Aviation, the Cold War, and the Pursuit of Perpetual Flight

In ‘This Week in History,’ America made great strides in aviation. During the 1920s and, after WWII, the US pursued the first nonstop flight around the world.
Aviation, the Cold War, and the Pursuit of Perpetual Flight
Lucky Lady II being refueled by a KB-29M tanker in 1947. U.S. government. (Public Domain)
Dustin Bass

After more than 35 hours in the air, Lts. John Macready and Oakley Kelly landed their Fokker T-2 plane at the airstrip of Rockwell Field in San Diego. The two U.S. Army Air Corps pilots had just set a world record for in-air duration. Their feat, accomplished on Oct. 5, 1922, placed them in the record books and ensured they would win that year’s Mackay Trophy, a trophy awarded annually for the “most meritorious flight of the year.” The two pilots would win the trophy the following year after completing the first nonstop transcontinental flight.

Their 1922 flight proved that planes and pilots were capable of much longer flights. The only real necessity was perpetual fueling.

On Oct. 5, 1922, the Fokker T-2 set a world record for in-air duration: 35 hours. U.S. Air Force photo. (Public Domain)
On Oct. 5, 1922, the Fokker T-2 set a world record for in-air duration: 35 hours. U.S. Air Force photo. (Public Domain)

The pilots of Rockwell Field quickly pursued solving the problem. The most logical way to refuel a plane during its flight was to send another plane to join it. The problem was how to pump fuel stationed in one plane into another. That problem was solved less than a year after Macready and Kelly’s flight, when two DH-4Bs, one flying above the other, ran a fuel hose between them. By late August, there was a new world record on the books for the longest flight: 37 hours and 15 minutes.

In 1929, another American pilot, Maj. Carl Spaatz, broke the endurance record again when he flew an Atlantic-Fokker C-2A for six days (150 hours and 40 minutes).

Advancing Aviation Technology

While America pursued air power, so did other nations, specifically Germany, Japan, and Great Britain. These four nations would fight for air superiority during World War II and the technology would push aviation to new heights. The 420-horsepower Fokker T-2 plane that had been flown by Macready and Kelly possessed a top speed of 110 mph. By the end of World War II, America’s fastest plane, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, had a top speed of 594 mph. Only the British and Germans had a faster plane: the Supermarine Spitfire at 606 mph and the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet at 702 mph, respectively.
After the end of World War II and the defeat of Germany and the Axis Powers, aviation technology continued to advance, ranging from faster, larger, and more sophisticated planes to satellites and rockets capable of breaking through the restraints of Earth’s atmosphere.

Just as the competing technologies between the belligerents of World War II drove the advances in aviation, a new war would do the same. When the Cold War between the United States (and the West) and the Soviet Union began, so did the research and development into new technologies and capabilities.

The B-29 Superfortress, designed by Boeing, made its maiden flight on Sept. 21, 1942. This 99-foot long, 141-foot wide, 27-foot 9-inch tall, 133,500-pound bomber possessed a top speed of 357 mph with a range capacity of 3,700 miles (nearly 1,000 miles longer than the widest expanse of the continental US). It was the poster boy of aviation advancement with its remote-controlled turrets, pressurized cabins (its elevation capacity was 33,600 feet), and computerized targeting. The cost of the B-29 project cost a third more than the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bomb. But it ultimately proved its worth when it was sent over Japan twice in August of 1945.

Its delivery of two atomic bombs would spell the end of World War II, but the beginning of a new age, a nuclear age. Although the Americans believed they had plenty of time before the Soviets developed their own nuclear arsenal, communism was rapidly expanding and with it, the power and influence of the Soviet Union.

