Cold War Era

B-47 navigator/bombardier recalls when out of 45 Stratojets that took off from Little Rock AFB to the UK his B-47 was the only one that made it across the Atlantic Ocean

The B-47 Stratojet

Designed to meet a 1944 requirement, the first XB-47 prototype flew in December 1947, performing far beyond its competitors. It incorporated many advanced features for the time, including swept wings, jet engines in underwing pods, fuselage mounted main landing gear and automated systems that reduced the standard crew size to three.

CLICK HERE to see The Aviation Geek Club contributor Linda Sheffield’s T-shirt designs! Linda has a personal relationship with the SR-71 because her father Butch Sheffield flew the Blackbird from test flight in 1965 until 1973. Butch’s Granddaughter’s Lisa Burroughs and Susan Miller are graphic designers. They designed most of the merchandise that is for sale on Threadless. A percentage of the profits go to Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base. This nonprofit charity is personal to the Sheffield family because they are raising money to house SR-71, #955. This was the first Blackbird that Butch Sheffield flew on Oct. 4, 1965.

In May 1951 the B-47 began replacing the propeller-driven B-29s and B-50s in US Air Force Strategic Air Command (SAC)’s medium bomber units. While it could carry about the same bomb tonnage as the aircraft it replaced, the B-47’s top speed was more than 200 mph faster.

45 B-47s took off from Little Rock AFB to the UK, only one made it across the Atlantic Ocean

In 1956 45 B-47s took off on a bomb run exercise from Little Rock Air Force Base (AFB) to the UK. Only one B-47 made it across the Atlantic Ocean; all the rest returned to the US. My father, B-47 navigator/bombardier Lieutenant Richard “Butch” Sheffield was prepared to follow. He quickly had to learn how to lead.

He recalls in his unpublished book, “The Very First:”

‘As we prepared to fly to the UK, my aircraft and crew were to be the fifth aircraft in a flight of five. I believe that because I was the lowest-ranking navigator with the least experience, they did not want me to have to navigate the Atlantic as lead or alone.

‘We took off from Little Rock, all forty-five B-47s, and flew up to Northern New York State to refuel from KC-97 tankers flying at fifteen thousand feet. We were at thirty-five-thousand feet. Tankers put out a radar signal that we could identify on our radar screen. Each set of tankers, nine different sets, put signals that were almost alike but not. I saw our signal and told the aircraft commander (AC). He relayed to the lead aircraft that we had the tankers that we were to refuel with, and they didn’t believe him.

‘As we overflew them, we went over twice as fast and twenty thousand feet above them. My AC asked me if I was sure, and I said yes. He then told the lead, you are going to miss them; they are right below us now. Once again, they didn’t believe him, or I guess they didn’t believe that a Lieutenant could find the tankers from among the many radar signals.’

Heading for the UK

He continues;

‘My AC asked me for a heading for the tankers and left the formation. We rendezvoused with our tankers and took on our fuel. After refueling (we could not use the radios while refueling), the pilots asked for our location, and I gave it to them. They called the rest of the flight and told them where the tankers were at that time; by then, they were far away from the tankers.

‘I really didn’t know what we were going to do next, then the AC said; give me a heading for the UK. Now, I knew we were going to the UK alone, and I was going to navigate the North Atlantic in the middle of the winter, all by myself. I broke into a cold sweat; I was not prepared to do it.

‘Normally, the fifth aircraft in a flight of five just station keeps (keeps other aircraft on the radar) on the other aircraft in front of them, and the navigator/copilot team doesn’t shoot stars.

‘The lead navigator would do his planning by pre-computing the star shots on the ground the day before the flight. Now, I had to do the star computations in the small area and dim light of the cockpit. All across the Atlantic, I shot one star after another. My copilot, Mac McCraken, was young and eager, like me. He would do anything I asked him in the air. The older World War Two copilots would not have done it. This was hard work, and we never stopped until I saw the UK lands on the radar. WE HAD MADE IT.’

Richard “Butch” Sheffield is on the far right in the photo. His crew was named Best B-47 crew in 1960.

The only B-47 out of 45 that made it from Little Rock AFB to the UK

Sheffield concludes;

‘The following day, we were all told to report to see the Squadron Commander in his Office. This always meant trouble or an award. When we arrived, the AC was told to go in alone; Mac and I waited outside the door. We heard the Commander hollering all over the building, he was very mad that we had left the formation and went it alone.

‘When the AC came out, he was smiling. He said the Squadron Commander was just mad that the others were still back in the US, and they had never found the tankers and landed in North Eastern United States!

‘He said, I told him, we are here, and they are back in the US, so who goofed up?’

Dad was only 23 when navigated across the Atlantic ocean alone. I can see why he was selected to be one the first navigators for the new B-58 a few years later. Then he was first RSO to be selected for the SR-71 Blackbird program. Dad, was told to follow the older more experienced navigators, but he ended up having to lead and quickly learn to be good at it.

Be sure to check out Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Twitter X Page Habubrats SR-71 and Facebook Page Born into the Wilde Blue Yonder for awesome Blackbird’s photos and stories.

B-47 navigator/bombardier controls

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Linda Sheffield Miller

Linda Sheffield Miller

Grew up at Beale Air Force Base, California. I am a Habubrat. Graduated from North Dakota State University. Former Public School Substitute Teacher, (all subjects all grades). Member of the DAR (Daughters of the Revolutionary War). I am interested in History, especially the history of SR-71. Married, Mother of three wonderful daughters and four extremely handsome grandsons. I live near Washington, DC.

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