|The field of high altitude reconnaissance has been an area filled with huge technological advancements. Planes such as the SR-71 and U-2 have been in the news frequently, and the TR-1 is still being used today over the skies of Iraq. But information gathering was not limited to these types. Planes of a different sort have plied the thin air on intelligence missions. These planes were adapted from existing airframes, and while not as renowned as their black brethren, they nevertheless acquired a huge amount of the intelligence gathered during the cold war. Modified C-135s were a popular airframe, with many sprouting all kinds of bumps and antennas, but the most dramatic airframe modification came from the B-57. |
The B-57 started its life as the English Electric Canberra bomber. During a flyoff in 1951, the British Canberra won out over other aircraft such as the B-45 Tornado, the AJ-1 Savage, and the XB-51. Early on in the testing phase, Martin changed the cockpit layout from the British style to a more typical tandem seating arrangement. This was the most distinguishing difference between the British and American Canberra bombers. The great high-altitude performance and large payload capacity of the B-57 made it an obvious choice for an interim high-altitude reconnaissance platform. While the specialized U-2 was being developed, Martin modified B-57Bs to the RB-57D standard, fitting more powerful engines and increasing the wing length from 64 feet to 106 feet. A limited flight test program showed that the new wing required strengthening of the spars and wing panels. Once these changes were done, the RB-57Ds went to Japan and Alaska for ELINT/SIGNET work over China and the Soviet Union.
The missions of the RB-57D were simple, but the gathering methods were widely varied. The large capacity of the RB-57D made it ideal for a wide range of gathering equipment. One RB-57D was equipped with a high-resolution side-looking radar that could be used day or night for mapping reconnaissance. Flights over China and the Soviet Union were focused primarily on nuclear test sites, although other areas of interest were targeted. The US also trained Taiwanese crews on the RB-57D and provided them with the planes to carry out intelligence gathering of their own. While this was going on in the Pacific, a four plane detachment made its way to Germany where they were put to use over the Iron Curtain. These missions gave a hint at a large future of the big-winged Canberras, as in addition to the standard ELINT/SIGNET gathering these RB-57s also did air sampling missions.
The life of the RB-57D was short-lived, however, as the problems with the wing spar shortened its career. Before it went out of service, though, it found its way into the hangers of NASA, who used them for high altitude research and mapping. The Air Weather Service also got a few for weather research. Radar calibration and nuclear testing were two other areas that the RB-57D saw service. Through extensive work by Martin consisting of rebuilding the failing wings, the RB-57D managed to stay in service a bit longer, with the last one being retired from service in 1970.
The need for a high-altitude reconnaissance platform with a large payload capacity was still on the Air Forces mind, especially when the RB-57D was experiencing its wing spar problems. The Air Force approached General Dynamics with the problem and asked about modernizing the RB-57. General Dynamics worked hard on the project and in the end came up with an almost new plane. In looking at the RB-57F, very little remains of the original British jet. The tandem canopy is almost the only link to the original B-57B that it was based off of. The wing was increased in size all around, with the final wingspan being 122 feet with an area of 2000 square feet. This huge wing presented one problem in that once in the air, the RB-57F didn't want to land. The ground effect kept this plane up, requiring a long runway. The engines were also replaced with more powerful TF33 turbofan engines that gave the RB-57F 50% more power over the RB-57D. Supplementing that power was two turbojet engines mounted in pods under the wing. These added another 6000 pounds of thrust, giving the RB-57F a total of 38,000 pounds of thrust. This power enabled the RB-57F to carry a heavy payload to altitude quickly. Other changes included a much larger fin and rudder and a new nose. When the first RB-57F took to the air on June 23rd, 1963, it showed no serious problems and actually handled better than its predecessor, the RB-57D.
With the flight characteristics of the RB-57F under control, the Air Force put an order in for 19 airframes, not including the first one. These quickly went to work, using new side-looking cameras that could take detailed pictures from nearly 60 miles away. Since the Powers U-2 incident, flying over enemy territory had been curtailed. The performance of the RB-57F really shined under these circumstances, as its high altitude performance allowed it to take pictures of Soviet activity from NATO borders. Even though the RB-57F stayed inside NATO borders, it was fired upon, and in one case, an RB-57F was shot down, with the loss of both crewmen. This was the only operational loss, although two were damaged while serving in Pakistan.
As satellites and the SR-71 came into service, the RB-57F was relegated to the weather service, and they were redesignated WB-57Fs. They continued to fly high, this time gathering radioactive dust and other airborne matter. The Air Force opened up this wonderful research tool, and many agencies took advantage of it. NOAA, USDA, FAA, and others all utilized the WB-57F for a wide variety of tests and experiments. For a list of some of those experiments, take a look at the list on the right. In addition to military studies, many projects with global impact were undertaken. The first color photo of the eye of a hurricane was taken from a WB-57F. Pollution, air turbulence, and thunderstorms all came to the attention of the WB-57F aircraft.
In addition to the Air Force, NASA expressed an interest in the WB-57F. The Air Force and NASA entered into a contract that allowed NASA to use one of the WB-57Fs. This plane was used for space research, in addition to mapping and air sampling. When the Air Force phased the WB-57Fs out of service, NASA picked up 2 more airframes and continued to use them for high-altitude research. This work continued on until 1985, at which point all of the WB-57Fs were mothballed at Davis Monathan AFB.
The RB-57F was the end of a long line of US-modified B-57s. Its long, graceful wing took it to altitudes far above those of conventional planes. The amount of information it brought back was immense. The gathering done by NASA and the Weather Service alone is incredible, proving many theories and showing the need for a high altitude research aircraft. The replacements that NASA and the Weather Service got were inferior to the WB-57F in that they could not get to the same altitudes as the WB-57F could. With information needed in high altitude atmospheric research, it may be that the WB-57Fs might make a comeback, if any are still in mothballs at DM. To have the skies graced by the presence of this long-winged Canberra would truly be a joy to see.
Projects of the 58th WRS:
B-57 Canberra in Action, Jim Mesko, Squadron/Signal Publications Inc., 1986.
Air Monograph 91, RB-57 Long Span Type, Air World, Vol. 9 No. 4, Air World, Inc., 1985.
Martin/General Dynamics RB-57F, Aerophile, Vol. 2 No. 3, Aerophile, Inc., 1980.