This Week in Military History: March 2nd – Lucky Lady II Circles the Globe
The February 26 to March 2nd, 1949 flight of the Lucky Lady II was an amazing and marvelous feat of engineering, courage, and dedication. It demonstrated the usefulness of America’s young Air Force, then-newest branch of the military. It marked the most impressive usage of the relatively new concept of mid-air refueling thus far. It was an inspiring show of calm, calculated, can-do spirit that is a hallmark of great aviators. And it proved the United States could nuke the heck out of anywhere on the planet. So the first ever non-stop flight around the world served a lot of different purposes.
The First Lucky Lady
Lucky Lady II, a Boeing B-50 Superfortress, was then an aircraft of the 43rd Bombardment Group, the precursor to today’s 43rd Air Mobility Operations Group. Her namesake, the first bomber dubbed Lucky Lady, was a B-29 out of the same unit and one of three planes the Air Force sent on a mission to attempt an aerial circumnavigation (with multiple stops) in two weeks or less in the summer of 1948. The attempt was unsuccessful; the Lucky Lady and one of her partner aircraft made the journey in 15 days while the third crashed in the Arabian Sea.
But with the swift improvements being made to aerospace technologies in the early days of the Cold War, the Air Force was ready to try an even more ambitious trip around the world just a few months later. One with no stops at all. And that plane was: not the Lucky Lady II. She was, in fact, a backup plane. On February 25th a different B-50 with the mission of circling the world without touching down, the Global Queen, took off from Carswell Air Force Base outside Fort Worth, Texas and headed east. But a fire broke out in her engine over the Atlantic and she was forced to land (successfully, thankfully) in the Azores.
Lucky Lady II‘s Circumnavigation
The next day it was Lucky Lady II’s turn. She’d already been prepped for the attempt by having an extra fuel tank installed in her bomb bay. She would also be manned by two full crews and three pilots throughout the flight so the men could rotate over the course of the journey. In overall command of the mission was 28-year-old Captain James Gallagher, already a veteran of WWII and Korea.
At 12:21pm on February 26th, Lucky Lady II and the fourteen airmen aboard her took off from Carswell. At 10:31am on March 2nd, she landed safely back at the very same airfield two minutes ahead of her calculated schedule. She had passed the control tower, marking the official point of complete circumnavigation, nine minutes earlier. The plane had remained in continuous flight for 94 hours, 1 minute and traveled 23,452 miles at an average speed of 249mph. She’d undergone four midair refuelings: once over the Atlantic, once over the Middle East, and twice over the Pacific. The crewmen were happy, healthy, and, by all accounts, exhausted.
Significance for Military Aviation
The flight was hailed as a triumph and a demonstration of what midair refueling could mean for future operations. Every member of the crew was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Secretary of the Air Force William Stuart Symington was on hand at Carswell to personally welcome them back to the ground. Also there was the then-commander of Strategic Air Command Lieutenant General Curtis LeMay who told reporters the mission’s success showed that bombers taking off from the continental US could fly “any place in the world that required the atomic bomb.” Because yes, it was a science and engineering achievement, but it was also a military operation and the Cold War was in full swing by then.
Where is Lucky Lady II Now?
As for the Lucky Lady II herself, she was badly damaged in a crash in August of 1950, near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. The crew aboard her that day survived without injury aside from the bombardier, who was scratched when the plexiglass nose of the plane shattered on impact. Not by the glass, but by a chunk of cactus that flew in and struck him. Because that’s what happens when you crash in Arizona. With her tail snapped off, bottom smashed up, and propellers busted, the world-circling aircraft was, alas, written off by the Air Force. But her fuselage is on display at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California. So you can still see much of the first craft to circle the globe solely from the air.
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