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

The Convair B-36A in flight (USAF)
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The propellers were reversible for braking on landing, but sometimes they reversed in flight or while the airplane was straining to take off--at least once with fatal consequences. The stainless steel firewalls enclosing the engines cracked. The cylinders overheated. Lead in the gasoline fouled the spark plugs at cruising speed. Each airplane had 336 spark plugs, and after a flight lasting a day and a half, a mechanic would have to haul a bucket of replacement plugs to the airplane to service all six engines. The engines leaked oil, and sometimes a flight engineer had to shut one down because it had exhausted its allotment of 150 gallons.

Then there was the "wet wing." The outboard fuel tanks were formed by the wing panels and sealed at the junctions, and after the wing flexed for a few hundred hours the sealant was apt to fail. Jim Little recalls that one airplane leaked so badly "the ground underneath was just purple [from the dye in the high-octane gasoline]--it was raining fuel under that airplane."

Pilot opinion of the B-36 tended to run to the extremes, but most crew members loved it--"this big, wonderful old bird," Jim Edmundson calls it. As a colonel in the early 1950s, Edmundson commanded a B-36 group at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Washington. But even he admitted that the airplane could be a chore for its pilot--"like sitting on your front porch and flying your house around."

Of course most of the pilots were young and eager, and the older men had flown worse contraptions during the war. "It was a noisy airplane; it was big," former radioman/gunner Raleigh Watson recalled at a B-36 reunion at the Castle Air Museum in Atwater, California last September, "but it was comfortable, and I think we felt it was a safe airplane, a very well-built airplane." Moxie Shirley, a pilot with more than a thousand hours in the B-36, loved the airplane, declaring that it "kept the Russians off our backs." But he went on to add, "Every crew that ever flew that airplane had stories that would make your hair stand on end."

Ed Griemsmann expressed another view in Thundering Peacemaker: "A horrible, lazy beast to fly," he told the book's author. Griemsmann survived a fiery crash in 1956. Most B-36 crashes were fiery because of the magnesium used in its construction. Rather than fly another, he said, he'd join the infantry.

If the B-36A was ineffective, the Strategic Air Command was little better. Its first commander, General George Kenney, didn't believe in the B-36, arguing in 1947 that the bomber was too slow to survive over enemy territory, with engines and an airframe that couldn't withstand an 8,000-mile flight. Kenney urged the Air Force to put its money into bombers that could fly at the speed of sound, even if that meant depending on overseas bases.

Kenney was right, of course. But at the time, his advice seemed disloyal, and he compounded the offense by letting his deputy run SAC while he himself campaigned for the top job in the Air Force. Not long after the first B-36A arrived, Kenney was fired. SAC's new commander was General Curtis LeMay, the pudgy, ferocious, cigar-smoking general famed for his B-29 tactics in the Pacific and for the more recent and successful Berlin airlift.

"We didn't have one crew, not one crew, in the entire command who could do a professional job," LeMay wrote of the SAC he inherited. He challenged his crews to stage a practice bomb raid on Dayton, Ohio, from 30,000 feet, using photographs taken in 1941--the best they'd have for the Soviet Union. (All SAC had were captured photographs the Germans had taken during the occupation of western Russia. Of the country beyond Moscow, there were no photographs available at all.) After the fiasco that ensued, LeMay whipped the crews into shape. He moved the best people from other groups to make the nuclear-capable 509th combat-ready, then did the same for the next most promising group.

By the fall of 1948 an improved B-36B had arrived, armed with pairs of 20-millimeter guns in the nose and tail, and six turrets that opened out like flowers in a slow-motion film; the gunners aimed from remote blisters. On December 7, the seventh anniversary of the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, Lieutenant Colonel John Bartlett took off in a B-36 from Carswell Air Force Base in Texas, flew to Hawaii, dropped a 10,000-pound dummy bomb, and returned without being spotted on the island's radar. LeMay must have bitten through his cigar when he got the news. If he could reach Hawaii from Texas, he could hit the Soviet Union from Maine. And if he could figure out how to operate the B-36 in the cold of Alaska, all of Siberia would fall under its shadow.

The B model also had the "Grand Slam" modifications needed for carrying a hydrogen bomb, which was 30 feet long and weighed 43,000 pounds and had been created in such secrecy that Convair didn't have the dimensions in time for the A models.


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