This Day in History: Lucky Lady II & the first non-stop trip around the globe
On this day in 1949, a B-50 bomber embarks on a historic non-stop trip around the globe. The Cold War was just beginning, and the flight was a huge triumph.
That flight put Russia on notice: Mess with the United States at your own peril. Americans can reach any city on the planet if war breaks out. “[W]e have an international air force,” General Hoyt Vandenberg told reporters after the plane landed on March 2.
Lucky Lady II completed the flight, but she wasn’t supposed to be the one making the trip. She got called in because the primary aircraft, Global Queen, couldn’t finish the task. Instead, engine trouble over the Atlantic had forced Global Queen to make an emergency landing at the Azores islands.
It was Lucky Lady’s turn. She took off from Texas the very next morning. The crew was given only three hours’ notice that they were needed.
In a funny twist, one of Lucky Lady’s pilots had to cancel a Saturday night dinner engagement because of the last minute trip. “Did you tell the [dinner] party that you were going around the world?” a reporter later asked. “No,” the pilot responded. “I just said I was going to be busy and couldn’t make it.”
It was what he had to do. The trip was being conducted in secret—and that secrecy continued even after Lucky Lady departed on February 26. “[T]he Air Force worked out an elaborate system for filing dummy flight plans,” a writer for the Air Force Magazine later described. “The Lady was to switch tail numbers with a tanker at each refueling point to give the impression that it was going only a short distance. The Air Force wanted to be able to publicize a spectacular success, not have to explain a costly failure.”
Lucky Lady took off with 14 crew members on board; they would spend the next few days working in shifts. Four mid-air refueling operations were planned. The first of these was completed smoothly, but the second refueling was “hairy,” in the words of one crew member. Lucky Lady had been refueling over Saudi Arabia when a sandstorm sprung up unexpectedly. Dust was kicked up even higher than 13,000 feet.
“Believe that was a first,” Captain Gallagher later said dryly. “Refueling on instruments.”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it. A third refueling attempt near the Philippines ran into trouble when a tanker and Lucky Lady were pulled apart unexpectedly (possibly because of turbulence). A winch on Lucky Lady broke, prompting the need for an in-flight repair. Fortunately, the fourth and final refueling by Hawaii went much more smoothly.
The long flight was pushing Lucky Lady to her limits, and her crew was coping with problems such as engine temperatures that were occasionally rising too high. But she was in the homestretch. Early on March 2, she finally arrived at Carswell Air Force Base near Fort Worth, Texas. She had traveled a whopping 23,452 miles in just under four days.
It was a tremendous triumph, but there was a cloud, too. One of the refueling tankers never made it home; it crashed as it tried to return to the Philippines. The entire crew was lost.
Those men had given their lives in service to our country, yet their sacrifice would be forever lost in the shadows of what Lucky Lady had accomplished.
A bittersweet moment, to say the very least.
Air Force Sees B-50 Flight as Argument against Far Bases, Navy Super-Carrier: 3 Hours’ Notice to Crew that it was to Fly around the World (St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Mar. 3, 1949)
Bruce D. Callander, Lucky Lady II (Air Force Magazine; March 1999) (reprinted HERE)
Fly Non-Stop Around World 23,453 Miles in 94-Hour Epic: “Lucky Lady II” Refuels Four Times While in Air (Ottawa Journal; Mar. 2, 1949)
Patrick M. Stinson, Around-the-World Flights: A History (2011)
Plane Circles Globe Non-Stop: U.S. Bomber in Air 94 Hours: History-Making B-50 Refueled in Flight; 23,452 Miles Covered (Pittsburgh Press; Mar. 2, 1949)
Push Search for B-29 Tanker: 9 Men Aboard Missing Ship (Tucson Daily Citizen; Mar. 3, 1949)