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In 1957, The U.S. Flew a Jet Around the World to Prove it Could Drop a Nuclear Bomb Anywhere

The B-52 bomber that made the flight was part of a new bomber class that was still proving its worth

An early B-52. (US Air Force)
smithsonian.com

It was a lot of effort just to prove a point.

On this day in 1957, James Morris did something nobody had ever done before: he commanded a convoy of jet planes all 24,874 miles around the Earth without landing to refuel. Morris was in the lead plane plan in a convoy of five, three of which made it all the way to their destination, writes Brian Bethel for the Abilene Reporter-News.

Although this mission is described by the Air Force as “by far the most colorful and perhaps the most important of all peacetime operations ever undertaken by the United States Air Force,” Morris told Bethel in 2014 that he remembered the historic flight as just another day at work.

But although the mission, dubbed “Operation Power Flite,” was done partly to test out new methods of refueling, there was another motive: to prove that the United States could drop a nuclear bomb anywhere on Earth, and it wouldn’t even take that long for the B-52 jets used to reach their target.

The flight took 45 hours and 19 minutes, writes Bethel, and in the words of a Life magazine article from later that month, “shrank the world.”

It wasn’t Morris’s first time setting records with the B-52 either, he writes. A year before, the pilot and flight instructor commanded the bomber in Operation Quick Kick, which involved eight bombers making non-stop flights around the perimeter of North America.

Nicknamed the "Stratofortress," the B-52 was at first plagued by problems, even killing crew members, writes Steve Melito for Engineering 360

“Although the B-52B enjoyed some positive publicity after a Stratofortress dropped a hydrogen bomb over Bikini Atoll on May 21, 1956, an investigative reporter named P.D. Eldred threatened to expose more information about the aircraft’s inadequacies,” Melito writes. When General Curtis LeMay heard about the reporter sniffing around, he planned Operations Quick Kick and Power Flite to show what the B-52 could do.

After their round-the-globe success, “The three Power Flite bomber crews received enormous attention,” according to an Air Force release. “The crew of Lucky Lady III rode a float in President Eisenhower’s inaugural parade just two days after the mission and appeared on several nationwide television programs.”

They even got an award, Bethdel writes. Auring the ceremony, according to the Air Force, General LeMay told them the flight demonstrated Strategic Air Command’s “capabilities to strike any target on the face of the Earth.”

“The world was kind of put on tiptoes as far as nuclear weapons were concerned,” Morris told Bethdel. Eager to prove its nuclear strength, the United States was eager to show off what its weapons could do: but on the way, it also made flight innovations like in-the-air refueling for planes that have had impact after the Cold War as well.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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