Boeing RB-47 / ERB-47H StratojetBy the early-1950’s the need for high-speed, long-range reconnaissance aircraft was solved by a dedicated reconnaissance version of the B-47 Stratojet. However, delays in delivering the RB-47E, led to 90 B-47’s being converted to an interim reconnaissance fit with an 8 camera bomb-bay pod and these aircraft were designated YRB-47B’s. The 91st SRW and 26th SRW at Lockbourne AFB used these aircraft until they were swapped for the new RB-47E in 1954. Delivery of the RB-47E to the USAF began in 1953 when the 55th SRW and the 90th SRW swopped their RB-50’s and RB-29s respectively for the new aircraft at Forbes AFB in Kansas. Over 240 examples of the RB-47E were eventually produced.
However, although the RB-47E conducted a variety of spectacular overflights of the Soviet Union during the 1950’s, including Murmansk, the aircraft had a fairly low operational ceiling of 40,000 feet and relied on speed, as opposed to altitude, to evade interception. Some of these flights were mounted from Thule in Greenland and probed deep into the heart of the Soviet Union, taking a photographic and radar recording of the route attacking SAC bombers would follow to reach their targets. The risks involved in mounting these dangerous sorties over some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth speaks volumes for the courage and skill of the crews involved. Flights which involved penetrating mainland Russia were termed SENSINT (Sensitive Intelligence) missions. One RB-47 even managed to fly 450 miles inland and photograph the city of Igarka in Siberia.
Two other ELINT versions of the B-47 were produced, the RB-47H and RB-47K. The 38th SRS and 346th SRS were equipped with the 35 RB-47H eventually produced; the 15 RB-47K aircraft produced were allocated to the 338th SRS in 1955-56. As well as the pilot, co-pilot and navigator, these ELINT aircraft carried 3 signals specialists, known as ‘Crows’ or ‘Ravens’, whose job was to intercept and record the various signals the plane might encounter on its sortie.
The 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW) operated four detachments of RB-47 aircraft. Detachment 1 was located at RAF Brize Norton in England and generally conducted missions in the Barents Sea, North of Norway. Detachment 2 was located at Yokota in Japan and conducted operations on the borders of the USSR in the Sea of Okhotsk and along the borders of China and North Korea. Detachment 3 was located at Eielson AFB in Alaska and conducted operations around the eastern and northern borders of Siberia. Detachment 4 was based at Incirlik in near Adana in Turkey and monitored the southern borders of Russia and various areas in the Middle East.
From 1958 Det 4 used 3 specially modified Stratojets, known as EB-47E’s (Tell Two), in Operation Iron Work to monitor Soviet missile tests from Baikonur, Tyuratam and Kapustin Yar. The early EB-47E ‘Tell Two’ was easily recognisable as the aircraft were equipped with 2 large telemetry pods attached to either side of the fuselage, just aft of the nose, which intercepted data from Soviet data from missile tests. A later version of the ‘Tell Two’ housed the telemetry pods internally and had a streamlined nose. The USAF long range radar site at Samsum in Turkey, on the south cost of the Black Sea, also assisted in this activity.
Shootdowns and IncidentsOn 18 Apr 56 an RB-47 was shot down by MiG fighters whilst over the Kamchatka Peninsula – all crew members lost and no remains recovered.
On 1 Jul 60 an RB-47H of the 55th SRW’s Detachment 1 from RAF Brize Norton was shot down by a MiG-19 piloted by Lt Vasili Poliakov over the Barents Sea about 130 miles north of the Kola Peninsula. Two crew members survived (Capt John B McKone & Capt Freeman Bruce Olmstead) a third crew member (Capt Bill Palm) was later found dead in his life raft. The fate of the other 3 crew members (Ravens) has never been determined, despite rumours that they may have actually been captured alive, interrogated and then held in prison.
On 27th Apr 65 an RB-47H of the 55th SRW on an ELINT mission off North Korean coast, was attacked by two MiG-17s. The aircraft fought back with rear 20mm cannon but sustained severe damage and lost 2 engines. Eventually landed safely by Lt Col Hobert D Mattisen at Yokota AB in Japan.