Martin RB-57A Heart Throb

Martin RB-57A Heart Throb

In the early 1950s the USAF selected the English Electric Canberra as a replacement for their B-26 Invader, under an agreement for Martin to build 250 versions under licence and known as the B-57. However, although the USAF later insisted on some significant changes to the design of later versions of the aircraft, the most obvious being a two, rather than three-man crew housed in an tandem canopy and redesigned engine nacelles to accommodate the Wright YJ65-W-1 engines, rather than the Rolls-Royce Avons, the initial aircraft delivered to the USAF were externally very similar to the RAF Canberra's. Because of some early design changes, when the B-57A first flew on 20 Jul 53 its performance was disappointing and after only eight aircraft had been produced it was cancelled. Nevertheless, the production line was soon restarted to produce a reconnaissance version of the aircraft, the RB-57A, and 67 were eventually produced. This new version performed well and as a result it was decided to modify ten RB-57A aircraft to enable them to undertake a high-classified operation that was given the codename Heart Throb.

Martin RB-57A Heart Throb starting an engine

Ten RB-57As were pulled from the production line and placed in a separate hanger at the Martin plant to enable the various modifications to be made away from prying eyes. It had been decided that the mission would be flown by a single pilot, so the navigators position and associated equipment was removed. All navigation equipment and armour was also removed, together with all the bomb bay equipment, after which the bomb bay was skimmed over. To assist en-route navigation and allow the pilot to accurately position the aircraft over a target, an optical viewfinder was installed looking out through the nose. A pressurised camera compartment housed one T-11 vertical mapping camera, two K-38 36 inch focal length oblique cameras that gave a 10-15% overlap, to allow stereoscopic viewing. Camera controls, that allowed the pilot to set shutter speeds and time between picture exposures, were installed in the cockpit. A pressure suit ventilation system was also fitted, as the pilot would have to wear a full MC-1 pressure suit because of the aircrafts planned operating altitude of between 50,000-62,000ft, at which any cabin decompression would mean almost instant death.

Martin RB-57A Heart Throb

In 1955 ten specially selected pilots commenced training to fly the Heart Throb RB-57A aircraft. The majority were current B-57 or RB-57 pilots – only one had no B-57 or reconnaissance experience. The ten pilots selected were: Capt Joseph A Guthrie, Capt Gerry Cooke, Capt Lou Picciano, Capt Jim Bryant, Capt Bob Hines, Capt Ralph Finlay, Capt Robert Holladay, Capt Bill Gafford, Capt Kenneth Johnson and Capt Robert Thorne. After the conversion training was complete, the aircraft were flown to the two airfields that the operational sorties would be mounted from. Four aircraft and pilots were sent Yokota in Japan, where the aircraft became part of the 6021st Reconnaissance Squadron and the remaining six aircraft and pilots went to Rhein-Main in West Germany, where the aircraft became part of the 7407th Support Squadron, which was also part of the 7499th Support Group based at Weisbaden. The 7499th Support Group also included a number of other units engaged in covert operations, including: the 7405th Support Squadron who flew various transport aircraft into Eastern Europe to drop off agents and supplies and the 7406th that flew C-130 aircraft on ELINT/COMINT missions along the Berlin air corridors. Another detachment of the 7407th Squadron was based at Bitburg and flew the RF-100A Slick Chick on reconnaissance sorties over Eastern Europe.

Martin RB-57A Heart Throbs

The first overflight by the Far East detachment took place on 26 Nov 56 and was flown by Joe Guthrie out of Chitose Air Base on the northern island of Hokkaido. After take-off Guthrie flew on a northerly heading at low-level of the eastern coast of Sakhalin. Then as he approached the northern end of the Sakhalin peninsular, Guthrie commenced a climb to 55,000ft and turned back onto a southerly heading to commence his photo run. Everything went well until Guthrie noticed he was slightly off track to photograph one particular airfield, consequently, he made a 360 degree turn to allow himself the opportunity to overfly the airfield for a second time – a complete ‘no-no’ as he was later to discover. The Russian authorities were obviously aware of the RB-57A, as the aircraft was tracked by radar throughout most of the recce run. Eventually, Guthrie cleared Soviet airspace and landed back at Chitose after a sortie lasting 4hrs 40min, before returning to Yokota. In the subsequent de-brief it was made clear to Guthrie by Colonel Avery, the debriefing officer, that 360 degree turns on a recce run were forbidden, the rule was ‘one pass – haul ass’. European sorties were mounted Rhein-Main and targeted various airfields, radar sites and other targets of interest in Eastern Europe and Western Russia, with the RB-57A aircraft again operating at around 55,000ft.

Martin RB-57A Heart Throb

Only four productive missions were flown in the Far East before the project was closed down following the arrival of the MiG 19 in theatre. However, the detachment at Rhein-Main flew between 16 and 20 sorties before it was closed down. These sorties were flown over Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia between Sep 1955 and Aug 1956 and were usually fairly shallow penetrations. Many sorties were tracked by MiG 15s or MiG-17s, but these aircraft lacked sufficient performance to pose a significant threat to the high-flying RB-57As. The European ‘Heart Throb’ operations finally ended in Aug 1956, probably as a result of the uprising in Hungary, when it was probably considered imprudent to have the aircraft making recce over-flights that could very easily be miss-interpreted for more offensive action.

In Sep 1957 two of the aircraft from the Far East detachment were handed over to the 4th Squadron of the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) in Taiwan and four pilots were checked out in the RB-57As. After a number of reconnaissance over-flights over Red China one aircraft, (ROCAF Ser No 5642), was shot down over the Shantung Peninsular by a pair of J-5s with the loss of Capt Guang-Huia Chao. The RB-57A aircraft in Europe continued flying on reconnaissance duties until 1958 during which large areas of Europe were photographed. The RB-57A Heart Throb aircraft were eventually consigned to the Davis-Monthan ‘boneyard’ in 1973, although a few were converted to become RB-57Fs.

Heart Throb badge

The Heart Throb overflights of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Far East were a success and enabled the USA to accurately map and identify specific targets, as well as providing intelligence on the deployment of forces in specific areas of interest. The aircraft were a ‘stopgap’ before the arrival of the U-2, but managed to take advantage of a window of opportunity during which the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Forces lacked any effective means of attacking the aircraft. The introduction into service of the MiG-19 would ensure only the U-2 could remain safe and even then the SA-2 SAM brought that activity to a sudden close. Nevertheless, the aircraft did what they were designed to do and were a valuable asset when they were in active service.