March 17, 1947: The B-45 Tornado, the First U.S. Jet-Powered Nuclear Bomber, Takes Flight

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A Brief History

On March 17, 1947, the North American B-45 Tornado, a fine but often forgotten plane, made its first flight and was fielded for duty a year later, becoming the first U.S. jet-powered nuclear bomber.

Digging Deeper

Alarmed by the development and deployment of the Arado 234 jet bomber by Nazi Germany, the U.S. scrambled to produce a jet bomber of its own.  The Germans had already fielded the Me 262 twin-engine jet fighter that was clearly superior to any fighter in the world, and the Arado 234 could fly above and faster than any Allied fighter in the bombing or reconnaissance role.

Britain responded with the Gloster Meteor jet fighter which saw some action against Germany’s V-1 flying bombs, and the U.S. replied with the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star which entered service before World War II ended but did not see combat until the Korean War.

Capable of achieving a speed of 570 miles an hour and of carrying a 22,000-pound load of bombs, the B-45 Tornado was almost twice as fast and could carry as many bombs as the B-29 Superfortress bombers that were the backbone of the U.S. bomber force.  Although not capable of the heavy load (almost 100,000 pounds) that the Convair B-36 “Peacemaker” (6 piston engines, later supplemented by 4 additional jet engines) could carry, the B-45 was again much faster.  Able to carry a nuclear bomb, the B-45, based in Europe, became an important Cold War nuclear deterrent.

The B-45 was a dated looking jet from the start, with straight wings and a double-engine pod on each wing.  It was armed with twin .50 caliber machine guns in the tail and had a crew of 4 (pilot, co-pilot, navigator/bombardier and tail gunner). With a combat radius of 1,000 miles un-refueled and later adding aerial refueling capability (the first jet bomber with this option), the B-45 had decent “legs.”  With a service ceiling of 46,000 feet, it could fly above piston-engine fighters as well.  143 planes were built, and only the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and the Royal Air Force (RAF) flew them.  The B-45 also appeared in a few motion pictures, notably War of the Worlds (1953) and Strategic Air Command (1955).

The B-45 did see combat in Korea,and, and unlike the WWII era B-29s, were not shot down by North Korean fighters.  B-45s were also modified for reconnaissance missions and flew such flights in Korea and even over the Soviet Union, information not declassified until 1994.  Phased out in 1959, the B-45 Tornado had a a relatively short service life and was replaced by the more capable swept wing Boeing B-47 Stratojet and the Convair B-58 Hustler which was capable of Mach 2 flight.

The National Museum of the United States Air Force located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (AFB) near Dayton, Ohio has a B-45 on display (as do 2 other museums), and we would like to encourage any airplane enthusiast to visit this museum.  The indoor displays of aircraft such as the B-1 Lancer, the B-29 Superfortress, the B-36 Peacemaker and the B-52  Stratofortress and other giant aircraft are incredible.  To see aircraft as well as drones, missiles, bombs and all sorts of other memorabilia from the World War I and World War II eras in the comfort of the indoors is amazing.  Seriously, the museum is worth a drive across the country; it is absolutely fabulous.

The B-45 Tornado is gone and largely forgotten, but it certainly completed its mission of nuclear deterrence, a job well done.

Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever flown in a B-45?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

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

The featured image in this article, a North American XB-45 cutaway drawing, is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain in the United States.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.