On February 26th 1949 the Boeing B-50A-5-BO Superfortress, Air Force serial number 46-010, named “Lucky Lady II” took off on what was to become the first non-stop around-the-world flight.
United States Air Force Captain James G. Gallagher and his crew (including two additional pilots and twice the normal crew complement) departed Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth Texas at 12:21 PM and headed east. The Lucky Lady II returned to Carswell 94 hours and one minute later (on March 2, 1949) after flying a total distance of 23,452 miles (37,742 kilometers).
The Lucky Lady II was a standard B-50A of the 63rd Bomb Squadron, 43rd Bombardment Group and was equipped with the normal B-50A defensive armament consisting of 12 50 caliber machine guns. The bomber did carry an additional fuel tank in its bomb bay to provide additional range. Even with the extra fuel capacity, the B-50 was refueled in midair four times by KB-29 tankers during the mission. Flown primarily at altitudes between 10,000 feet and 20,000 feet (3,000 to 6,000 meters), the first non-stop circumnavigation of the planet averaged only 249 miles per hour (401 kilometers per hour) groundspeed.
Strategic Air Command’s commander Lieutenant General Curtis LeMay greeted the Lucky Lady II upon its return to Carswell. Other dignitaries at Carswell for the historic event included Secretary of the Air Force W. Stuart Symington, Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, and Major General Roger M. Ramey, commander of the Eighth Air Force. The significance of the event was not lost on LeMay, who took advantage of the opportunity to remark that the Air Force (and of course Strategic Air Command) could now be based entirely in the continental United States and still attack any place in the world that “required the atomic bomb.”
For the record-setting flight of the Lucky Lady II, Captain Gallagher was the aircraft commander. 1st Lieutenant Arthur M. Neal was the relief pilot. Captain James H. Morris was copilot. Captain Glenn E. Hacker and 1st Lieutenant Earl L. Rigor were the navigators. 1st Lieutenant Ronald B. Bonner and 1st Lieutenant William F. Caffrey operated the radar. Captain David B. Parmalee was the project officer for this flight and flew as the chief flight engineer. The crew flight engineers were Technical Sergeant Virgil L. Young and Staff Sergeant Robert G. Davis. Technical Sergeant Burgess C. Cantrell and Staff Sergeant Robert R. McLeroy operated the radios. Handling the guns were Technical Sergeant Melvin G. Davis and Staff Sergeant Donald G. Traugh Jr. The Lucky Lady II’s crew was showered with awards including the National Aeronautic Association’s Mackay Trophy and the Air Force Association’s Air Age Trophy. Each crew member also received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The Boeing B-50 was essentially a postwar update to the B-29 Superfortress. Similar enough to the B-29 that Boeing never did give it a separate name, the B-50 used the more powerful Pratt & Whitney R-4360 radial engine. Other differences between the B-29 and B-50 included redesigned engine nacelles and engine mounts, an enlarged folding vertical tail and rudder, reinforced wing structure, improved remote turret fire-control equipment, strengthened landing gear, increased takeoff weight and fuel capacity, nose wheel steering, and improved flight control systems including larger flaps.
The improvements to the basic B-29 airframe yielded an additional 50 to 60 miles per hour (80 to 97 kilometers per hour) in airspeed. The most obvious visible differences between the B-29 and the B-50 were the considerably taller vertical stabilizer of the B-50 and the distinctive engine nacelles required for the R-4360 engines.
Deliveries of the B-50A began in 1948 and Strategic Air Command utilized the aircraft as frontline bombers for only a short time. With the all jet-powered Boeing B-47 Stratojet coming off assembly lines so soon after the B-50 became operational, the Stratojet took over the bombing mission for SAC during the early 1950s. By 1955 the last of the SAC B-50 bombers had been retired. But that was not the end of useful service for the B-50.
Once retired from the SAC bombing mission, the basic B-50 bombers were modified to fulfill aerial tanker (KB-50) and weather reconnaissance (WB-50) missions. Tactical Air Command adopted the KB-50 because its more powerful engines made it a more than suitable replacement for their worn-out KB-29 tanker aircraft. In order to fulfill the tanker role, TAC KB-50s were modified with extensively reinforced outer wing panels, refueling equipment capable of simultaneously refueling up to three aircraft by the Air Force’s preferred probe-and-drogue method, the removal of all defensive armament, and ultimately in the KB-50J variant, a pair of pod-mounted General Electric J-47 jet engines.
By the end of 1957 Tactical Air Command refueling squadrons were all equipped with KB-50s. KB-50Js were utilized by TAC and by United States Air Force Europe (USAFE) and Pacific Air Forces (PACAF). KB-50Js also deployed to bases in Thailand, flying refueling missions over Indochina during the first few years of the Vietnam War.
The Air Force’s Air Weather Service required a replacement for its ageing WB-29 aircraft. The WB-50 could fly faster, higher, and farther than the WB-29. Stripped of their armament and equipped for hurricane hunting and other long-range weather reconnaissance missions, 36 WB-50s went into weather recon service beginning in 1956. Although replaced by retired SAC B-47s in 1962, the WB-50 nonetheless played a role during the Cuban Missile Crisis, monitoring weather around Cuba and in the Caribbean in order to plan photo-reconnaissance flights.
The remaining operational KB-50 and WB-50 aircraft were retired in 1965 due to metal fatigue and corrosion found in their airframes. But even after retirement the B-50 found a way to contribute. With a redesigned upper fuselage but few other differences, the basic B-50 design formed the basis for the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser airliners and the C-97 Stratofreighter transport and KC-97 Stratotanker aerial tanker. The B-50 was the last piston-engine bomber designed by Boeing for the United States Air Force and remained is service for close to 20 years.
The next Lucky Lady was the Lucky Lady III, one of three Boeing B-52B Stratofortresses that circumnavigated the earth non-stop in January of 1957. Commanded by now-Lieutenant Colonel James H Morris (co-pilot of the B-50A Lucky Lady II), Lucky Lady III was flying from Castle Air Force Base in California as part of Operation Power Flite. The B-52s completed the mission in just 45 hours and 19 minutes, averaging a ground speed of 536 miles per hour (863 kilometers per hour). The B-52s were refueled in-flight by Boeing KC-97 Stratotankers, themselves developed from the B-50. Only eight years after Lady II, Lady III circumnavigated the planet non-stop in less than half the time it took Lucky Lady II to do it.
The fuselage of the B-50A Lucky Lady II is now displayed at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino California.