While luck might be a lady as the song popularized by Frank Sinatra hoped, the USAF had three Lucky Ladies of their own. The flights of these famous aircraft illustrated the service's vision to provide global reach and power. Achieving these goals involved two key aspects: the ability to rapidly fly anywhere in the world, and later, to conduct non-stop flights through aerial refueling. The performance of the Lucky Ladies confirmed that the USAF could deliver on both counts.
Lucky Lady I
On 22 July 1948, three B-29 aircraft from the 43rd Bombardment Group departed Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, on a mission to circle the globe in just fourteen days. First Lieutenant A.M. Neal commanded the Lucky Lady, Lieutenant Colonel R.W. Kline commanded its companion--dubbed Gas Gobbler--while the third aircraft unfortunately crashed in the Arabian Sea. The Lucky Lady and Gas Gobbler landed safely on 6 August 1948, only one day over their goal. The two aircraft had flown more than 20,000 miles in fifteen days, logged 103 hours and 50 minutes of actual flight time and made eight stops en route. Even though the newly-created USAF was just finding its own "wings," this demonstration of America's long range airpower capabilities was a noteworthy event to allies and would-be adversaries alike.
Lucky Lady II
Less than one year later, the Lucky Lady II, a B-50A (serial number 46-010) and a crew of fourteen commanded by Captain James Gallagher, completed the first nonstop round-the-world flight--23,452 miles--in 94 hours and 1 minute. The flight originated from Carswell Air Force Base, Texas, on 26 February and landed at the same location to complete its flight on 2 March 1949. The 43rd Air Refueling Squadron supplied four pairs of KB-29M tankers to refuel the aircraft four times while in flight through a technique developed initially by the British. The fuel delivery aircraft (KB-29M) would fly above and forward of the receiver aircraft (B-50A), and the crew would unreel a long refueling hose. The crew of the receiving aircraft would extend an apparatus from the rear of the aircraft designed to snag the trailing hose. Once the crew captured the fuel hose, they connected it to the refueling manifold, completed the transfer, and released the hose for recovery by the tanker crew. For this outstanding flight, the Lucky Lady II crew received numerous awards and decorations. Foremost among these recognitions were the award of the Mackay Trophy, given annually by the National Aeronautic Association for the outstanding flight of the year, and the Air Age Trophy, an Air Force Association award, given each year in recognition of significant contributions to the public understanding of the air age. The Air Age Trophy was later renamed the Hoyt S. Vandenberg Trophy in honor of the second USAF Chief of Staff. The success of the mission of the Lucky Lady II demonstrated even more rapid flight capability, supported by the fledgling ability to refuel in flight, and the ability to project global power through the USAF's Strategic Air Command.
For further information, see the Air Force Museum web page on Lucky Lady II.
Lucky Lady III
The third USAF "Lucky Lady," a B-52B commanded by Lieutenant Colonel James H. Morris who had served as a copilot on the Lucky Lady II flight in 1949, departed from Castle Air Force Base, California on 16 January 1957. Five aircraft, including two spares, began the flight, under the command of Major General Archie J. Old, Jr, of the Fifteenth Air Force. One bomber, unable to take on fuel at the first in-flight refueling rendezvous with KC-97s, landed at Goose Bay Air Base, Labrador; the second spare continued with the main flight until after it received the second in flight refueling over Casablanca, Morocco, when it left the group and landed at Brize Norton RAF Station, England, according to plan. After three additional in flight refuelings, the Lucky Lady III and its two companions completed the trip without incident on 18 January 1957. All three bombers landed at March Air Force Base, California, after having completed the 24,325 mile flight in 45 hours and 19 minutes--less than half the time required on the Lucky Lady II flight conducted some eight years earlier.
General Curtis E. LeMay, the commander of Strategic Air Command, attended to personally congratulate the crews and to present each with the Distinguished Flying Cross. General LeMay noted that the flight was a "demonstration of SAC's capabilities to strike any target on the face of the earth." Subsequently, the National Aeronautic Association recognized Operation Power Flight as the outstanding flight of 1957 and named the 93rd Bombardment Wing as recipient of the MacKay Trophy.
See the AFHSO publication: 75 Years of In Flight Refueling: Highlights 1923-1998
, by Richard K. Smith.
See the on-line article by Air Force Historian Ellery D. Wallwork: Development of the Modern Air Refueling Aircraft.
Reviewed by AFHSO Historian, Dr. Deborah Kidwell.