Boeing’s B-29 Superfortress made its maiden flight on Sept. 21, 1942. U.S. Air Force. (Public Domain)
Boeing’s B-29 Superfortress made its maiden flight on Sept. 21, 1942. U.S. Air Force. (Public Domain)

An Improved B-29

Boeing began work to improve upon the B-29. What resulted was the B-50A Superfortress. The improvements primarily focused on the four 2,200-horsepower Whitney engines of the original. The B-50A now had four 3,500 horsepower Pratt & Whitney engines, which extended the bomber’s range capacity by nearly 1,000 miles. A more powerful and longer-range bomber was a necessity in this ongoing standoff with the Soviets.

The Americans had long been capable of nonstop transcontinental flight, even nonstop from the United States to Hawaii. But nonstop around the entire world?

In 1924, four American-made Douglas World Cruisers had flown around the globe, covering more than 27,000 miles, but they had touched down in 28 countries in order to accomplish the feat. Of the four planes, only two of the original made the entire flight.

LeMay and SAC

Gen. Curtis LeMay was the driving force behind air superiority in the Cold War. (Public Domain)
Gen. Curtis LeMay was the driving force behind air superiority in the Cold War. (Public Domain)
Strategic Air Command (SAC) was established in 1946 as a global bomber strike force. In 1948, SAC fell under the command of Gen. Curtis LeMay, who orchestrated America’s World War II strategic bombing campaign against Japan. The U.S. Air Force, which was created as its own military branch in 1947, now oversaw SAC (SAC had originally been established within the USAF precursor U.S. Army Air Forces). LeMay argued that demonstrating America’s strategic advantage was to be capable of reaching “any place in the world that required the atomic bomb.”
It was a cynical excuse for advancing the field of aviation, but, just as the decade of the 1940s had made clear, conflict was a major driver toward air superiority. Just as the U.S. Army Air Corps had its achievements in 1922, 1923, and 1924, the U.S. Air Force chose to pursue the first nonstop flight around the world, and they would do it with the newly improved B-29: the B-50A Superfortress. If all went according to plan, the B-50A would only need to be refueled four times during its flight.

One Lucky Lady (II)

On Feb. 25, 1949, the B-50A Superfortress Global Queen took off from Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas, but due to an engine fire, it was forced to land in the Azores during the first long leg of the flight. Immediately after the Global Queen was out of the running, Lucky Lady II took off from Carswell AFB on the morning of Feb. 26. The bomber housed 14 crew members, led by Capt. James Gallagher. The crew had two other pilots, 1st Lt. Arthur Neal and Capt. James Morris; two navigators, Capt. Glenn Hacker and 1st Lt. Earl Rigor; two radar operators, 1st Lt. Ronald Bonner and 1st Lt. William Caffrey; project officer and chief flight engineer, Capt. David Parmalee; two engineers, Tech. Sgt. Virgil Young and Staff Sgt. Robert Davis; two radio operators, Tech. Sgt. Burgess Cantrell and Staff Sgt. Robert McLeroy; and two gunners, Tech. Sgt. Melvin G. Davis and Staff Sgt. Donald G. Traugh Jr.

Lucky Lady II flew 23,452 miles, nearly the circumference of the globe at the equator, and was refueled four times along the route over the Azores, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and Hawaii (certain to avoid Soviet airspace). The Superfortress was refueled by four KB-29M tankers using the “grappled-line looped-hose air-to-air refueling system,” which was created by the British aviation pioneer Sir Alan Cobham. It was during this week in history, 75 years ago, on March 2, 1949, that the 14-man crew completed the first nonstop flight around the world and they accomplished it two minutes ahead of schedule at 94 hours and 1 minute.

Each crew member received the Distinguished Flying Cross. For their efforts, they were also awarded the Mackay Trophy. They were awarded the Air Force Association’s Air Age Trophy, too, later renamed the Hoyt S. Vandenberg Trophy

America had proven its point. It could reach anywhere in the world at practically any time for any purpose. Six months later, however, the Soviets successfully tested their first atomic bomb, well ahead of American projections. A month later, at the start of October, communism made a massive expansion when China fell to the Communists. The Cold War had truly just begun, and the field of aviation would advance accordingly.

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Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.
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