The B-45 Tornado: An Operational History of the First American Jet Bomber

  • Published

The B-45 Tornado: An Operational History of the First American Jet Bomber by John C. Fredriksen. McFarland & Company, 2009, 272 pp.

John Fredriksen spent years reading after-action reports and unit histories as well as meeting with veterans to pull together an interesting and comprehensive study of the North American B-45, the first jet-powered bomber. Overshadowed by other aircraft, it remains relatively unknown yet holds numerous firsts in Air Force operations and reconnaissance. Ordered during the final months of World War II after the US Army Air Forces encountered the Luftwaffe’s Arado 234 jet bomber in 1944, the B-45 entered the inventory in 1949.

The book recounts the challenges of bringing new technologies and an innovative aircraft into service. For example, jet engines, still in their infancy, presented problems—witness the B-45’s General Electric J-57s, which caught fire or blew up in their wing-mounted pods. Additionally, the aircraft’s APQ-24 radar system had tubes that required aligning by hand before it functioned properly.

The B-45A bomber was designed to replace the World War II–vintage B-25, but funding cuts during the Truman administration forced the Air Force to curtail the buy of B-45s in order to pay for the B-36. Consequently, Tactical Air Command (TAC) used this light bomber to meet a proposed interdiction role. As atomic bombs became smaller and lighter and as the United States began to fear possible Soviet encroachments into Western Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the 1950s, the Air Force modified 40 B-45s and then sent them to Royal Air Force (RAF) Sculthorpe in the United Kingdom to give US Air Forces in Europe a boost during the Cold War. Operating under trying weather conditions, the jet bombers laid the foundation for the quick-action alert and NATO exercises that would become keystones in the following decades.

The reconnaissance version of the aircraft, the RB-45C, purchased to supplement the vulnerable RB-29 and RB-26, proved a greater operational success during the Korean conflict and later in the first overflights of Russia, China, and Korea. The RB-45C shifted between TAC and Strategic Air Command (SAC) to meet needs and overcome capability shortfalls within the Air Force and during the war in Korea. The 33 aircraft, assigned to the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, rotated to RAF Sculthorpe and Yokota Air Base and Johnson Air Base in Japan. Their Manchurian, Russian, and Chinese overflights were fraught with danger, and a MiG-15 shot down an RB-45C on 4 December 1950. The B-45 and RB versions had only limited tail-gun capabilities; they also lacked warning devices, leaving them vulnerable to rear-hemisphere attacks. Using radar and optical cameras, the RB-45C monitored the introduction of Chinese forces to North Korea and the growth of MiG fighter forces in China, Manchuria, and Russia—the so-called sanctuary areas. The first air-refuelable jet bomber in the US inventory, the B-45—as well as the reconnaissance versions—could take on fuel from KB-29 and KC-97 tankers. The range extension for the RB-45C allowed it to penetrate the Soviet Union and fly reconnaissance sorties all the way to Kiev from the United Kingdom.

In 1952, when the RB-47 began to arrive in force with SAC, the RB-45Cs were refurbished and then joined TAC’s 19th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, serving in the 47th Bomb Wing alongside the B-45, deployed to the United Kingdom. Both the bomber and reconnaissance versions disappeared from the Air Force inventory in 1958. Some survivors soldiered on in research and engineering test roles until the early 1970s.

Well researched and replete with interesting facts such as beer-can repairs and the loan of RB-45Cs to the British RAF to fly Russian penetration sorties in 1952, The B-45 Tornado will astonish readers with its accounts of difficulties and challenges encountered by everyone associated with the bomber. Veterans’ loyalty to the aircraft helped the author capture even the smallest details. This book, the only one on the market about the B-45, is a must-read for bomber and Cold War enthusiasts.

Gilles Van Nederveen

Fairfax, Virginia

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."