Martin RB-57D/F

wb57f The Martin B-57 was an ‘Americanised’ version of B2 Canberra light bomber which was built under license by the Martin Aircraft Company as a replacement for the B-26. Colonel Richard Leghorn, one the key figures in Cold-War photo-reconnaissance, recognised the potential of the original Canberra. and believed that, with more powerful engines, larger wings and a single pilot, it could be developed into a dedicated reconnaissance aircraft capable of reaching 67,000ft with a very effective combat radius – but it took time before his vision became a reality.

RB57F airborne After the introduction into service of the B-57A tactical bomber in 1953, it was soon decided to produce a tactical reconnaissance version, the RB-57A, which entered service in 1954. In March 1953 the highly classified ‘Black Knight’ programme began which called for a single seat subsonic high-altitude aircraft capable of carrying a 700lb payload over 3000 miles at 70,000ft. The Martin company proposal, a modified B-57, eventually won against submissions from Bell and Fairchild.

Martin’s winning proposal, the single seat RB-57D, was a standard B-57 fuselage with a larger wing and two uprated J57-P9 turbojets. Two K-38 cameras and two KC-1 split vertical cameras were carried. A total of 20 aircraft were eventually built and designated as follows:

  • 6 x RB-57D Model 294 – basic configuration.
  • 7 x RB-57D Model 744 – basic configuration with in-flight refuelling.
  • 6 x RB-57D-2 Model 796 – 2 crew, in-flight refuelling, ELINT/SIGINT role
  • 1 x RB-57D-1 – basic configuration, AN/APQ-56 SLR for radar mapping – Reg 53-3963.

RB57F on ground The first RB-57D’s were delivered to the 4025th SRS in March 1956 based at Turner AFB GA, before they eventually moved to Laughlin AFB TX. Detachments were soon undertaken to Yokota in Japan to monitor fall-out from Soviet tests in Operation Sea Lion. Other sorties were flown over mainland China where the operating altitude of the RB-57D’s were well above the ceiling of the Chinese MiG-15’s. Other RB-57’s were detached to Eielson AFB in Alaska from where they conducted ELINT around Kamchatka peninsula of the Soviet Union. 15 Dec 56 – three aircraft overflew Vladivostok.

RB57F airborne 2 Four RB-57D aircraft of the 4025th SRS were also detached to Rhein-Main under Operation Bordertown where they carried out ELINT/SIGINT sorties along German border and Baltic. When the 4025th SRS was de-activated in Jun 59 the RB-57D aircraft were assigned to the 7407th Support Sqn – 2 additional aircraft added to complement including the unique RB-57D-1 equipped with SLR. Intelligence gathering sorties by the RB-57’s continued until 1964 when wing fatigue problems caused type to be withdrawn from service.

In late 1958 ‘Project Diamond Lil’ began. Six Taiwanese pilots were trained on the B-57C at Laughlin AFB, Texas, arriving back in Taiwan in Jan 59. Three RB-57D’s were then delivered by the USAF to Taoyuan Air Base near Taipei. During early part of 1959 the 3 RB-57s, flown by CNAF pilots, carried out numerous overflights of mainland China, photographing airfields, military establishments and ports. RF-101C Voodoos, also flown by CNAF pilots, were also occasionally used for overflights. On 7 Oct 59 one RB-57D was lost when, after descending following pressurisation failure, it was shot down by Chinese MiG-19 fighters. The remaining two RB-57D’s were withdrawn from Taiwan in 1964 due to wing fatigue.

When the 4025th SRS de-activated some RB-57D aircraft were assigned to NASA for high-altitude tests and terrain mapping and four aircraft were assigned to 4677th Radar Evaluation Sqn for calibration duties. In 1962 six aircraft were used to monitor effects of the last series of American atmospheric nuclear tests. Three aircraft were operated by the 1211th Test Sqn (Sampling) of the US Air Weather Service at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico and re-designated WB-57D’s – unit later became 58th Weather Reconnaissance Sqn.

RB57 - broken wing In 1966, 2 years after the type had been withdrawn from service, Martin re-built the wings of 8 stored aircraft. Designated the EB-57D, these aircraft were fitted with various ECM equipment and were used for evaluation tests until 1970.

RB-57F
RB-57 airborne from front right - short nose In 1962 USAF approached General Dynamics to investigate updating the RB-57. The new design, designated RB-57F, included two 18,000 lbst P&W TF33-P-11A turbofan engines along with two 3,300 lbst P&W J60 –P-9 turbojets under each wing - these auxiliary engines were airstarted and idled up to 32,000 ft – full throttle was only used above 42,000ft. The aircraft carried the HTAC high-altitude camera, which weighed almost 2000kg, was used for taking oblique shots at 45 degrees up to 60nm range from the aircraft and provided a 30 inch resolution. ELINT/SIGINT equipment was carried in the nose. A total of 21 RB-57F aircraft were eventually built. Some of these aircraft were involved in the Early Day programme that involved high altitude air sampling for evidence of Soviet nuclear tests.

