Entering service the same year as the more famous U-2, the RB-57D helped fill the U.S. Air Force's need for a strategic reconnaissance aircraft that could fly high enough to avoid interception. In 1956 Martin delivered the first RB-57D to the 4025th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron (Light) of the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (Light). From 1956-1960, the 4025th SRS(L), known as the "Black Knights," flew many classified reconnaissance missions around the world.
Perhaps the most noteworthy mission took place Dec. 11, 1956, when three RB-57Ds overflew the city of Vladivostock in the Soviet Union in broad daylight. The ensuing protest by the Soviets led President Dwight D. Eisenhower to end military overflights of the USSR (later U-2 missions were flown by the CIA). Even so, RB-57Ds continued to fly reconnaissance missions along the border of the Soviet Union and over other nations.
Although the RB-57D could carry a larger payload, and fly faster (and nearly as high) as the U-2, the USAF stopped using it as a strategic reconnaissance aircraft in 1960 due to wing failures. Some RB-57Ds, however, continued to fly weather reconnaissance, atomic air sampling and air defense training missions until the last aircraft was retired in 1970.
The RB-57D differed significantly from the earlier B-57 bomber. The RB-57D's much longer wings had a lightweight, honeycomb internal structure, and its more powerful engines provided a total of 6,000 pounds more thrust. Martin built 20 RB-57Ds in three variants: 13 single-seat photoreconnaissance aircraft (seven of which could be refueled in mid-air), one single-seat radar mapping aircraft, and six two-seat electronic reconnaissance aircraft.
Remarkably, there was an even larger B-57 reconnaissance version, the 122-foot wingspan RB-57F. Beginning in 1963, General Dynamics converted 21 B-57 airframes (four of them RB-57Ds) into RB-57Fs. These aircraft performed missions similar to the RB-57D, and the last USAF-operated RB-57F was retired in the early 1970s.
This RB-57D (S/N 53-3982) is one of the 13 photoreconnaissance RB-57Ds. Painted as it appeared in the late 1950s while it served in the 4025th SRS(L), it went on display in 2004.
TECHNICAL NOTES: Engines: Two Pratt & Whitney J57-P-27 with 10,500 lbs. thrust each Maximum Speed: 513 mph Range: 3,115 miles (unrefueled) Ceiling: 67,900 ft. Wingspan: 106 ft.