Martin RB-57F

Last revised March 22, 2020

The RB-57F was the result of a early-1960s program to produce a virtually new high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft out of the B-57. The General Dynamics Corporation had a contract for the maintenance of the RB-57D aircraft, and in 1962, with wing spar problems having grounded most of the RB-57D fleet, the USAF approached General Dynamics to see if it would be possible to make a new reconnaissance aircraft out of the B-57--one with better all-round performance, higher payload capacity, and in particular an extended fatigue life. In October of 1962, the Fort Worth Division of General Dynamics was given a contract for the development of two redesigned aircraft under the designation RB-57F.

The wing of the RB-57F was an entirely new, three-spar structure with a span of 122 feet. Extensive use was made of honeycomb sandwich panels, which had originally been developed by Convair for the B-58 Hustler supersonic bomber. All of the fuel was carried inside the wings outboard of the engines. The large wing had a marked anhedral, and had a set of ailerons inset at mid-span that were supplemented by spoilers. All control surfaces had tightly sealed gaps in order to reduce drag, and there were no wing flaps. The aircraft was fitted with larger vertical tail surfaces. These surfaces were twice as large as those of the standard B-57.

The RB-57F was powered by a pair of 18,000 lb.s.t. Pratt & Whitney TF33-P-11A turbofans, which gave the RB-57F more than twice the power of its predecessors. In addition, provision was made for a 3300 lb.s.t. Pratt & Whitney J60-P-9 turbojet housed in a detachable pod underneath each wing. These auxiliary engines did not have starters, and were air-started after takeoff after windmilling up to 12 percent rpm. They remained at idling RPM up to 32,000 feet altitude, where throttling control started becoming effective. Full throttle could be used at altitudes above 40,000 feet. The J60s added approximately 2500 feet to the maximum ceiling. However, the J60s could be removed for maximum range missions.

There were four underwing hardpoints, all of which could be used to carry external stores when the turbojets were mot mounted. The RB-57F could carry a two-ton HTAC high-altitude reconnaissance camera. Special ELINT/SIGINT equipment could be carried in the modified nose and in the plastic wingtip sections.

The crew was two, and the cockpit layout was the same as that of the standard B-57. The cockpit was provided with a modified Lear MC-1 autopilot.

The first RB-57F flew on June 23, 1963. Such were the extent of the modifications that new serial numbers for fiscal year 1963 were assigned to the modified aircraft

Late in 1963, the first two RB-57Fs went for operational trials with the 7407th Combat Support Wing at Rhein-Main air base in Germany. They carried out a series of high-altitude reconnaissance flights along the East German border and over the Baltic. In February 1964, following these trials, they were transferred to the 58th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at Kirtland AFB in New Mexico.

Following the completion of the first two aircraft, the USAF awarded a contract to General Dynamics for the construction of 19 more RB-57Fs. Most of them were converted from B-57B airframes that were still on active duty, but four were converted from RB-57Ds that were taken out of storage, and three were converted from RB-57A aircraft by using spare B-57B nose sections. Production was completed in March of 1967.

Most of the RB-57Fs were assigned to the 9th Weather Reconnaissance Wing at McLelland AFB in California. There were four squadrons--the 55th, 56th, 57th and 58th WRS. All of these RB-57Fs were assigned to the meteorological role. Part of their duties involved high-altitude atmospheric sampling and radiation detection work in support of nuclear test monitoring.

The RB-57F also had a secondary reconnaissance role and could be called upon to carry out this mission should the need ever arise. Four of the 19 RB-57Fs were operated as reconnaissance aircraft, two being based at Yokota and two with the 7407th Combat Support Wing at Rhein-Main in Germany. On December 14, 1965, one of the RB-57Fs (63-13287) operating out of Rhein-Main was lost during a mission over the Black Sea. What actually happened is still uncertain. There were reports that the aircraft had been shot down by a Soviet SAM, but at the time, the official word let out by the USAF was that the aircraft crew had probably perished from an oxygen system failure, since it took over an hour for the aircraft to spiral down from altitude and fall into the Black Sea. Although 7 or 8 days were spent searching for the wreck, only small bits and pieces of wreckage were ever found. However, there were also reports that the two crewmembers were captured alive by the Soviets, with their ultimate fate being uncertain.

