The second thing you should know is that the B-36 is something rather unusual - it was simultaneously a revolutionary design, and an anachronism. It was the first intercontinental strategic bomber, and set many of the benchmarks that future designs would aim for, but it did it with technology from a decade before such designs became common. So it was decidedly a (giant) odd duck - the last of the 1940s bombers, operating in the turbulent times of the 1950s. This period (the late 1940s-1950s) was one of the great innovative times in aeronautics, as turbines, both as jets and as turboprops, would recast the aviation world into one that we know today. The end result was that the B-36 was a clockwork and vacuum tube miracle machine doomed to have a very short career in the USAF, with its intimidate successors, the B-52 Stratofortress and the U-2 spyplane are still in front line service today. So it was a bunch of firsts, but also a bunch of lasts.
The story of the BiG-36 starts in August 1941, when the Defense Department of the United States issued contract for a new bomber. The performance the contract wanted was, in a word, immense. This new bomber was to carry a bomb load of 10,000 lbs over 10,000 miles (that is, with a combat radius of 5000 miles.) The contract also specified the ability to operate in the stratosphere, at an altitude of 41,000 ft. This altitude is regularly flown by airliners today, but in 1941 only a few military reconnaissance aircraft could reach this height - putting the world's largest, heaviest bomber at that altitude was quite a tall order. At the time, America was worried that if Britain was defeated, there would be no way to carry out a strategic bombing campaign against Nazi Germany. The high-flying aspect of the contract was a necessary defense - it was above the range of flak guns, and would severely limit the abilities of possible interceptors. The goal behind the new contract was to create a bomber that could fly from "Newfoundland Airbase", (later known as Gander, NL) to Berlin, bomb it, and then return, all without refueling - in other words, a bomber that could cross oceans to attack targets.
The basic design was dictated by the technology of the time, in a way so simple and logical that I can imagine a Consolidated engineer sketching the whole thing out while smoking a pipe. The enormous range and payload requirement meant a similarly gigantic fuel capacity, since aerial refueling was not a thing. This in turn inevitably meant a gigantic size. Because this was a combat aircraft, it would also have to defend itself against the enemy. With World War 2 technology, that meant two things: one, a fearsome battery of defensive guns, and more importantly, the ability to fly very high. The single engined fighters of the day with their piston engines, unless heavily modified, would have a great deal of trouble staying aloft at 41,000 ft, let alone being able to do effective combat maneuvers. Flak guns simply didn't fire into the stratosphere at the time - while it was technically possible, it was twice the altitude of the typical attacking bomber.
|This early rendering with the split tail could be mistaken for similar Nazi projects of the day.|
By the war's end, the B-36 was coming together as a prototype - but had not even been taken out of Convair's factory by the time the Japanese officially surrendered. (Consolidated had merged with another aerospace firm, Vultee, and the new firm was christened Consolidated-Vultee, later mashed into the much simpler name Convair.) The initial prototype, the YB-36, was revealed to the world only a few days after the end of World War 2 - but would only fly a year later in 1946. By now, the B-36 had found a new purpose in life: being the first intercontinental atomic bomber.
|The first prototype next to a B-29. If there's one thing the B-36 program can teach you, is that you show how big a thing is by putting it next to smaller things.|
|American bomber development, 1936-1946.|
"I don't want to call it the 'Annihilator' - maybe something bitingly ironic?"
|The nose was the aesthetic high point of the B-36's design.|
|Cobra Commander would have loved these things.|
|A man in the access tunnel.|
These payloads were but the aperitif before the main course of the B-36: nuclear weapons. These changed enormously over the B-36's lifetime, but a single nuclear-armed B-36 had a greater destructive potential than an entire fleet World War 2 era B-29s. This would be increased enormously as the B-36s career went on. (Just in case you are unfamiliar, nuclear weapon yield is measured in tons of TNT. A thousand tons makes up a kiloton, and a thousand kilotons makes up a megaton. The Hiroshima bomb is reckoned to have an output of 15 kT, and the Nagasaki bomb is thought to have been 19 kT.) In the first half of the B-36's career, it carried fission warheads similar to those dropped on Nagasaki. Depending on the bomb's core, the yield could be as little as 1 kT, or as much as 160 kT for the initial production series of American atomic weapons. These early bombs were inert until a crewman actually got into the bomb bay and inserted the bomb's core. At least once while practicing this over New Mexico, sudden turbulence caused the man in the bay to grab onto the manual release lever to balance, and thus, open the bomb bay doors and drop the bomb. The crewman actually survived, holding onto that lever for dear life until the bay doors could be closed. The bomb lacked a core and thus couldn't have detonated, but it fell less than ten kilometers from Sandia, NM, the location of the American atomic bomb factory. Laughs all around!