In late 1963 two RB-57Fs were sent for trials with 7407th Combat Support Wg at Rhine-Main where they proved their effectiveness by making flights along the German border at over 60,000ft taking long-range photographs over the border into East Germany.

All the aircraft were assigned to 9th Weather Reconnaissance Wg at MacLelland AFB California. The aircraft were divided between 55th, 56th 57th and 58th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadrons (SRS). The 55th remained at MacLelland, the 56th deployed to Yokota, Japan, the 57th deployed to Avalon , Australia. and the 58th remained at Kirtland.

RB57 with bent wings In 1965 one RB-57F, on loan to Pakistan, was operated by 24 Sqn of the Pakistan Air Force during the 1965 war against India. During this conflict the aircraft conducted a number of reconnaissance sorties over Indian Air Force airfields at 65,000ft. Eventually on 15 Sep 65 the aircraft was straddled by two SA-2 Guideline missiles as it commenced it’s descent towards Peshawar. Despite suffering major structural damage and sustaining over 170 holes, the pilot managed to nurse the aircraft back to Peshawar where he made a successful forced landing. The aircraft was eventually repaired and returned to the USA. In 1968 the aircraft were redesignated the WB-57F and used to monitor nuclear tests in China and India by sampling high-altitude fallout. Most aircraft were then phased out during the 1970’s and placed in storage at MASDC Davis-Monthan

Martin WB-57F with WAVE nose

Meanwhile NASA needed an aircraft capable of operating at high altitude whilst carrying a large payload to support the Earth Resources Satellite Programme and three WB-57F aircraft were eventually transferred to NASA in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The three aircraft were designated NASA 925 (ex 63-13501), NASA 926 (ex 63-13503) and NASA 928 (ex 63-13298). For NASA operations the aircraft often carry a 6,000lb data-gathering sensor pallet in the 3ft x 6ft former bomb-bay underneath the centre fuselage and as fuel burns off the aircraft are capable of reaching 70,000ft, consequently, when operating at extreme altitude both the pilot and System Equipment Operator (SEO) wear full pressure suits.

Currently only two of the original three WB-57F aircraft remain in service, NASA 926 and NASA 928, - NASA 925 was returned to MASDC at Davis-Monthan in Sep 1982 and is now displayed a the adjacent Pima County Air Museum. The remaining two aircraft have been kept busy conducting a variety of civil tasks worldwide, particularly using the Airborne Remote Earth Sensing (ARES) instrument, a combined hyperspectral imager/radiometer with a two dimensional focal plane array, in addition to a variety of cameras. The aircraft operate out of Ellington Field, Houston in Texas and recently were equipped with a special high-definition camera and other sensors in a specially adapted gimbal-mounted ball turret mounted in the nose, known as the WB-57F Ascent Video Experiment (WAVE) to track and video Space Shuttle launches and recoveries from high altitude.

Martin WB-57F

On 10 Oct 05 one of the NASA WB-57F aircraft N928NA, flew from Ellington Field via Goose Bay to RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk arriving during the evening of 11 Oct 05 for an 11 day stay. The WB-57F then flew four missions out of Mildenhall at up to 48,500ft in UK airspace collecting ‘cosmic dust’. The Cosmic Dust Collector (CDC) mission uses two small metallic rectangular boxes carried under each wing that are designed to open at altitude and collect ‘interplanetary dust particles’, or in other words the remains of small meteorites or rocks from space that accumulate in the upper atmosphere, on an adhesive strip. At the end of the assigned track the boxes then automatically close at high altitude and after landing the adhesive strip was removed and returned to the US for analysis. The missions also allowed the WB057F crews to validate new radios and avionics and ensure these could interface correctly with European ATC agencies. There was also an unconfirmed report that the aircraft also supported a UK MOD assessment of future sensors for UAV applications in a European environment, by carrying the sensors in it’s sensor pallet under the fuselage – but for the time being, this report remains just speculation.

Martin WB-57F NASA 928 at Kandahar

























In August 2006 NASA 928 arrived at RAF Mildenhall totally devoid of all the usual identification marks, particularly serial numbers or NASA logos - the only insignias were a small US flag on the tail fin and some even smaller flags beneath the cockpit on the port side. The lack of insignia possibly indicated that the aircraft was operating on behalf of another US government agency - who knows. After some local sorties, possibly to test the onboard equipment, the aircraft departed to Kandahar, in Afghanistan via Souda Bay in Crete. The aircraft then flew a number of sorties out of Kandahar, presumably carrying a classified sensor package and then returned to Ellington Field via Souda Bat and Mildenhall. I doubt we will ever know the exact nature of the sorties over Afghanistan, but I very much doubt they had much to do with the official line that the aircraft undertook a geological survey.

RB-57 losses

Date N/K: RB-57D flown by CNAF had pressurisation failure during overflight of mainland China. Aircraft descended and shot down by MiGs.

14 Dec 1965 an RB-57F 63-13287 operating out of Rhine-Main with 7407th Combat Support Squadron was shot down by Soviet SA-2 SAM over the Black Sea whilst carrying out a close-range surveillance mission near Odessa. The wreckage was recovered, but there was no trace of the 2 crew.

Updated Aug 2008