Tulsa Cold War Aviation Meant Big Planes and Bigger Stakes
By CHARLES CANTRELL
BIG BOMBERS IN THE BIG BOMBER PLANT: During the ‘50s Tulsa’s Douglas Plant under license from Boeing Aviation built B-47 Stratojets, the first generation of bombers for the Cold War era design to fly great distances with a nuclear payload.
Courtesy Tulsa Air & Space Museum
Editor’s Note: This is the 13th article in a multi-part series about the growth of the aviation industry in greater Tulsa and throughout the region. The series explores the many unique contributions made by Tulsans to what has become a major aspect of the area economy. The editors of GTR Newspapers want to acknowledge and thank the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and the Tulsa Historic Society for research assistance and the use of many of the historic photos that accompany these articles.
One of the great paradoxes of post World War II was that in the United States it soon became the best of times while in much of the rest of the war-ravaged world efforts to set things right began ominous events fermenting that would eventually affect Tulsa’s aviation industry.
Tulsa and the rest of America’s best of times came about in the late 1940s and 1950s as a result of many positive developments not the least of which was the economic parity brought on by an emerging middle class holding down good paying jobs that provided unprecedented purchasing power to many everyday Americans. The manufacturing sector, geared up as it was for wartime weapon making, retooled itself and focused on creating life enhancing domestic products for the middle class to purchase. America’s automobile manufacturers ruled the world when it came to car design trends and technology. Airplane manufacturers, Tulsa based American Airlines included, were busy applying wartime aviation advances to making bigger, better, more economical and reliable planes for the rapidly growing domestic air travel market. It was the time of veterans going to college on the GI Bill, television shows called “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” school children practicing duck and cover to avoid the catastrophic effects of a nuclear bomb attack and a war hero turned president, Dwight D. Eisenhower running the show with quiet, steady confidence in between golfing outings. By most accounts it was a blissful time for a victorious country. But even Tulsa could not escape the repercussions stemming from the world’s effort to recover in the aftermath of the War.
As early as 1945, war-torn Europe began to divide ideologically on either side of a line Winston Churchill popularized as the “Iron Curtain.” The Eastern Bloc countries under the leadership of Russia evolved into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The spoils of war were divided in such a way as to set the stage for a new kind of war: a Cold War between the self-proclaimed free world and the communist world. It was a war without battles in the traditional sense, but not without weapons. It would begin an arms race that would impact aviation in a big way including Tulsa’s aviation industry.
The World War II years and the aftermath changed Tulsa’s mindset. The city began to see itself more in international terms. The plentiful oil from nearby Glenn Pool and other area reserves had poured out across the globe to fuel the war effort and made a significant contribution to the allied victory. The city’s aviation industry with its history of achievements and its well developed workforce and infrastructure had repeatedly proven itself worthy enough to play a vital role in the next big thing in aviation: warplanes to implement the United States defensive nuclear deterrent strategy during the Cold War era.
In 1949 an Oklahoman by the name of Harold C. Stuart, who held the title of Assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force by virtue of his exemplary WWII service in Europe attached to Air Force Operational Intelligence, was instrumental in bringing Douglas Aircraft Company back to Tulsa. Boeing Aviation was contracted by the Air Force to develop a new generation of jet-propelled bombers capable of delivering nuclear weapons to far off destinations. Stewart played a hand in getting Tulsa’s Air Force Plant Number 3 (aka the Big Bomber Plant, aka the Douglas Plant) chosen as the location to build the new bombers under license from Boeing.
The B-47 Stratojet was America’s first strategic jet bomber of the Cold War and incorporated the latest innovations in aircraft engineering design and technology. The bomber was designed to fly fast and long, carrying a nuclear payload into Russian airspace. Its large, thin, sweep back wings; its powerful General Electric jet engine pods mounted below the wings and its fuselage mounted, bicycle landing gear along with many other cutting edge features became models for commercial aircraft manufacturers to incorporate into a new generation of airplanes for domestic travel. It took a sophisticated, experienced and skilled workforce to build the high tech warplanes for the new kind of war and Tulsa’s aviation industry was up to the task.
The country’s first aviation foray into the nuclear deterrent strategy of the Cold War was built in the Oil Capital of the World at Air Force Plant Number 3 and this ushered in a series of military contracts for Douglas to provide maintenance services for the bigger, better and faster military aircraft to come after the B-47, such as the B-50 and B-52 bombers, A-4 Skyhawks, F-4 Phantoms and others. Tulsa Municipal Airport’s main runway was extended 10,000 feet to serve larger military aircraft. During the late 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s, Tulsans were often treated to the sight of the large silhouette against a blue sky of a lumbering B-52 descending onto the runway of Tulsa Municipal for scheduled maintenance.
It was the best of times for Tulsa’s economy, but in many ways the worst of times for its psychic. The world was shrinking fast due in large measure to the advancements made in aviation creating an ever-decreasing timeline for getting from point A to point B. Looming on the horizon and soon to be realized was the added threat of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of delivering weapons of unimaginable mass destruction halfway around the world in a matter of minutes. Tulsa could no longer think of itself as an autonomous midwestern city isolated from world events. Sure, families could afford a bright new Chevy Impala, an RCA color television or a Whirlpool washer only to go to sleep at night wondering what the morning would bring. Would it all be vaporized in a nanosecond from a nuclear exchange with the USSR? Contrasting feelings of optimism, comfort, fear and trepidation ruled the times. Tulsans were very much like the rest of America in that regard with one notable difference. Its aviation industry had positioned the city to play a vital role in helping deter a Cold War from becoming the last war ever.
The next installment in the series will deal with the many successful aviation support industries that grew out of Tulsa’s aviation industry over the years.