only member of the four man crew to escape his doomed plane, though he later died in captivity.
After the end of the Korean War, RB-45s of the 91st continued to fly from Japan. On 29 July , 1952, an RB-45C made the first non-stop trans-Pacific flight, from Alaska to Japan in 9 hrs 50 mins. Maj. Lou Carrington and his crew, having been refueled twice by KB-29s along the way, won the MacKay Trophy for their achievement. By 1954 the RB-45s were being replaced by RB-47s, with the Tornados being turned over to the 19th Tactical Recon Squadron, which operated them until 1958.
RB-45Cs of the 91st Wing. These aircraft were withdrawn from service on 6 September 1957. | Photo: USAF
While the USAF found itself, by presidential order, unable to overfly the USSR except during wartime, this prohibition did not apply to allied nations. As a result, four RB-45s were bailed to the RAF under Operation JU-JITSU, forming Special Duties Flight, Sculthorpe. The aircraft were stripped of US markings, which were replaced by RAF counterparts before the squadron undertook ELINT and photo intelligence missions over the Soviet Union between 1952-54. These missions proved to be anything but routine, as group commander John Crampton found on 17 April 1952 when his flight of three Tornados came under AAA fire at 36,000'. The formation retreated to West German airspace just as Soviet night-fighters were being launched.
End of the road
The B-45 was always expected to be an interim aircraft, as the USAF had already foreseen that the plane, ordered at the end of WWII, would be rapidly eclipsed by newer designs. The type was withdrawn from front-line service by 1959, though some continued to see service as test aircraft into the 1970s. Of the 143 B-45s built, only three survive: B-45A (s/n 47-0008) at Castle Air Museum in California, B-45C (s/n 48-0010) at the Museum of the USAF in Ohio, and RB-45C (s/n 48-0017) at the Strategic Air and Space Museum in Nebraska.
North American B-45A Tornado on display at the Castle Air Museum in Atwater, California. | Photo: Nehrams2020
B-45C -0010 in the Korean War Gallery of the NMUSAF. | Photo: Museum of the USAF
RB-45 at the Strategic Air & Space Museum. This was the last B-45 in service when it was retired. | Photo: SAC Museum