In 1968, the Air Weather Service's RB-57Fs were redesignated WB-57F. They continued to be used in the atmospheric sampling role, mostly on behalf of the US Atomic Energy Commission. Some RB-57Fs were fitted with probes to scoop up airborne particles in a program of ongoing monitoring of nuclear tests. Most of this activity was centered on nuclear tests carried out in China, but some were also used in US air space to monitor air in the aftermath of underground nuclear tests. At least one WB-57F was used for research into airborne laser equipment.

Two USAF RB-57Fs were deployed to Pakistan shortly before the 1965 war with India. The original reason for the deployment to Pakistan was to monitor Chinese nuclear tests, which had begun in October of 1964. The aircraft were flown by USAF crews during these operations. One of the RB-57Fs was returned to the USA before the outbreak of hostilities with India, but the other remained. With US agreement, the RB-57F was operated by No 24 Squadron of the Pakistan Air Force and was based at Mauripur near Karachi. During the 1965 war with India, it carried out daily sorties over IAF airfields at altitudes of up to 65,000 feet. The RB-57F was locally modified to carry a 4000-lb bombload, but it was never actually operated in a bombing role. On some occasions, the RB-57F operated alongside a pair of B-57Bs that were jamming Indian radio transmission and were monitoring the location of the Indian Army's mobile radar installations. All three aircraft were involved in directing attacks on the Indian radar station at Amritsar, and during these operations one of the B-57Bs was shot down in error by Pakistani AAA. On September 15, the RB-57F was fired upon by a pair of SA-2 SAMs while it was beginning its descent towards Peshawar from Ambala. The SAMs exploded near the RB-57F, causing extensive structural damage, but the aircraft was able to make a successful forced landing at Peshawar. The aircraft was repaired by Pakistan and later returned to the USA.

Stress cracks began appearing in the wing spars and ribs of the RB-57Fs after a few years of service. Some were sent to General Dynamics for repairs. Due to the excessive cost of repairing all the aircraft, nine were placed in storage at Davis-Monthan AFB in 1972. The 58th WRS, the last squadron in the Air Force to use the WB-57F, was deactivated on July 1, 1974 after placing its planes in storage at Davis-Monthan.

Three ex-USAF WB-57Fs were used by NASA in support of various research programs. As early as September of 1968, NASA had contracted with the Air Force to operate a RB-57F for them in conjunction with their Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS) program. The loaned aircraft was 63-13501. NASA installed a data-gathering sensor pallet underneath the central fuselage which carried cameras and electronic sensors. In 1972, the Air Force transferred the aircraft to NASA, where it became NASA 925. 925 was retired by NASA in 1982 and sent to storage at Davis Monthan AFB. It is now on display at the Pima Air Museum. In 1972, 63-13503 was transferred to NASA and became NASA 926. It was used as an Earth Remote Sensing Platform for calibration of satellite data. It was moved to El Paso in 1991. 63-13298 was transferred to NASA in 1974 and renumbered NASA 928. It operates as an air sampler for the Department of Energy. N928NA suffered a landing gear failure during a takeoff roll at Ellington Airport in Texas on March 5, 2019. No crew were injured.

There was some recent use of WB-57Fs by NASA over Afghanistan for military and geophysical-related activities

Serials of General Dynamics RB-57F:

63-13286/13302		Martin/General Dynamics RB-57F-CF
				Rebuilds of existing B-57A, B, and D.
63-13500/13503		Martin/General Dynamics RB-57F
				Remanufactured from existing RB-57Ds.  all
					later redesignated WB-57F.


  1. American Combat Planes, Third Enlarged Edition, Ray Wagner, Doubleday, 1982.

  2. Post World War II Bombers, Marcelle Size Knaack, Office of Air Force History, 1988.

  3. Martin B-57 Canberra--The Complete Record, Robert C. Mikesh, Schiffer Military/Aviation History, 1995.

  4. Canberra: The Operational Record, Robert Jackson, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

  5. The English Electric Canberra Mk.1 and IV, K. Munson, Aircraft In Profile, Doubleday, 1969

  6. Flying the Frontiers: NACA and NASA Experimental Aircraft, Arthur Pearcy, Naval Institute Press, 1993.

  7. United States Military Aircraft Since 1909, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989

  8. E-mail from Don Rollins

  9. E-mail from Kyle Laffoon on 63-13287, who indicates that the crew may have been captured by the Soviets and imprisoned.

  10. E-mail from Vahe Demirjian on 53-3973 and use of RB-57F by NASA over Afghanistan.