A propaganda film on the B-36. The opening shot is positively amazing and could have inspired the famous shot of the Star Destroyer in the first Star Wars. It also has a shot of the hydraulic turrets deploying, and the (once again) Star Wars-like aiming device the gunners use with the turrets. The plane being shown is apparently a late model B-36, as it has jet engines, quick-opening bomb bay doors and the "pointy brassiere" rear radar dome.
|While the tracks actually worked, more conventional wheels would be used in production models.|
|The original wheels were cartoonishly huge.|
When World War 2 finally ended, what America wanted was to return to normal. Millions of men in the armed forces looked forward to resuming their lives, and millions at home looked forward to their return. Everybody was looking forward to the economy returning to market driven enterprise, rather than the close-to-command economy necessary to kill fascists. The US government for its part was looking forward to returning military affairs to normal, and cut the budget for the military by 90%. The armed services wanted to return to normal as well - though, like everybody else, first they had to figure out what the new normal actually was.
Relations began to chill between the east and west as soon as the Third Reich was dead, though it had yet to metastasize into the Cold War. The Soviet Union was clearly the new threat on the horizon - but one that had no ability to threaten the United States itself. Soviet forces had no bombers like the B-36, and possessed no aircraft carriers or a blue-water navy. This was comforting - but only to a point. The Soviets had 100 divisions in Europe, and astoundingly could draw on another 200 divisions in a relatively short time-frame. In Germany the United States had precisely one division, a numerical disadvantage that didn't bear thinking about. Early post-war estimates said that the Soviets could have taken the rest of continental Europe in 20-30 days had they wanted to, with opposing forces being little more than a speed bump to the Red Army.
Facing the Red Army, the United States had a very clear trump card: nuclear weapons. As soon as the United States Army Air Corps became its own service, the United States Air Force (USAF), the new service was not shy in claiming ownership over that trump card. Breaking itself into a Tactical Air Command (TAC) and Strategic Air Command (SAC), SAC was the first and most important delivery method of atomic bombs. The B-36 fit into the new scheme of things perfectly: for the near future, the only two other atomic bombers were the B-29 Superfortress and its variant, the B-50. Both of these aircraft would have to be staged relatively close to its targets in order to attack, while the B-36 had a huge combat range, even with a mk. 3 implosion bomb. Initially, the USAF pictured the 100 B-36s it had ordered as atomic bombing specialists, kept in reserve in case more forward bases were wiped out in a enemy first strike. The plan was simple: if the Soviets moved against western Europe, SAC's first move would be to burn every Soviet city it could with nuclear fire. It was also clear that even with close basing to the Soviet Union, the Superfortress twins simply didn't have the range to accomplish this mission - any attack would sacrifice the bomber crews when their airplane ran out of fuel. Another point for the B-36.
|The first B-36s in training red.|
The USAF and Convair fought back to defend their gigantic sensitive girl, both on the engineering side and with a PR push. The B-36 was dubbed "Peacemaker" as part of this process, a name that frankly, never caught on. (Today 'B-36' is usually how it is referred to, and SAC crews preferred the name "big stick". While I'd like to imagine this was a tip of the hat to Theodore Roosevelt and it "speak softly and carry a big stick" dictum, since a B-36 with atomic warheads is about a big a foreign policy stick as can be imagined, I'm guessing it was because the B-36 was a giant tube with wings and a tail.) Print ads extolled the awesomeness of the new bomber, as does this little film I found , and it is fairly bombastic, no pun intended.
1. At the start, America has basically none of these things now, ouch 1950s narrator
2. A happy young family looks up to see literally a fleet of B-36s drone by
3. The narrator keeps using nautical metaphors, describing the B-36 as a "Dreadnought" and later saying they "patrol the sea of the air" above America. This is presumably to annoy the US Navy.
