Seventy years ago this month, the USAF/North American XB-45 Tornado bomber made its inaugural test flight at Muroc Army Air Field, California. The type would go on to become the United States’ first operational turbojet-powered bomber.
The XB-45 measured 74 feet in length, had a wingspan of 89.5 feet and a GTOW of 82,000 lbs. Power was provided by a quartet of Allison J35-A-7 turbojets producing a rather paltry 16,000 lbs of sea level thrust. With a maximum speed at sea level of roughly 500 mph, the service ceiling of the XB-45 was 37,600 feet.
A trio of XB-45 prototype aircraft were manufactured for the Air Force by North American. Serial numbers 45-59479, 45-59480, and 45-59481 were assigned to the three ships. Air crew consisted of two pilots who sat in tandem. The XB-45 flight test program included slightly more than 130 flights.
The first flight of the XB-45, Ship No. 1 (S/N 45-59479) took place on Monday, 17 March 1947 at Muroc Army Air Field, California. North American test pilot George W. Krebs was in the cockpit of the prototype bomber. The one-hour test hop was restricted to low speeds because the landing gear doors could not be fully closed.
Production versions of the Tornado included the B-45A, B-45C, and RB-45C. These aircraft were powered by General Electric J-47 turbojets and represented a great improvement relative to the XB-45 in terms of performance, operability, and reliability. Aircrew for the production Tornado variants included a pilot, co-pilot, bombardier-navigator, and tail gunner.
The Royal Air Force (RAF) used the RB-45C to fly clandestine recon missions over the Soviet Union between 1952 and 1954. Known as Operation Ju-jitsu, RB-45C aircrews gathered electronic and photographic intelligence information critical to the Free World’s defense posture. These high-risk RB-54C missions ultimately led to development of more capable recon aircraft; the Lockheed U-2 and SR-71.
The B-45 and RB-45 Tornado served in the Strategic Air Command (SAC) from 1950 through 1959. The B-45A holds the distinction of being USAF’s first operational jet-powered bomber as well as the first multi-jet bomber to be air-refueled. It was also the first jet bomber to carry and drop a nuclear weapon.