The Douglas B-23 Dragon was a development of the B-18A Bolo with a considerably refined fuselage and a tail gun position. It was one of the aircraft that benefitted from the United States entry to the Second World War in November 1942, the original production run of 38 aircraft being expanded to keep the Douglas production line running until more advanced aircraft could be brought into service. Too slow and lightly armed for combat duties, the B-23 has been overshadowed other medium bombers but filled the vital role of advanced training in the US. It also has the distinction of being the first strategic reconnaissance aircraft used by Strategic Air Command
Aware that the B-18 Bolo was falling behind the state-of-the-art in bomber design, Douglas proposed that the B-18 undergo a major redesign in which it would be fitted with the stronger wings of the DC-3 commercial transport and be equipped with a completely new and better-streamlined fuselage with a substantially larger fin and rudder. A pair of Wright R-2600 radials were to be used as the powerplants. The USAAC was sufficiently intrigued by the Douglas proposal that they issued a change order in late 1938 in which the last 38 B-18As ordered under Contract AC9977 would be delivered as B-23s. It was agreed that the usual prototype and service test phases would be skipped, and that all the aircraft would be delivered as production aircraft designated simply B-23. The first B-23 was completed in July 1939, powered by a pair of 1600 hp Wright R-2600-3 radials. The fuselage of the B-23 was much less deep than that of the B-18A, and the vertical tail and rudder were much larger in area. This first aircraft had an unglazed nose, whereas later production aircraft were to have a glazed nose housing the bombardier's position plus a flexible 0.30-inch machine gun carried on a ball-and-socket mount. Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the B-23 was the presence of a glazed tail gunner's position, the first to be installed on an American bomber. The aircraft also had provision for a camera mounted on the left hand side of the fuselage. The bomb bay could accommodate bombs of up to 2000 pounds in weight. The crew was six—pilot, bombardier, navigator, radio operator, camera operator, and tail gunner.
Douglas B-23 Dragon
The maiden flight of the B-23 took place from Clover Field at Santa Monica on July 27, 1939. After being evaluated by the Materiel Division at Wright Field in Ohio, the B-23 entered service with the 89th Reconnaissance Squadron based at March Field in California. The remaining 37 B-23s were delivered between February and September of 1940. Although the B-23 was 66 mph faster than its B-18A predecessor and had a much better range, it was still slower than the North American B-25 Mitchell and Martin B-26 Marauder and was less heavily-armed. Consequently, the B-23 was never used in its intended bombardment role and never saw any combat overseas. After the 17th Bomb Group's B-23s were replaced by B-25s, their B-23s were passed on to the 12th Bomb Group at McCord and to the 13th Bomb Group at Orlando. A few B-23s were used briefly for patrol along the Atlantic Coast before being relegated to training roles.
Specification of the Douglas B-23 Dragon
Two Wright R-2600-3 air-cooled radial engines, rated at 1600 hp for takeoff and 1275 hp at 12,000 feet. Performance: Maximum speed 282 mph at 12,200 feet, cruising speed 210 mph. An altitude of 10,000 feet could be reached in 6.7 minutes. Service ceiling 31,600 feet. Normal range 1400 miles with 4000 pounds of bombs, maximum range 2750 miles. Weights: 19,089 pounds empty, 26,500 pounds loaded, 32,400 pounds maximum. Dimensions: wingspan 92 feet, length 58 feet 4 3/4 inches, height 18 feet 5 1/2 inches, wing area 993 square feet. Armed with a flexible 0.30-inch gun on a ball-and-socket mount in the extreme nose, a 0.30-inch machine gun on a swing mount attached to the aft fuselage bulkhead and firing either through beam hatches or through a swing-down dorsal panel, a 0.30-inch machine gun firing through a ventral hatch, plus a 0.50-inch hand-held machine gun in the glazed tail-gunner's position.
Douglas B-23A Dragon
The entry of the United States into World War Two found Douglas in an unusual position. It was producing A-20 Havoc attack aircraft for the Army and DC-3 transport aircraft for the civilian market. It also had a number of other civilian projects under development. The A-20 production line was fine but the military authorities were swamped with large numbers of DC-2, DC-3 and Boeing 247 airliners that had been taken from the civilian airlines and needed to absorb those before additional transports could be ordered. This left the DC-3 production line under-used. At this point, somebody remembered that the B-23 used many DC-3 components (including the entire wing assembly) and could be built on the DC-3 line.
This did not, of course, change the fact that the B-23 was obsolescent. The design was modified to use the R-2600-12 engine rated at 1,700 horsepower, the .30 caliber machine guns were replaced by .50 caliber weapons with the midships swivel-mounted weapon replaced by two beam guns and a turret-mounted dorsal gun. The bombload was maintained at 4,000 pounds. Despite these modifications, the type was still unsuitable for front-line use but it did find a valued niche as a multi-crew training aircraft, effectively releasing more valuable types for front-line service. The B-23A had virtually identical performance to the B-23, the extra power of its engines being offset by added weight. A total of 120 B-23A aircraft were built in late 1942 and early 1943.
Douglas RB-23B Dragon
The B-23 had always had provision for cameras and other reconnaissance equipment. The RB-23B drew on this heritage and was a specialized reconnaissance aircraft. It was fitted with R-2600-20 engines rated at 1,900 horsepower and was stripped of all armament but its tail gun. Again, the RB-23B was unsuited to foreign deployment but proved very useful in coastal patrol, 90 being built in 1943. The survivors of these were taken over by Strategic Air Command in late 1945 as an interim strategic reconnaissance aircraft being used to evaluate tactics and train crews. They were, of course, quickly replaced by more capable aircraft but still served well in getting the Strategic Reconnaissance concept off the ground.
Specification of the Douglas RB-23B Dragon
Two Wright R-2600-20 air-cooled radial engines, rated at 1900 hp for takeoff and 1675 hp at 12,000 feet. Performance: Maximum speed 312 mph at 12,200 feet, cruising speed 230 mph. An altitude of 10,000 feet could be reached in 6.2 minutes. Service ceiling 33,600 feet. Normal range 2750 miles. Weights: 19,089 pounds empty, 26,500 pounds loaded, 32,400 pounds maximum. Dimensions: wingspan 92 feet, length 58 feet 4 3/4 inches, height 18 feet 5 1/2 inches, wing area 993 square feet. Armed with a 0.50-inch hand-held machine gun in the glazed tail-gunner's position.