4. Shots of the Ft. Worth factory in the late 1940s assembling the B-36. They show how they had to tilt the big honkeys just to get them outside. They also show the airport baggage cart-like thing they used as a lunch car on the factory floor.
5. "When reason fails, *STRENGTH* prevails."
The technical side saw a search for increased power. First with the VDT program, an attempt to crank even more power out of the Wasp Major powering the B-36 and the B-50, which ended in failure. The next idea was a success: jet power. The B-47 Stratojet was by this time in development, and it featured six jet engines, four in twin jet pods. This twin jet pod was added to the outboard wings of the B-36. The engines when on doubled the effective power of the B-36, but like all early jet engines, were very fuel thirsty, so they were typically left off in flight, being used only on takeoff and on attack runs at high altitude. This gave the B-36 a 'dash' speed past the 400 mph barrier. Late model J series B-36s had a maximum speed of 418 mph, or 672 km/h. The jets also had doors to close the inlets when not in use to improve aerodynamics. These mods were applied to all A and B versions, making pictures of six-engined B-36s somewhat unusual. (In the film above, this is the visual tell that the airplanes shown are A and B models.) These mods were made official in the 'D' version of the Peacemaker.
There was another program in the works since 1945 to help defend the B-36 against fighters...and even the Nazis would have to doff their hats at its sheer insanity. The extreme range of the B-36 made escort fighters out of the question - so some big brain started wondering if it would be possible for the B-36 to take escorts with it. The result of this brainstorm was the Douglas XF-85 Goblin, a tiny jet fighter that could actually fold its wings to fit inside the B-36's bomb bay. Deployed and recovered by an elaborate trapeze, the Goblin lacked landing gear entirely, and had a half-hour endurance. The B-36 was to become the second flying aircraft carrier used by the US military, the first being about the only things ever flown to make the B-36 look small: the US Navy airships Akron and Macon. The concept actually worked in tests, but the Honda Civic-sized Goblin did not perform especially well, and it was decided that "fits in a bomb bay" and "effective jet fighter" were mutually exclusive concepts.
|The Goblin was well-named.|
|Robot claws of freedom|
July 1948 also saw bigger events. The Cold War kicked off with the Soviets blockading Berlin in an attempt to drive Great Britain, the USA, and France out. (When partitioning Germany, the Soviets were given what would become East Germany - save Berlin itself. Berlin was seen as so important to Germany that it was divided into four parts. The other three powers were connected to the other sectors by a land bridge which was controlled by the Soviets. The Soviets closed the land bridge during the blockade.) In response, the USAF managed to resupply Berlin by the air, and the man in charge, General Curtis LeMay, was rewarded with command of SAC. LeMay would be SAC's iconic commander, making it into an elite inside the USAF. LeMay was also a bomber man through and through, and fully supported the B-36 program. General LeMay's logic was extremely simple: war with the Soviets was in the long run inevitable - and would quite possibly be started by the Soviets in a surprise attack. Therefore, the job of SAC was to be at all times ready to fight this war. The concept of 'deterrence' was nothing new - the difference in LeMay's case is that he was sure that attacking Soviet targets with nuclear weapons would actually happen. The B-36 was the best current vehicle for the job, and would be needed until it could be replaced.
|You don't want to know how many maintenance hours this flyby took.|
|RB-36s had a extra pressurized section aft of the cockpit, which makes them easy to tell from B-36s.|
|Above and below are RB-36s with their square camera ports open. These were really big cameras.|
A model list with the B-36 is somewhat more pointless then most - B and RB-36s were modified to later standards frequently. The TL;DR version is that As and Bs were the 'early', non jet versions, and the D-J versions were fairly similar to one another. If talking actual capacity, the most important factor is if the later lightweight modifications were made, with is usually identified by a Roman numeral after the name, IE a B-36H (III) has both 'featherweighting' mods. (I) was the removal of all defensive guns save the tail gun, and (II) was removal of the bunks, stove, and the fire suppression system. For nerd reasons, both mods together were (III).
B-36A - Trainers without any weapons, the first four were accepted June 26th 1948. These models would be later converted to RB-36Es. Production 21;
B-36B - The first fully armed and operational version. Improved Wasp Majors with water injection had 2500 hp each. All airframes were later upgraded to the B-36D standard. Production 62;
B-36C - A proposed version that never left the drawing board. The B-36 C was to have engines facing forwards and a new version of the Wasp Major engine, called the Wasp Major VDT. This engine was also to have been used on the B-50. The 'C' was cancelled when the engine was abandoned.
