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The Air Force Made the 1st Nonstop Round-the-World Flight

Feb. 26, 2020 | BY Katie Lange, DOD News

The mid-air refueling of supersonic jets and other aircraft by tankers is standard in the U.S. military nowadays, but those capabilities took years to shape and refine. Three lucky ladies helped develop the process -- especially Lucky Lady II, the first airplane to circle the globe nonstop.

A 1940s-era bomber aircraft with the number 6010 on its tail sits on the tarmac.
Lucky Lady II
The B-50A Superfortress known as Lucky Lady II, of the Air Force’s 43rd Bomb Group, visits Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.
Photo By: Air Force
VIRIN: 061025-F-1234S-035A

At the beginning of the Cold War, the newly created U.S. Air Force wanted to prove its global reach and power. In July 1948, the service sent three B-29 Superfortresses – including the original Lucky Lady -- to circle the globe. The mission took 15 days and eight refueling stops. It was a success, but it wasn’t groundbreaking.

That trip came months later, and not by the plane everyone expected.

By late February 1949, the 43rd Bombardment Group was ready to send a plane on its first nonstop flight around the globe. Global Queen, a B-50A Superfortress, began the journey on Feb. 25, but due to engine issues, it was forced to land in the Azores.

From the AFHSO publication: 75 Years of Inflight Refueling by Richard K. Smith.
Lucky Lady II.
From the AFHSO publication: 75 Years of Inflight Refueling by Richard K. Smith.
Photo By: Richard K. Smith.
VIRIN: 130408-D-LN615-003

A day later, the Lucky Lady II swooped in as backup. Air Force Capt. James Gallagher and 13 other airmen took off in the B-50A from Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas, and flew into the history books.

Mid-Air Refueling

Four pairs of KB-29M tankers from the 43rd Air Refueling Squadron were tasked with keeping Lucky Lady II in the air. Using a process developed by the British, the KB-29Ms would fly above and ahead of Lucky Lady II as crews unspooled a long refueling hose. Lucky Lady II then extended an apparatus from the craft’s rear, snagging the tanker’s hose. The B-50’s crew attached the hose to the refueling manifold, transferred the fuel and then released the hose so that the tanker could pull it back.

Lucky Lady II Flight Map for first non-stop around-the-world flight, 2 March 1949;
Lucky Lady II Flight Map
Lucky Lady II Flight Map for first non-stop around-the-world flight, 2 March 1949;
VIRIN: 100105-F-1156C-004

The Lucky Lady II refueled over the Azores, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and Hawaii before its March 2 return to Carswell – now known as Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base. They made the 23,452-mile trip in 94 hours and 1 minute.

Despite the loss of one tanker in a crash over the Philippines, the mission succeeded in showing that U.S. airpower could reach around the world. While the flight wasn’t a record in duration or distance, Lucky Lady II highlighted Strategic Air Command’s rapid flight capabilities and proved that aerial refueling was practical.

Each crewmember on the flight received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service. The crew also earned the National Aeronautic Association’s Mackay Trophy and the Air Force Association’s Air Age Trophy.

Lucky Lady II crew members are greeted by Air Secretary Stuart Symington and Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg following the first non-stop flight around the world.
Lucky Lady II welcome
Lucky Lady II crew members are greeted by Air Secretary Stuart Symington and Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg following the first non-stop flight around the world.
VIRIN: 100105-F-1156C-009

Development Boom

Lucky Lady II’s mission launched a flying boom and spawned the development of faster transfer systems.

On Jan. 16, 1957, Lucky Lady III, a B-52B Stratofortress, completed a 24,325-mile round-the-world journey that included five mid-air refuels in under 46 hours – less than half the time it took its predecessor to make the journey in 1949.

In 1986, all the Lucky Lady flights were upstaged when Voyager -- an ultralight airplane that held more than seven times its weight in fuel -- made it around the world without refueling.

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Remnants of a Legend

Not long after its famous flight, Lucky Lady II was damaged in an accident. What was left of it was salvaged and used as a recruiting tool during a cross-country tour. Eventually, its fuselage went to the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California, where it remains on display today.

Always remember that technology had to start somewhere!