Frank Whittle
Hans von Ohain
Heinkel He 176
French ramjet experiment
commercial jet aviation
in search of speed
the Cold War
the B-52 Bomber
the Soviet Blackjack
Soviet vertical takeoff efforts
Curtiss LeMay and SACs
the aircraft carrier
cold war fighters
the B2 bomber early programme
US bombers - the future
post war British air defence
French nuclear deterrence
current air capability of China
helicopters at war
'small' wars
guided bombs
cruise missiles

the Cold War

the 'Iron Curtain'

The rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union was fraught with many tense moments, but it also brought out the best in aircraft research, design, and development. Probably, the economy of the USA is unable to sustain itself without pursuing war. Without the stakes of the Cold War, real or imagined, it is difficult to see what could have inspired an aviation program such as the one undertaken by both sides in the decades from the end of World War II to the fall of Communism.

The first airplane that the United States added to its arsenal after the Korean War was the ten- engine (six piston, four jet) Consolidated B-36 Peacemaker, a bomber that replaced the Boeing B- 9 and B-5O bombers  of World War II and the Korean War, but which did not have the capability to reach and deliver bombs to every spot in the world. This became a high priority of the USAF, as indicated by the formation of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) with the Air Force, and several possible aircraft—the Douglas XB-43, the Martin XB-51, and the North American XB-45— were rigorously tested and found wanting.

This unusual photograph shows the rapid development of bomber aircraft in the post-war period. The transition from the pre-war Douglas B-I 8 (wingspan of eighty-nine feet, top) to the B-I 7 Flying Fortress (wingspan of 103.7 feet, bottom left) and the B-29 Superfortress (wingspan of 141 feet, top left) was considered meteoric. But it paled next to the jump to the Convair B-36H (wingspan of 230 feet, right), the giant in the U.S. air arsenal.

A bomber that almost met this criterion (requiring only one in-flight refuelling) was the B-57, developed by Martin from an aircraft originally commissioned by the RAF, the Canberra. Similarly, Boeing’s improved model of the B-29, the B-SO, was a fine aircraft, but short of the goal. While SAC was waiting for the right plane to come along, it endured the Convair B-36, an aircraft that was  so large that a small railway had to be installed running down the length of the fuselage just so the crew could move from one end of the plane to the other.

The rapid development of fighter-bomber aircraft culminated in the remarkable delta-winged Convair B-58 Hustler, the first supersonic bomber-fighter deployed by the United States Air Force.

The B-36 was large enough to carry in its body a McDonnell F-85 fighter that could protect the bomber from other fighters and then return to the aircraft. The problem with the B-36 was that it was very slow: it had a maximum speed of 435 miles per hour (700.4kph), well within the range of even World War II fighters. Two bombers were selected by SAC: the Boeing B-47 Stratojet, a six-engine swept-wing descendent of the B-29, and soon after the B-52 Stratofortress, the classic eight-engine version of the B-47, one of the most remarkable military aircraft ever flown. Both Boeing aircraft were fast (cruising at 600 and 660 mph [966 and 1,062.6kph], respectively), with high ceilings, good range (4000 and 10,000 miles [6,440 and 16,100km]), and good manoeuvrability.

The backbone of the U.S. strategic bomber fleet through the 1960s was the Boeing B-47 Stratojet, which was eventually replaced by the B-52 Strato fortress. Both planes were designed in the mid-1940s in case Germany had to be bombed from the United States.

The key design element of these planes was that their wings were extremely thin, which cut down on drag and gave the plane greater lift. Special alloys had to be be devised to maintain the wing integrity, and they were so thin that they could not support landing gear.  The B-52 was also electronically sophisticated so that it could be flown with a crew of three. As central as the B-52 was in SAC’s overall plan, the plane was used as a tactical field weapon in the Vietnam War.

The B-52 first flew in 1952 and remains in service over forty years later. It is anticipated that the aircraft will remain in service until 2040, a tribute not only to its original design, but to its ability to adapt new systems and design elements. The only plane type that SAC was interested in considering as a replacement for the B-52 was a supersonic bomber, but efforts to create such a plane have proven difficult. The Convair B-58 Hustler, a Mach 2 bomber, was dropped after four years in service because or very high maintenance costs. In reality, the B52 is scheduled to continue in service after its 100th birthday!

the B-52G

North American produced two proto types of the experimental XB-70 Valkyrie Mach 3 bomber, a stainless steel aircraft with a sophisticated refrigeration system, but one crashed during a test and the other was built mainly as a test craft. The most promising model, the Rockwell B-1 swing-wing, was dropped during production because of feared cost overruns, but the project was eventually resumed under a modified design as the B-lB.

the swing-wing Rockwell B-lB bomber (Above), the controversial Mach-2 aircraft developed during the Reagan administration; and the Northrop B-2 Stealth Bomber (Below), unveiled in 1989 and said to be the most sophisticated airplane ever built.

The B-2 Stealth Bomber, modelled on the Northrop YB-35 Flying Wing of World War II and designed to penetrate enemy radar without being easily detected or identified, has been produced and has tested well in combat, but it has been a costly aircraft. Stealth technology uses a combination of absorptive alloys and electronic scrambling of radar echoes, all dependent on showing a minimal surface to incoming radar beams.

The Soviet Union, less able to afford an advanced aircraft development program than the United States, was nevertheless driven to keep up by a fear that the capitalistic West had murderous designs on the nation of the Revolution, just as the West evinced the same paranoia about the evil intentions of the Reds. They matched the West plane for plane, improving on them whenever possible and using every opportunity to mislead the West regarding the true capabilities of their aircraft (although modern electronic espionage techniques made such subterfuge increasingly more difficult to pull off).

After a slow start recuperating from World War II, the Soviets were assisted by a downed B-29 bomber retrieved off the eastern coast of the Soviet Union during the war. The Soviets spent two years patiently disassembling the plane and studying everything about it, from its electronic systems to its metallurgy. This formed the basis of their bomber development program.

TU-16 Badger

At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet arsenal included the jet-powered TU-16 Badger and the Myasishchev M-4 Bison, equivalents to the B-47 and B-52. The Soviets have even developed, ahead of the United States, the backfire bomber (the TU-26), the equivalent of the B-lB. Since the war the importance of these bombers has been a matter of doubt, because it is not known how effective they would be against anti-aircraft defences, or how necessary they would be in the event ICBMs or cruise missiles are used.

The last word in Cold War aircraft. The TU-26 Backfire bomber was superior to the American contender but also helped to break the Soviet arms budget.