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 B-36B was the last true reciprocating-engine bomber in the U.S. strategic bomber force. In hindsight, it seems obvious that the mega-bomber should have been jet-powered from the start. But the turbojet had been developed during World War II for fast-climbing, high-flying interceptors, and they gulped fuel at a prodigious rate. Nobody dreamed they could cross an ocean. Two developments changed everything: a new generation of twin-spool turbojets with markedly improved fuel consumption and, more significantly, the advent of inflight refueling. By 1949, Boeing's B-47 Stratojet was entering production, and the B-52 Stratofortress, an intercontinental giant, was making progress on paper.

Even before the uproar started in Congress in the summer of '49, the Air Force was apparently worried about the vulnerability of the B-36, and as an interim measure asked Convair to hang a pair of jet pods near the B-36's wingtips. By March, a B-36B had flown with four Allison J35s installed. On the production versions that emerged in July, each pod housed two General Electric J-47-GE-19s modified to run on gasoline--tiny compared to the Wasp Majors, but effectively doubling the airplane's installed horsepower. The jets were employed for takeoff, climbing to extreme altitudes, and dashing across hostile territory. With "six turning and four burning," as the saying went, a B-36 could finally top 400 mph. But fighter jockeys were flirting with the sound barrier in their North American F-86 Sabre jets, and whatever the Americans deployed--nukes, missiles, supersonic jets--the Russians matched, beginning with copies and sometimes ending with improved weapons.

For the benefit of Congress, the Air Force then released what Aviation Week described as "sensational new performance figures" on the jet-assisted B-36D: 435-mph top speed, 50,000-foot ceiling, range of up to 12,000 miles. LeMay added his personal pledge: "I believe we can get the B-36 over a target and not have the enemy know it is there until the bombs hit."

Even George Kenney came out of exile from his post as commander of the officer training center, Air University, to praise the airplane. "The B-36 went higher, faster, and farther than anybody thought it would," he said, "and the pilots liked it. It was a lucky freak." However, Kenney guessed that both the U.S. Navy Banshee and the Royal Air Force Vampire could intercept the B-36 in daylight; he recommended that it be used only on night raids.

On September 5, Aviation Week reported "Symington and Defense Chiefs Exonerated," as the House Armed Services Committee gave a clean bill of health to Johnson, Symington, the Air Force, and Convair. There wasn't "one iota, not one scintilla, of evidence...that would support charges or insinuations that collusion, fraud, corruption, influence, or favoritism played any part whatsoever in the procurement of the B-36 bomber," the committee concluded. Even Congressman Van Zandt voted for the absolving resolution.

At 4 a.m. local time on June 25, 1950, North Korean troops stormed across the 38th parallel. In November they were joined by Chinese "volunteers." These developments marked the end of President Truman's defense economy drive. First Germany, then Japan, then Russia, and now events in Korea had succeeded in advancing the cause of the B-36. Suddenly plenty of money was available for mega-bombers, and for super-carriers as well.

The Korean war produced another milestone for SAC: Truman released nine atomic bombs to the military. They probably didn't leave the country, but the B-36 did, flying from Texas to airfields in Britain and Morocco in the spring and fall of 1951. Only six airplanes were involved and their visits were short, but the message couldn't have escaped Moscow's attention. However briefly, the capital and most of the territory of the Soviet Union had come within the combat radius of the B-36.

Altogether, 1951 was a good year for mega-bombers. Margaret Bourke-White rhapsodized over the B-36 in a photo-essay for Life magazine, with photographs taken at 41,000 feet, where the sky "was a color such as I've never seen, the darkest blue imaginable, yet luminous like the hottest cobalt, too brilliant for the eyes to bear." She photographed fluffy white contrails streaming from the reciprocating engines, a 55-foot scaffold used to repair the rudder, and (from both ends) the marvelous flying boom that refueled bombers in flight.

An alert reader might have noted some oddities in Bourke-White's essay. The bomber being refueled was a Superfort, not a B-36, none of which was ever equipped for inflight refueling. She rode in a B-47, its raked tail clearly visible in one photograph. And the accompanying map depicted a Soviet Union surrounded by small bombers based in Alaska, Canada, Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Japan: the Peacemaker hunkered at home.

But if Superforts were on the Russian border, and if midair refueling allowed them to fly indefinitely, and with the Stratojet coming on line, why bother with the B-36? The jet pods had added so much weight and gobbled so much fuel that the combat radius had dropped first to 3,525 miles, then to 3,110. What was LeMay planning? From Maine, South Dakota, and Washington, the B-36 could barely scratch the edges of the Soviet empire, and even at those bases it faced hard sledding in the winter. At Rapid City, mechanics had to build a repair dock with sliding doors and cutouts for the fuselage so they could work on the engines while the tail stayed out in the snow. There were SAC bases in Alaska and Greenland, but the climate was so forbidding that LeMay never stationed any B-36s there. The Arctic airfields were used as staging points, with the bombers returning to the south 48 after each mission. Another ploy was the shuttle mission, with a takeoff from Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Washington. After bombing Irkutsk, in central Siberia, the bombers would have refueled at Okinawa before returning home.


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