Boeing B-29 / F-13A / RB-29A / RB-29A Washington / RB-50

RB29 in colour over arctic The RB-29, later redesignated the F-13A and RB-50, was a reconnaissance version of the B-29 Superfortress which had been used to devastating effect over the skies of Japan during World War 2. Like the RAF, the USAF quickly recognised the need for a sustained intelligence gathering operation against the Soviet Union and that given the vast distance involved, the conversion of long-range strategic bombers was the quickest way to achieve an operational capability. The vast northern borders of the Soviet Union were wide open in many places and RB-29 / F-13A aircraft flew many sorties along the periphery, and where necessary into the interior. Generally, there was little opposition from the Soviet forces as radar coverage was very limited and, if the overflying aircraft were detected, the current piston engined Soviet fighters could not intercept the RB-29 at their operating altitude.

RB50 One particular operation involving F-13’s was ‘Project Nanook’, mounted by the 46th / 72nd Reconnaissance Sqn. From Ladd Field, Fairbanks, Alaska from 1946. The Pentagon had identified the inhospitable Arctic wastes as the most likely route for Soviet bombers intending to attack the USA and vice-versa. To counter the Soviet threat threat, it was decided that the USAF must quickly establish the means of operating men and equipment under arctic conditions, develop a system of polar navigation and assess the actual Soviet threat. As part of ‘Project Nanook’ a search was mounted through the arctic for any undiscovered landmass which might be occupied by the Soviet Union, but none was found.

RB29 flack shack crashed at Yokada

The operation began in March 1946 when ten B-29s, including a couple of F-13s, deployed to Ladd AFB and soon they began to experience the difficulties of operating in an inhospitable place like Alaska. In Oct 1947 the 46th Reconnaissance Squadron was redesignated the 72nd Reconnaissance Squadron and then in June 1948 the F-13 was officially redesignated the RB-29 - by then the aircraft had began to concentrate on gathering intelligence on the Soviet Union. Between 1948-9 the RB-29s of the 72nd SRS conducted numerous photographic reconnaissance and ELINT missions over the Soviet Arctic and Far East. Equipped with cameras that enabled then to remain in international airspace, whilst photographing targets deep inside Soviet territory, the aircraft searched for evidence of Soviet military activity, but unsurprisingly, found little going on in the inhospitable Arctic wastes but nobody knew what was happening further inland. To investigate activity deeper inside Russia, some RB-29s were stripped of all unnecessary equipment, allowing them to increase their operating ceiling, and began overflying Soviet territory.

RB50 airborne from left below

The US President, Harry Truman, authorised the first overflight on 5th Aug 1948 when an RB29 took-off from Ladd AFB and, after routing over Siberia and spending over 19 hours in the air, eventually landed at Yokota AB in Japan. Even longer flights soon became routine with aircraft operating up to 35,000ft, covering 5000 miles and remaining airborne for occasionally up to 30 hours. Although the Soviet Military was equipped rudimentary radar, copied from WW2 US supplied equipment, large gaps existed in their radar coverage, particularly over the vast Arctic region. These gaps were soon identified and exploited by the RB-29s as they penetrated deeper and deeper inside the Soviet Union. Although they were detected on many occasions, none of the RB-29s was ever intercepted because the early MiG-15 was the only fighter with sufficient performance to reach these high-flying aircraft and none of the new fighters were then stationed in Siberia.

RB-50 with ariels

Another version of the B-29, was the WB-29 specially equipped for detecting radioactive debris. On 3rd Sep 1949 one of these aircraft, flying between Japan and Alaska, was the first to gather evidence that Russia had tested a nuclear device in the Semipalatinski test site in Eastern Kazakhstan on 29th Aug 1949.

15 Mar 53 - an RB-29 belonging to 38th SRS and flown by Lt Col Robert Rich was attacked by a MiG whilst 100 northeast of the Soviet naval base of Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka. Tail gunner, T/Sgt Jesse Prim, drove MiG off and aircraft landed safely in Alaska.
Known losses:
RB-50 and crew 13 Jun 52 shot down in the East Sea/Sea of Japan near the Kamchatka Peninsuula by Russian fighters. All 12 crew presumed killed. Later reported that an officer, believed to be a crewmember from this aircraft, was observed in a Soviet hospital at Narionburg near the Kolymar River in Oct 53. The USSR repeatedly denied holding any survivors from this aircraft.