B-36D - Improved version with jet pods on the outer wings. New B-36Ds production totaled 26, with 54 B-36Bs being modified to the D standard. The main addition on top of the jets was a new, very complex bombing radar, which allowed the B-36 to find and attack targets regardless of night or cloud cover.
RB-36D. 'D' version of the reconnaissance version. Production 24.
RB-36E - Recon version built from B-36As, built to the RB-36D standard.
B-36F - Revised and improved from the D version, these aircraft had higher output Wasp Majors and better avionics. 34 were made.
RB-36F - The Recon B-36F. 24 were produced.
B-36H: Similar to the F, with revised avionics and a better interior. The major production run of the B-36 was the H model, with 156 aircraft being delivered.
B-36J: The final production version, the J had strengthened landing gear, and additional fuel tanks, giving range a slight boost. 22 were made, the last being delivered on August 14th, 1954. Some of these aircraft where built at the factory as per the "featherweight" mods.
B-36G / YB-60 - An attempt at making a swept-wing, jet powered B-36. Two were made. The prototypes had a higher bomb load than the rival B-52, but a lower top speed and no air-refueling capability. It was ignored by the USAF, as the B-52 was clearly superior.
XC-99 - One B-36 was built into a twin-decked cargo carrier. It served in Korea and around the United States in the early-mid 1950s.
NB-36H - A B-36 that carried a critical nuclear reactor (!) aloft as part of early tests exploring the construction of nuclear powered aircraft. It and similar Soviet experiments taught something very important - don't build a nuclear powered aircraft.
The detonation of the first Soviet atomic bomb in 1949 signaled a new phase of the Cold War, as the Soviets and the United States began to pour huge resources into the nuclear arms race. The B-36 in this era was well suited, as while thermonuclear weapons were still being developed, only the B-36 had the capacity to carry what in the first generation would be physically giant bombs. In the meantime the B-36 made do with a variety of steadily more powerful atomic bombs, and the science of nuclear weapon building advanced as fast as aeronautics.
The Korean War was a significant event in the B-36's career, even though B-36s were never used in combat. (All three bomber wings at the time were deployed to the far east, with the strategic reconnaissance wing being used extensively to spy on communist activity. It seems that like the later B-2 stealth bomber, the B-36 was considered too prestigious and valuable to actually be used in combat. Though had General MacArthur had gotten his way and actually used atomic bombs against the Chinese, the B-36 likely would have been the delivery system.) The first effect what an increase in B-36 orders, and in defense spending generally, as America decided a large peacetime military would be necessary to contain communism. Another effect was the surprisingly poor showing of World War 2 combat aircraft. B-29s proved vulnerable to MiG-15s, and were forced to adopt night bombing tactics. Somewhat more surprisingly, the P-51 Mustang, one of the best fighters of World War 2, was found to be lacking against turbine-powered opponents. While many more B-36s would now be built, it was now clear that the USAF intended to replace all of its combat designs with turbine-powered aircraft when such models were fully developed. (General LeMay was perfectly comfortable with this, later saying "all bomber designs were placeholders for future models," though he did expect all B-52s to be replaced by B-70 Valkyries.) Deterring Communist aggression was gonna take many nuclear bombers, and the B-36 became the United States based reserve in that force.
America's new military normal was thus found: instead of peace, it would be constant vigilance against a nuclear armed enemy equipped with weapons the Nazis could only dream about. Like the other sorts of normal in post-war America, it proved to be a mixed blessing.
