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The Convair B-36A in flight (USAF)

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

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"You made a grave error, did you not?" he was asked.

"Yes."

U.S. bombers had been getting steadily bigger, so the enormity of the B-36 may have seemed part of an American pattern, but the bomber actually owed its immense bulk to a succession of hostile dictators, starting with Adolf Hitler. In the spring of 1941, German troops held most of western Europe and seemed likely to conquer Britain next. The U.S. Army asked airframe builders for an airplane that could take off from American soil, bomb Germany, and fly home.

The most promising design came from Consolidated Aircraft in San Diego, builder of the B-24 Liberator, which was just entering service with U.S. and British air forces. Consolidated proposed a quantum leap over the B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers as well as Boeing's next-generation "very heavy" B-29 Superfortress. The B-36 was to be a mega-bomber, spanning 230 feet from wingtip to wingtip. It would cross the Atlantic, enter German airspace at 300 mph, and drop 10,000 pounds of bombs from 40,000 feet, too high for flak or fighters to trouble it. Impressed, the Army ordered a pair of prototypes on November 15, 1941.

Three weeks later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. suddenly found itself fighting a two-ocean war. The B-36 went on the back burner while Consolidated turned out thousands of its proven Liberators. The B-36 suffered another setback when its facilities were moved to Texas, and yet another when the designers were asked to build a transport based on the bomber.

While Europe was pounded from bases in England, Japan was to be targeted by the Boeing Superfortress flying from China. The Japanese set out to capture the Chinese airfields--and thereby moved the B-36 back to the front burner. From Hawaii, it could bomb Tokyo as it had once been expected to bomb Berlin. In June 1943 the Army asked for 100 copies of the mega-bomber, with the first to arrive in the summer of 1945.

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.

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