Part II : 1950-1957

7. New Initiatives in High-Altitude Aircraft



Origins of Very-High-Altitude Aircraft at Wright Field


[113] At the outbreak of the Korean war, John D. Seaberg, an aeronautical engineer at Chance-Vought, was called back to active duty as an Air Force major. Seaberg, who had served as an engineering and base executive during World War II, was assigned to the new development office for bombardment aircraft at Wright Field. Late in 1952, he went to his boss, William E. Lamar, with some new ideas about achieving flight at very [114] high altitudes. Seaberg saw in the new generation of turbojet engines, with their inherent high altitude potential, the opportunity of matching engine and airfoil to achieve an airplane of low wing-loading capable of higher altitude operation than anything yet conceived. The ideal application for such an airplane was reconnaissance; the high attitude would make detection very difficult and provide protection until effective countermeasures were developed.1


By March 1953, Seaberg's idea had jelled into a set of specifications for preliminary design studies by aircraft manufacturers. Operating conditions selected were an altitude of 21 340 meters or higher, a range of 2800 kilometers, and subsonic speeds. Propulsion was to be by turbojet or turboprop suitably modified for the high altitude operation. The airplane would carry a crew of one and photographic equipment weighing between 45 and 318 kilograms. No armament or ejection equipment was provided, in keeping with the objective of minimum gross weight and high altitude for protection. The contractors were to supply design specifications suitable for a development contract, a recommended engine, and a list of major development problems anticipated.2


Seaberg and Lamar decided to bypass the big aircraft manufacturers in favor of smaller companies because, believing that production would be small, they thought the smaller firms would give the studies a higher priority. There was no bidding; Bell Aircraft, Fairchild Aircraft, and Glenn L. Martin were called in to discuss the studies, and all three were very interested. The Air Force talked to no one else. Contracts to the three were let beginning 1 July 1953 and ran to the end of the year. Bell and Fairchild were asked to design a new airplane; Martin, builder of the B-57 bomber and RB-57 reconnaissance airplane, was asked to study modifications to the RB-57 to meet the more stringent altitude requirements.3


Wright Field evaluated the three studies in early 1954 and had the contractors present the study results during the first part of March. Bell proposed a twin-engine airplane; Fairchild submitted a single-engine design; and Martin discussed modifications to the RB-57, including a larger wing (fig. 25). All used Pratt & Whitney J-57 engines, modified for high altitude operation and initially designated J-57-P19 (later J-57-P37).4


Lt. Col. Joseph J. Pelligrini, attached to a reconnaissance unit at headquarters of the Air Research and Development Command (ARDC), visited Wright Field in mid-March, saw the Martin proposal as a fast way of meeting an urgent need of the Air Force in Europe, and requested Wright Field to send ARDC headquarters a list of necessary RB-57 modifications within a week.5 The following month, Seaberg went to ARDC headquarters in Baltimore and gave a briefing on the three studies. Attending was Lt. Gen. Thomas S. Power, who succeeded Lt. Gen. Donald Putt that month as commander of ARDC. Power was so impressed that he had Seaberg repeat the briefing at Strategic Air Command headquarters the following day. Seaberg gave a third briefing at Air Force headquarters early in May 1954.6 Interest in high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft increased and Seaberg had every reason to believe his idea would soon become a reality. Two weeks after his third briefing, however, a new proposal for a high-altitude airplane, from Kelly Johnson of Lockheed Aircraft Company, reached Seaberg's desk with a request for an evaluation. This proposal would lead to a series of significant events in aeronautics, politics, and diplomacy.


3 high-altitude reconnaissance airplane models

[115] Fig. 25. Models of Fairchild, Bell, and Martin high-altitude reconnaissance airplanes from design studies conducted for the Air Force during the second half of 1953. All three used Pratt & Whitney J57-P19 engines. The Bell (X-16) and Martin (B57-D) designs were chosen for development, but only the latter was completed and is flying today as the RB-57F. (1954 photograph courtesy of W. E. Lamar and J. D. Seaberg.)

[From left to right, MX-2147 Fairchild, MX-2147 Bell, Martin Model 294. Chris Gamble, html editor]


Clarence L. (Kelly) Johnson, chief engineer of Lockheed Aircraft at Burbank, California, since 1952, was already a legend among aircraft designers. He had designed and built the prototype of the first U.S. jet fighter, the F-80, in 143 days. He had gone on to design the F-90, the F-104, and many others. He had his own special brand of management and operations known as the "Skunk Works." He condensed his management philosophy to "be quick, be quiet, be on time."*


Johnson's unsolicited proposal to the Air Force came as no great surprise at Wright Field. Johnson had the confidence of and was accustomed to dealing with the highest levels in the Air Force and there was no reason for those officers to conceal their interest in very high-altitude flight from him.