It should be noted as well that the Soviets during this time had no aircraft comparable to the B-36. They instead concentrated their efforts at fielding next generation replacements. While this was a smart move, it meant NATO had a trump card the Soviets had no equivalent to.
|"MOMMMMMMM! Witness me! Witness me!"|
|A early model B-36 with all the stuff you will need to keep it flying.|
That said, there were still accidents. The biggest accident was very Texas - a tornado rolled through Carswell AFB, damaging 100 B-36s and writing off one airframe - once again, it was a good thing that Carswell was next door to the Convair Ft. Worth factory. (This incident was notable as it disclosed to the general public that the Air Force had at least one hundred sky-levithians on its active list.) Another accident on the coast of British Columbia in 1950 saw the loss of a B-36, some of her crew, and the loss of an atomic bomb. The bomb had a dummy core, but it took several months to find the crash site in BC's mountainous terrain, where American special forces destroyed the bomb and anything else classified at the wreck. A more unfortunate crash happened in Newfoundland in 1953. A RB-36 was returning to the United States after a reconnaissance mission, flying from the Azores. The North Atlantic was true to type that evening: black and stormy, with visibility near zero. The RB-36 was flying at 1000 ft to save fuel, and anticipated strong head winds off the coast of Newfoundland. What the crew didn't realize was that the headwind had become a tailwind, putting them some 120 nautical miles further west than they realized. Presumably, the aircraft would have ascended to a safer height had they known their true position; as it was, they had actually drifted down to a mere 800 ft. As a result, the RB-36 encountered an 836 ft hill at 400 mph. All were killed instantly. This incident is also notable as the senior officer on board was a Brigadier General Richard E. Ellsworth - in memorial the SAC base in Rapid City, South Dakota, was renamed by President Eisenhower Ellsworth AFB - a important USAF base to this day.
|The accident aircraft in happier days.|
|Not much of the magnesium alloy survived the fire, but the tail, the turrets and the jet engines are still recognizable|
|Maintainers also had to beware of a fall from the B-36's wing to the hard concrete far, far below. In this shot a censor has blanked out something in the background.|
|"Step 1 of 573:remove landing gear pin from landing gear lock hole."|
|Warplanes just wanna fly: this bomber tipped onto its tail thanks to high winds creating lift with the wings.|
|A late 1940s Life Magazine illustration of the B-36 defending itself.|
|Two B-36s with the new white undersides.|
|A B-36 in flight with anti-flash white. Gen. LeMay encouraged rhyming things when possible to aid memorization (lies.)|
|SAC Livery was standardized later in the B-36's career, and you can see the SAC crest and the anti-flash white. |
|"Think warm thoughts, boy..."|
One of the biggest hits of 1955, "Strategic Air Command" starred Jimmy Stewart as a baseball player returning to the air force. Produced with the assistance of the USAF, it was kind of the 1950s version of Top Gun, save the Gay innuendo but with considerably more smoking. This clip is from the start of the movie, showing off the takeoff maneuver of the B-36. SAC's public reputation peaked around this era - it went into decline a few years later when "Doctor Strangelove" and "Failsafe" reached theaters.
Exit Left Pursued by a Bear
|A somewhat weather-beaten B-36 at a late 1950s airshow.|
to a swept wing jet bomber, of much lower capacity than the B-36, but with a much higher speed.
The B-52 was a strategic bomber similar in mission to the B-36, with the crucial difference that it used all the advances in aeronautics that the B-36 was developed in ignorance of.
Other technologies also spelled "obsolescence" for the B-36. Missiles, both from surface sites and launched from aircraft, negated the safety the B-36's high altitude flying gave it. Missiles, being rocket propelled, have no problem in the upper atmosphere, as the successor to the RB-36, the U-2, would soon discover. The Soviets were replacing their early jet fighters with much more capable models, ones that would have made short work of a intruding B-36. The most basic technology undermining the Peacemaker was even simpler - in flight refueling. The USAF (along with the Red Air Force and everybody else) came to the same revelation about long range aircraft that the Nazis did, too late, in World War 2: that it was far simpler to master in-flight refueling than it was to build aircraft like the B-36. Not only was it simpler, but it meant that aircraft could be far more capable at the same time, not having to trade off performance for range. To drive this point home in 1955, B-52s flew around the world without stopping via in-flight refueling. With that fact established, there was little point in the B-36.
|The small but critical differences in technological eras.|
|The aircraft of the USAF, 1955. Plane nerds will be able to pick out aircraft descended from World War 2 designs - but by now, these are all support aircraft.|
|A big ol' image of the aircraft of the USAF in flight. The B-36 is bringing up the rear.|
|B-36s being recycled, apparently belonging to the 'U.S. Air Porce'.|
|Beats being melted down, that's for sure. On the left you can make out one of those first prototype giant wheels.|