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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.

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.

The propellers were 19 feet in diameter, and to keep the tips from going supersonic they were geared to turn less than half as fast as the engines. The engines and propellers produced an unforgettable throbbing sound when the B-36 flew overhead. A friend of mine remembers the sound from his boyhood as a "captivating drone. The noise went down to your heels, it was so resonant. It just stopped you in your tracks. You looked up into the sky to try to find this thing, and it was just a tiny cross, it was so high." Others remember that it rattled windows on the ground from 40,000 feet.

The airplane's most eye-catching feature was the Plexiglas canopy that enclosed a flight deck, which, while ample for a crew of four, seemed small on such a whale of a plane. A dome below the nose housed a radar antenna, and two transparent blisters allowed the crew to aim the guns and observe any mechanical breakdowns. The effect was a face like a prairie dog's peering from a burrow, with the flight deck for eyes, the scanning blisters for ears, and the radome for tucked-up paws.

The ailerons, flaps, rudder, and elevators had a combined total surface area greater than both wings of a B-24. The pilot's control input moved a trim tab in the opposite direction, forcing the control surface in the desired direction. Two flight engineers monitored the six 4,360-cubic-inch engines, each with four rows of seven cylinders, a configuration that earned the nickname "corncob." The bombardier, navigator, radioman, and gunners brought the population of the forward cabin to 10.

You could visit the aft cabin by lying supine on a wheeled cart and pulling yourself along an overhead rope through a tunnel 85 feet long and two feet in diameter. The cart also served as a dumbwaiter, sending hot entrees from the galley to the forward cabin. The aft compartment accommodated five men and was equipped with bunks, an electric range, and the world's smallest urinal, which had to be voided to the outside at intervals. B-36 veterans like to tell the story of the new captain who came aft to relieve himself but didn't ask for instructions and, as a result, peed on his boots.

Later models had larger crews, up to 22 in reconnaissance versions. And everyone had a job to do--two jobs, in the case of the gunners. It took the ground crew six hours to prepare the bomber for a mission, and the flight crew needed another hour for a preflight check involving 600 steps, beginning with climbing the landing gear and removing the clamps that kept the gear from folding accidentally.

The B-36A couldn't fight--the electrically operated cannon were so trouble-prone they were simply eliminated--much less scramble to retaliate, and it ended up becoming little more than a crew trainer. Twenty-two were delivered, each virtually handmade, and "so flimsily built," says Jim Little, who served on one after it was converted to an RB-36E, "that the upper wing skin would actually pull loose from the wing ribs." Sometimes, Little recalls in the book RB-36 Days at Rapid City, "you would meet [the plane] with a crew of 30 or 40 sheet metal men."

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