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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.

But to do any real damage, LeMay had to launch it from an overseas base or order a one-way mission. He would have scoffed at this latter-day quarterbacking, of course. "The B-36 was often called an interim bomber," he wrote in his memoir, Mission With LeMay. "For my dough, every bomber which ever has been or ever will be is an interim bomber." He had a point: at the time, SAC even considered the B-52 nothing more than a fill-in for the supersonic B-70.

LeMay may have been loyal to his hardware, but there were signs that General Kenney wasn't alone in his initial doubts about the B-36. One scheme would have equipped it with a pilotless drone to fight off enemy interceptors. Then the Air Force experimented with a manned parasite--the XF-85 Goblin--which would ride to war in a bomb bay. Still later, Republic adapted its F-84 to snuggle into the belly of the beast. By 1953 this last concept had changed from one of defending the B-36 to replacing it: The mother plane would linger offshore while the Thunderjet dashed in to take photographs or drop a bomb.

Finally, in 1955, Convair took a different approach, stripping the mega-bomber to the essentials. Just as LeMay had gambled his B-29s in 1945, sending them low and fast over Tokyo armed only with tail guns, SAC got a "featherweight" B-36 with only two guns, a smaller crew, no stove or other luxuries, and, in the bargain, a longer range. Many of the earlier models were modified to the new standard, especially the reconnaissance versions. Indeed, it's possible that LeMay's fondness for the B-36 may have had less to do with its potential as a bomber than its value as a spyplane. SAC ended up with 369 of the jet-recip hybrids, including modified versions, and more than a third were reconnaissance bombers. The RB-36 could carry an atomic bomb, but its principal weapon was a camera the size of a Geo Metro, set in a photo studio that replaced the forward bomb bay. Loaded with a roll of film 18 inches wide and 1,000 feet long, this great camera once photographed a golf course from 40,000 feet, and in the contact print, on display at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, an actual golf ball can be seen. If an RB-36 could see a golf ball from eight miles up, it could see tanks, airplanes, missiles, and factories. Surely this was the task that LeMay saw for the Peacemaker: With its enormous wings and extra fuel, who knows how high and how far it could fly? B-36 crews speak of 45-hour missions, presumably with fuel cells instead of nukes in the rear bomb bays; at cruise speed, a "featherweight" could travel almost 9,000 miles in that period. The official ceiling was 41,300 feet, but again, crews say that they routinely flew higher than 50,000 feet, and one man--John McCoy, quoted in Thundering Peacemaker--boasted of soaring to 58,000 feet. On missions over China, McCoy said, his RB-36 was chased by MiG fighters that couldn't climb anywhere near it. U.S. fighter pilots of that period also recall B-36s cruising comfortably well above their own maximum altitude. Not until the advent of the "century series" fighters--the F-100 and up--would the B-36 be challenged. Whether the RB-36 ever overflew Russia is anyone's guess, but it was the U.S. altitude and distance champ until the Lockheed U-2 came on line toward the end of the decade.

In the end, the B-36 turned out to be a place holder for the B-52 Stratofortress. Convair attempted to stave off Boeing's intercontinental jet bomber with the YB-60, which premiered as the YB-36G, with eight jets, a five-man crew, completely redesigned swept wings, a speed of 508 mph, and a 2,920-mile combat radius--in short, a knock-off that was inferior in every respect to its competitor. Boeing's bombers had the advantage of having been designed for jet power from the start. The Air Force didn't even bother to supply engines for the second YB-60 prototype.

Though obsolescent, the B-36 still had some momentum. Before descending into retirement, it made its first overseas deployment with a USAF unit in 1955, to Britain and Guam. In the same year, it starred in a Hollywood epic, Strategic Air Command--though in Jimmy Stewart's final scene with Frank Lovejoy, who played the LeMay-like general, a model of an early B-52 can be seen on the general's desk. The B-36 remained in the inventory for four more years, while the new Stratofortress was being tweaked to its full potential.

The B-36 was nowhere near as durable as the B-52 would prove to be, but it did the work asked of it. And eventually, the inter-service rivalry that led to the Congressional eruption over the big bomber's strategic mission died down, with the Navy's missile-submarine fleet garnering a permanent place in the strategic "triad" along with bombers and land-based missiles. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the Peacemaker is that it lived up to its name. The B-36 never went to war, never dropped a bomb in anger, nor (so far as we know) even fired its cannon at an enemy airplane. Created at a time when the atomic bomb redefined strategic air power and the turbojet redefined performance, its career spanned the crossroads that divided two eras.

Author Daniel Ford wrote about the last B-29 raid of World War II in the Aug./Sept. 1995 issue.

Originally published in Air & Space/Smithsonian, April/May 1996. Copyright 1996, Smithsonian Institution. All Rights Reserved.

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