Saturday, December 13, 2014

Recon Superforts over Alaska

The Archive recently acquired three origial 8x10 prints from the late 1940s that feature specially-outfitted reconnaissance Superfortresses in flight over Alaska. The two shown here are backstamped "Air Force Photo, 72 RCN. SQ. (VLR) PHOTO" and are dated Sep 18, 1948. The third, which features the infamous F-13 The Clobbered Turkey, will be featured in an upcoming article.
The lead plane's s/n is illegible, left wing is 45-21762 and right wing is 45-21773, Leaking Lena

The Boeing F-13 was a little-known variant of the B-29 Superfortress. In an era when fighter planes had "P" for "Pursuit" numbers, the Army Air Forces used the "F" designation for aircraft dedicated to photo reconnaissance. One hundred eighteen early B-29-BW and B-29A Superfortresses were converted to F-13/F-13A photo reconnaissance aircraft (later changed first to FB-29J and then to RB-29), and were equipped with six high powered cameras, three 9"x9" K-17Bs, two 9x9 K-22 and a 9x18 K-18. Some were assigned to the 46th Reconnaissance Squadron (Very Long Range, Photographic), which was activated on June 1, 1946 and was based at Ladd Army Airfield, Fairbanks Alaska. On October 13, 1947, the squadron was redesignated the 72nd Reconnaissance Squadron.

The Squadron was part of the newly-formed Strategic Air Command, and participated in a number of early SAC efforts, including Project NANOOK, as well as the subsequent LEOPARD. Their mission was to provide long range reconnaissance over the Arctic, especially along the Soviet Union's northern border. The unit was also tasked with deep-penetration reconnaissance missions over Soviet Union territory, which were kept classified Top Secret until 2001.

In order to accomplish its mission, the 46th/72nd RS pioneered a number of techniques, including the configuration of the aircraft (of eighteen B-29s that the squadron acquired, it converted eight of them to the F-13 configuration), and the Grid System of navigation for use in the polar environment where magnetic compasses were unreliable. Besides The Clobbered Turkey, the squadron also was home to another famous F-13A, Kee Bird. One of the F-13, 45-21848 (possibly shown in the photo below), was the first aircraft on record to fly over the geographic North Pole, on October 16, 1946.

The image's focus is not sufficiently clear to distinguish the tail numbers (see below), so I'll let you, the reader, try to guess which is which. That being said, the closest plane to the camera is possibly 45-21848, which was the first aircraft to fly over the geographic North Pole. Note the enlarged structure in place of the tail gunner's station on the lead plane...I'm guessing that it houses some additional electronics, since these were recon birds.


  1. Hello,

    I have some original VLR 46th and 72nd recon photos that I would love to share.

    1. Fantastic, I would be more than happy to host your photos on the blog...please give me a shout at airphotoservices at gmail and lets talk about how best to get them up.