October 01, 2020

On July 20, 1953, Martin Marietta’s chief test pilot O.E. “Pat” Tibbs climbed aboard the company’s inaugural B-57 bomber for its first official test flight—a day military officials had been anxiously awaiting for the previous three years.

During the summer of 1950, with hostilities erupting in Korea, the Air Force realized a pressing need for a new medium bomber – one that blended the agility of a fighter with the weapons-delivery capability of a bomber.

After several competitions and prototypes, the U. S. Air Force looked to England and selected a license-built version of the British Canberra, marking the first time since World War I that an aircraft of overseas design would be manufactured in the United States.

It was the Martin Company’s job as manufacturer to adopt the Canberra design into the aircraft the Air Force wanted, which the company did with remarkable precision, right down to compensating for the different size of threads on nuts and bolts used in the two countries and the inclusion of a revolutionary new rotary bomb rack that could be preloaded and easily swapped out to reduce rearmament times.

The sixth B-57A Canberra in flight with wingtip fuel tanks. Other than using American-built engines and US Air Force instruments and systems, the B-57As differed little from the Royal Air Force (RAF) Canberras.

An Intruder In Vietnam

By the time the B-57s were called into combat Vietnam in 1964, Martin engineers had applied gloss black paint, added air-to-ground rockets, created a new bubble cockpit and installed ejection seats. Dubbed Night Intruders, they were nimble enough for low-level attacks yet sturdy enough to deliver bombs from high altitudes, becoming the first aircraft to successfully target Viet Cong outposts in the Republic of South Vietnam in 1965.

When equipped with forward-looking infrared, a laser-guidance system and low-light television cameras, B-57 weapons specialists could steer weapons to their targets through the pitch-black night sky. It was the world’s first successful launch of a “smart bomb” and was used throughout the war to disrupt the transfer of supplies and manpower along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

To meet an urgent Air Force need for high altitude reconnaissance, Martin engineers created two new variants of the aircraft in 1955 called the RB-57D and WB-57F, which boasted a 110-foot wingspan, nearly double that of the basic design. The massive wings allowed the plane to soar up to 40,000 feet, monitoring Russian military activity and monitoring nuclear testing.

A formation flight of four RB-57A Canberras from Shaw Air Force Base in California. Sixty-eight of the 75 B-57As were built in the RB-57A tactical reconnaissance configuration, with the remainder delivered as B-57A bombers.

A Plane of Many Talents

Designed in the 1940s, modified in the ’50s and combat tested in the ’60s, B-57s were beginning to show their age by the ’70s and were used primarily to test American air defenses by posing as enemy intruders. B-57s would be officially retired in 1982 but not before providing a variety of services from flying airway surveys for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to monitoring storms for the National Weather Service. Two WB-57s remain in NASA service to the present day, testing space-satellite sensors and conducting high-altitude experiments at 60,000 feet.

Sources and Additional Reading

  • Harwood, William B. Raise Heaven and Earth. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
  • Johnson, E.R. American Attack Aircraft Since 1926. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008.