7 Oct 52 shot down near Yuri Island in the East Sea/Sea of Japan by Russian fighters. This island is part of the Kurile Islands, which were occupied by the USSR at the end of WW2. This occupation was not recognised by the US or Japan. All 8 crew presumed killed.

29 Jul 53 RB-50G (Serial No: 47154) of the 343rd SRS departed Yokota to carry out ELINT duties off the Russian port of Vladivostok. Captained by Stanley O’Kelley total flight crew of eleven and 6 Ravens. Attacked at 0615 when at 20,000ft some 26 miles off Cape Povorotny to the south-east of Vladivostok, aircraft was attacked by 2 MiG-15’s. Starboard wing caught fire, crew ordered to bale out. Only co-pilot Capt John E Roche survived to be picked up by a US Navy destroyer. 3 bodies later washed up in Japan. Persistent rumours that other crew members survived the bale-out, were captured by the Soviets and interrogated. These crewmen were reportedly seen in various Soviet prisons, but then disappeared, presumably to one of the extremely isolated prison camps in the ‘Gulag Archipelago’. The eventual fate of the missing crew members remains unknown.

Following the end of the Cold War, the Russian authorities agreed to establish a joint commission called ‘Task Force Russia’ to search for any USAF crew member who might still be alive, but so far none has been discovered. A former Soviet intelligence officer, Gavril Korotkov, has stated that 6 crewmen from RB-50G 47154, were captured and interrogated by a KGB counter-espionage unit. When the crewmen refused to co-operate they were classed as spies and dispatched to the Gadhala prison camp in south-central Siberia were they eventually died.

15 Mar 53 RB-50 attacked by MiG 15 about 25 miles from Soviet coast on the Kamchatka peninsula. MiG driven off by gunfire from RB-50 aircraft returned undamaged to Elmendorf AFB in Alaska.

29 Jul 53 RB-50 attacked and shot down over East Sea/Sea of Japan by several MiG-15’s. Only 1 crewmember out of 17 survived.

22 Jan 54 RB-50 attacked by MiG fighters over the Yellow Sea. MiG’s beaten off by 16 F-86 Sabre fighters providing escort, one MiG shot down.

4 Sep 54 RB-50 shot down by Soviet fighters about 10 miles from the Soviet occupied Kurile Islands. One crewman was killed in the attack

7 Sep 54 RB-50 shot down off Hokkaido in the East Sea/Sea of Japan all 13 crew lost.

10 Sep 55 RB-50 shot down over East Sea/Sea of Japan.

RB-29A Washington
In the late 1940’s the USA supplied 87 B-29 aircraft to the UK as part of the Mutual Defence Assistance Programme to fill a gap in the RAF inventory until the new Canberra bomber entered service. The aircraft were given the RAF designation ‘Washington’. RB-50 Washington

In fact not all the aircraft were B-29 bombers, three aircraft were RB-29s, the dedicated reconnaissance/ELINT version, WZ966, WZ967 and WZ968. In the first half of 1952 these three aircraft were allocated to No 192 Sqn at RAF Watton in Norfolk in, the home of the Central Signals Establishment, where they were used alongside Lincoln B2’s in the ELINT role. A fourth plane, WW346, was a standard bomber version which was also delivered to 192 Sqn for crew training. The ELINT Washington’s flew regular sorties along the fringes of the Baltic, Black and Caspian Seas, monitoring Russian radar and signal transmissions. One Washington achieved a particularly significant ‘take’ when it brought back the first recordings of the Soviet airborne intercept radar, the ‘Scan Odd’. Occasional sorties were also mounted along Russia’s Northern border with Norway. None of the ELINT Washington’s were lost, although they were intercepted by Russian fighter aircraft on many occasions, particularly over the Black Sea.

The ELINT Washington’s were taken out of service in 1958, as the Comet R Mk2 entered service. All three RAF ELINT Washington’s were eventually broken up in Apr 58 and delivered as scrap to Shoeburyness Range in Sep 1958 to act as targets.

Click here to read a detailed report about the RB-29 Washingtons - submitted by Dave Forster.