B-36: Bomber at the Crossroads
It was the biggest warplane ever to wear an American star, and in the summer of '49 the Peacemaker found itself a war--in Washington.
- By Daniel Ford
- Air & Space magazine, April 1996
(Page 3 of 8)
The U.S. Marine Corps moved faster than Convair (Consolidated merged with Vultee in 1943, and the new name was coined then). Shortly after Guam, Saipan, and Tinian were in U.S. hands, the Superforts began their terrible punishment of the Japanese home islands. The Pacific war ended six months earlier than expected--and six days before the rollout of the first B-36, its nose jacked up to lower its tail, which was too tall for the hangar door. It debuted as the Peacemaker, but the name never took, and even today it is better remembered simply as the B-36.
In a country celebrating peace, the prototype would have been the last of the line, but the Soviet Union turned out to be as land-hungry as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Nonetheless, the U.S. military packed for home in a stand-down so thorough that it was "not a demobilization," as General Leon Johnson noted in a 1954 interview, "it was a rout." The spring of 1946 became a replay of 1941, with a hostile dictator swallowing pieces of Europe and the Americans unable to do anything about it. The "strategic" card--the threat of wholesale destruction by nuclear weapons--seemed the only one that a demobilized, budget-cutting United States could play. But which of the services would play it?
When Congress had created the independent air force in 1947, the new service had been organized around two combat arms: a Tactical Air Command (TAC) to support the ground troops and a Strategic Air Command (SAC) to take the war to the enemy. The Air Force would have a fleet twice the size of the Navy's--24,000 aircraft to 11,500--and only the Air Force would have heavy bombers.
Following the U.S. withdrawal to the continental United States and the emergence of Joseph Stalin's ambitions, SAC's strategic mission was in the ascendant and there was no longer any question who the "enemy" was. By happenstance, the long-distance payload of the B-36 equalled the weight of one atomic bomb--roughly 10,000 pounds--and its combat radius equalled the great-circle route from Maine to Leningrad. Pending the arrival of its new $5.7-million-dollar baby, SAC made do with 160 veteran B-29 Superforts, and it was these aircraft that answered the call to deploy to European bases when the Russians shut off ground access to Berlin in the summer of 1948.
It was a colossal bluff. In all of SAC, only 27 Superforts had the "Silver Plate" modifications needed to carry an atomic bomb, and these were all assigned to the 509th Bomb Group, which stayed home. As for bombs, the U.S. "stockpile" contained exactly 13, controlled by the Atomic Energy Commission, and President Harry Truman refused to say if he'd ever release them to the military. Even if he had given the order to launch an attack, the 509th would have needed five days to pack up, fly to an AEC depot, load the nukes, and move overseas.
Perhaps the reality of the situation didn't matter to the Soviets. As they demonstrated again and again during the cold war, their pattern was to push until they met a determined response, then back off and wait for the next opportunity. They could easily have prevented an airlift by jamming U.S. radio beacons, but they didn't. And when General Curtis LeMay, to everyone's astonishment, fed and heated Berlin by air, the Russians quietly reopened land routes in the spring of 1949. The blockade succeeded only in burnishing LeMay's reputation, heightening American fear of Russia, and confirming the belief that the B-36 was America's best hope to contain Communism.
In June 1948, Convair delivered the first operational B-36A to SAC's 7th Bomb Group at Carswell Air Force Base, across the runway from its Fort Worth plant. Big as the B-29 Superfort was, it could nearly fit beneath one wing of a B-36. Despite the difference in size, the two airplanes had similar vertical tails, and they had slim fuselages, like cigarettes, round in cross-section, with two pressurized crew cabins separated by two bomb bays and connected by a tunnel.
But the wings were different. The Superfort's were thin, straight, and glider-like, while the B-36's wings were more than seven feet thick at the root, enough for a crewman to crawl in and reach the engines or the landing gear in flight. The wings were tapered, with the leading edges swept back, and the effect of that, combined with the wings' location so far back on the fuselage, made the airplane appear out of balance. Strangest of all, the B-36's six Pratt & Whitney Wasp Major engines were faired into the trailing edges, with the propellers located aft in the pusher configuration. Although it was supposed to reduce the propeller swirl's turbulence over the wing, the pusher design was rarely used on U.S. aircraft. Apparently it worked, though, because the B-36 had very low drag. The main drawback was that air for cooling the engines was ducted from intakes in the leading edge of the wing, and there was never enough of it, especially at high altitude.