RB-45C Tornado loss in
Korea remains a mystery

by Robert F. Dorr
Special to the Times

This article originally appeared in Air Force Times and is reprinted here
with permission. For more information about Air Force Times, or to read
other columns and articles by Mr. Dorr, go to www. AirForceTimes.com

As the Korean War heated up in late 1950, the Air Force decided to send a trio of jet-propelled North American RB-45C Tornado reconnaissance planes into combat. They were developed from the B-45, which was the first operational American jet bomber and made its maiden flight in 1947.

RB-45C — Photo ctsy. Robert F. Dorr

A B-45A squadron was formed at Barksdale Air Force Base, La, the following year. A proposed B-45B version was never built and only a handful of B-45C models were completed as bombers.

In atmospheric nuclear tests in the Pacific in 1951 and 1952, the B-45 dropped real atomic bombs twice. Both times, the weapon was the Mark 7 warhead intended for the Thor missile.

The B-45 made the first-ever European deployment of tactical nuclear weapons from Langley Air Force Base, Va. to Sculthorpe, England, in 1954.

But an early decision was taken to shift the plane's job from bombing to reconnaissance. As a result, most of the Tornados in service were RB-45C models. They were powered by four General Electric J47-GE-13/15 turbojet engines, reached a maximum speed of 570 m.p.h., and were armed with two 50-cal. M-7 machineguns in a tail turret.

In September 1950, three RB-45Cs reached Yokota Air Base, Japan. They belonged to Detachment "A" of the 84th Bomb Squadron, 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing.

Compared with propeller-driven planes, the RB-45C could carry more fuel and more cameras and fly faster. Tornados embarked on risky night-photography missions, often flying out to a radius of 500 miles or more, searching out targets and evading radar-directed antiaircraft guns.

The Soviet-built MiG-15 jet fighter appeared in Korea weeks after the RB-45C. On December 4, 1950, an RB-45C piloted by Capt. Charles E. McDonough disappeared. Today, Russian records confirm that a MiG shot down the RB-45C. At the time, McDonough's wife Mary Jo in Glen Rose, Tex. received a telegram saying only that the plane had disappared.

RB-45C — Photo ctsy. Robert F. Dorr

Also aboard were Col. John R. Lovell, a Pentagon intelligence officer, Capt. Jules E. Young, the co-pilot, and 1st Lt, James J. Picucci, the navigator. There was no crew seat for Lovell and his role has never been explained. He was the highest-ranking intelligence officer lost during the Korean War.

Declassified records confirm that the Soviets assigned high priority to capturing an RB-45C or interrogating crew members. In an August 3 interview, the pilot's daughter, Jeanne McDonough Dear, of Fort Worth, Tex., said she has evidence that her father initially survived the shootdown and was, at one time, alive in Soviet hands. A 1996 British Broadcasting Company television program featured a former Soviet official who claimed to have interrogated Lovell. The men’s fate remains unresolved.

Dubbed by another pilot "a highly classified aircraft. jammed with the most modern reconnaissance-gathering apparatus available," the RB-45C continued its hush-hush snooping in the Korean War. One of them acquired a unique paint scheme to foil the searchlights used by North Koreans to guide MiGs at night. In addition to Korean War flying, RB-45Cs conducted intelligence flights over China and the Russian port of Vladivostok. The RB-45C Tornados performed their mission superbly but the loss of one aircraft remained a heavy blow to all involved.

RB-45Cs also operated in Europe during the Cold War. A handful were flown on penetrations of Soviet airspace by British crews after the aircraft were temporarily painted in Royal Air Force markings.

Robert F. Dorr can be reached at robert.f.dorr@cox.net

End of Robert F. Dorr Story

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