Armament on 7406th RB-50s

When the 7406th Support Squadron was created in May 1955, along with the other two squadrons of the new 7499th Support Group, it was given two secret missions. Operating from Rhein-Main AB outside Frankfurt in central West Germany, it was to employ as its first mission three Boeing RB-50 reconnaissance bombers to collect radar imagery for use in guiding Martin TM-61 Matador tactical cruise missiles. The equipment was called ATRAN (Automatic Terrain Recognition and Navigation). The project name was Half Track. The second mission was to employ five other RB-50s to collect communications intelligence (COMINT) by flying long hours at altitude off hostile borders and coasts in the European theater. This especially sensitive mission had the project name Dream Boat.

Both Half Track and Dream Boat RB-50s were veterans of Strategic Air Command (SAC) reconnaissance units and had been especially modified for their missions. The RB-50 was a modified version of the Boeing B-50 medium bomber, itself a much-improved development of the B-29 bomber of late-World War II vintage. The B-50s had been the main SAC medium bomber from the late 1940s until the new B-47 jet medium bomber entered the SAC inventory in large numbers. SAC had used its reconnaissance B-50s for many long photo, ELINT, and COMINT collection missions along the borders and coasts of hostile territory (and occasionally into denied territory) from 1952 on. For these missions they retained the defensive armament of the B-29: four remotely-controlled turrets (upper and lower forward, and upper and lower aft), and a manned tail gun position. The upper forward turret had four .50-caliber machine guns, the other three turrets had two .50-caliber machine guns each, and the tail position had two or three .50 caliber machine guns.

When we published an article about the ATRAN mission last year, we enclosed a photo of RB-50 number 49-307, a 7406th bird, which showed it completely devoid of armament. The historian for the 7406th Association, Al Rasimas, wrote me and noted this. He also said the RB-50 veterans of the 7406th had told him their aircraft were always armed. So I did some research and found out that both pieces of information are correct. The RB-50s did carry their armament on collection missions. Note the adjacent photo of 7406th RB-50 47-136 on the wash rack at Rhein-Main in April 1958, just before it was to depart the 7406th for its next assignment. Noticeable is the upper front turret with its four .50 cal guns.

7406th B-50
7406th B-50 Aircraft #07-136

Note next the photo of the "clean" RB-50 49-307. This shot was taken on a visit to a British base, RAF Bovingdon, on 3 October 1957. This aircraft had been one of the Half Track ATRAN birds, but when that program was cancelled in 1956 and the other ATRAN aircraft left Rhein-Main, #307 was retained as a flight trainer for the other RB-50 crews. It was during this time that the photo below was taken.

Clean RB-50
The "clean" 49-307

The aircraft had been stripped of its armament, as well as its external fuel tanks, for its training mission. Before long it was relegated to ground duties, being reportedly used mainly as a serviceable engine stand. It was also a source of needed spare parts for the operational aircraft. Eventually, in August 1958, it was flown back to the US to join the 1707th Air Transport Wing (MATS) at Palm Beach, Florida. In January 1960 it was deleted from the AF inventory.

Although the operational RB-50s retained their armament and carried gunners as crewmembers, I get the sense from the unit histories that it was very difficult for the gunners to gain and maintain proficiency in their craft. Not a lot of time appears to have been allocated for such training. Furthermore, during 1957 and 1958, the years that the 7406th had its RB-50s, there were no reported instances where the guns had been used, or even threatened to be used, against hostile aircraft.

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