As the designer of the Air Force's F-104 fighter, Johnson had proposed to use its fuselage, a larger wing to achieve an altitude of about 20 000 meters, and the General Electric J-73 turbojet engine. In his review of the proposals at Wright Field, Seaberg was not impressed with Johnson's selection of the J-73 for extremely high altitude [116] flight. He felt that the more powerful Pratt & Whitney J-57, modified for high altitude operation, was required. However, it was too large to fit into the F-104 fuselage, so a modified fuselage would also be required. Since the proposals for the Martin RB-57 modification and the Bell X-16 had been approved, Seaberg saw no need to develop a third airplane and recommended against Johnson's proposal.7 Seaberg's view was supported by the Air Force. The high-altitude B-57D was subsequently built; the Bell X-16 was initiated but cancelled in mid-1956.


When the Air Force turned Johnson down, he did not give up and a fortunate turn of events gave him a big break. In 1954, the role of the guided missile was rising rapidly, and the Department of Defense formed a number of advisory groups in mid-1954 to examine the various aspects of military planning and weapons. James R. Killian became chairman of a committee on surprise attack and was aided by several panels. One of these was on intelligence. During the course of its work, the panel learned about Johnson's proposal for a very high-altitude reconnaissance airplane and liked it. Killian was convinced of its merits and soon others, including Charles Wilson, Secretary of Defense, and Allen Dulles, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, also became convinced. It was known that the airplane had been proposed to the Air Force but that the Air Force had decided not to develop it.**


Johnson's proposal was taken to President Eisenhower during the latter part of November. As described by Eisenhower:


Back in November 1954, Foster Dulles, Charlie Wilson, Allen Dulles, and other advisors had come to see me to get authorization to go ahead on a program to produce thirty special high-performance aircraft at a total cost of about $35 million. A good deal of design and development work had already been done. I approved this action.8


Eisenhower decided that the funding and direction of the project would be under the CIA and Richard M. Bissell, Jr., was selected to head it. The Air Force was to contract with Lockheed for development of the airplane, designated the U-2. Because of the sensitivity of the project, the Air Force handled its part directly from headquarters.9 On 9 December 1954, Trevor Gardner, assistant secretary of the Air Force for research and development, visited Robert Gross and Kelly Johnson at Lockheed and told them to go ahead.10 The Skunk Works swung into action and the first U-2 flew eight months later. It was powered by a Pratt & Whitney J-57-P37 turbojet engine, the engine Seaberg had argued was necessary.***


The U-2 (fig. 26) was capable of flying at altitudes above 21300 meters at a speed of about Mach 0.75 (about 800 kilometers per hour at its altitude). The first operational....


aerial photo of U-2 in flight

[117] Fig. 26. Lockheed U-2 airplane, proposed in 1954 and in active government service continuously since 1956. Its capability for sustained flight at very high altitudes is still unmatched by any other airplane. (1963 photograph courtesy of Lockheed Aircraft Corp.)


....flight occurred in the spring of 1956. The government chose research by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics as the cover for the covert reconnaissance operations of the airplane, but kept the NACA in the dark about its real purpose. Early U-2s carried NACA markings (and, later, NASA markings) and obtained data on high-altitude meteorological phenomena.11 These data made significant contributions to a better understanding of turbulence, wind shears, and jet streams. In 1973, the NASA began using the versatile U-2 in its earth resources program.


In the early spring of 1954, in the midst of Seaberg's plans and before Johnson's proposal reached his desk, a British inventor brought a new and novel concept for an airplane and engine, called Rex I, to Wright Field. Unlike other airplanes, Rex I used liquid hydrogen as fuel.


* Johnson used a set of 14 operating rules for the Skunk Works including: almost complete control by project manager: a strong but small project office; an ìalmost viciousî restriction of the number of people connected with the project; a simple, flexible drawing system; minimum paperwork; thorough and periodic cost review; authority to subcontract; tight inspection; flight testing; prior specifications; timely funding; mutual trust; tight security; and rewards based on performance; interview with C.L. Johnson and Ben Rich. Burbank, 2 May 1974.
** Members of the Killian committee were briefed on Air Force plans for the B-57D and the X-16 by John D. Seaberg in the office of Lt. Gen. Donald Putt, deputy chief to staff for development, USAF, on 18 Nov. 1954, Seaburg also discussed the Fairchild and Johnson proposals and indicated that a Johnson's airplane performance could be improved if the j-57-P337 engine replace the J-73 proposed by Johnson. Letter from Seaburg to author 28 June 1976, with enclosures.
*** Seaberg says that, to this day, Johnson tells him, "You had a chance to buy the U-2 and didn't do it"; and he counters with, "Kelly, you picked the wrong engine." Interview with Seaburg, 23 Nov. 1973; letter from Seaberg to author, 28 June 1976.