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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

B-36 Peacemaker

Curtailment of the defense budget brought interservice disagreements to a boil. The Air Force and the Navy had long recognized that whichever service possessed the atomic mission would eventually receive a larger share of the budget. Thus, they had grown more and more wary of each other's strategic programs. Meanwhile, the B-36 atomic carrier had been the target of much criticism, even though few people had seen it-let alone flown it. The B-36 had been accused of being as slow as the ancient B-24 and far more vulnerable. Some critics claimed that under the most favorable conditions it would take up to 12 hours to ready the aircraft for flight. Others, with obvious relish, wrote that the connecting tunnel between the B-36's pressurized cabins was too small for a fat sergeant.

In early 1949, the B-36's censure grew ominous and could not be brushed aside. An anonymous document began making the rounds in press, congressional, and aircraft industry circles charging that corruption had entered into the selection, and that the aircraft's performance did not live up to Air Force claims. In August, a second unsigned paper accused the Air Force of having greatly exaggerated the importance of strategic air warfare. The charges of corruption and favoritism were investigated by the Armed Services Committee of the House of Representatives and quickly proven false. On 25 August the investigation closed, after completely clearing the Air Force. However, hearings on the B-36 resumed in October. Briefly stated, the committee had to decide, at least for the time being, whether the nation should rely on massive retaliation with intercontinental bombers in case of attack, or depend upon the Navy's fleet and air arm to defend the North American continent. Even though there were doubts about the B-36's ability to evade fighters, the Air Force emerged triumphantly from the October debates. Yet, the argument between the 2 services over roles and missions was far from settled. August 1949 amendments to the National Security Act of 1947 had enlarged and strengthened the Office of the Secretary of Defense and severely weakened the authority of the service secretaries. Interservice rivalry nevertheless persisted.

Even though the B-36's performance since mid 1948 kept on exceeding early expectations, the aircraft's relatively slow speed continued to cause concern. Tests had shown that altitude was very important in protecting a bomber. Locating, intercepting, and shooting down a bomber flying at 40,000 feet was not easy, even if the bomber's speed was no faster than that of the B 36B with its 3,500 horsepower engines. General Kenney had long been disenchanted with the B-36, but admitted in an October 1948 interview, "How are you going to shoot down a bomber at night flying at 40,000 feet with a solid overcast?" Most likely, General Kenney's words could be challenged. During World War II, the Luftwaffe had caused heavy attrition of the Royal Air Force's Bomber Command over the night sky in Europe. On the other hand, it should be noted that General Kenney's interview was conducted on the eve of the Armed Services Committee investigation of the B-36. The Air Force could hardly belittle an aircraft which had acquired a symbolic dimension in the Air Force's and Navy's dispute over the atomic mission.

Nonetheless, a bomber putting on a burst of speed over a target or while under attack increased its chances of survival. This could have been achieved with the substitution of VDT engines, had this project not failed. A step up in speed could also be gained, Convair insisted, by mounting 2 General Electric turbojet engines under each of the B-36's wings. These engines could be cut in to boost the power of the B-36's regular ones. Using the proven twin jets already selected for the future B-47 would trim development and testing, while raising the B-36's top speed over the target from 376 to 435 miles per hour. Unlike the extensive changes needed to install the VDT engines, only minor modifications of the aircraft would be required to mount wing nacelles. In fact, Convair was confident that a prototype B-36 with jet assist engines would be ready to fly less than 4 months after Air Force approval.

With progressive evolution of the bomb itself, especially from the early atomic bombs of the late 1940s to the thermonuclear devices with sealed detonator pits ("wooden" bombs with an indefinite shelf life) of the middle 1950s, even the jet-modified B-36-with its 10 engines-could only carry a single bomb. The Mark 17 (Mk 17), a thermonuclear bomb of mid-decade, weighed more than 41,000 pounds. The complimentary tanker for the B-36 was the KC-97, a slow propeller-engine aircraft with a range of only 4,300 miles, also derived from the B-29. The B-36/KC-97 pair necessitated runway extensions to a minimum of 10,000 feet, with 40 inches of subsurface construction.

The B-36 required airfield pavements that would need to be capable of supporting gross loads of 300,000 pounds-more than twice the load of the B-29. Post-war plans for the first American superairport were for Idlewild in New York, where engineers envisioned 10,000-foot runways (about double the runway length of World War II) able to handle loads up to 250,000 pounds. General Arnold of the AAF inquired as to where the B-36 might land in the U.S. once it was in the military inventory. Engineers told him that the very heavy bomber would break through any airfield pavement in the country. Estimated costs for upgrading a single airfield for the B-36 were about seven million dollars.

While the Cold War was gearing up during the 1948-1953 years, SAC had B-36s (as of late 1948) and B-47s (as of late 1951) in its inventory. The B-36 could carry the atomic bomb and the very large, first generation TN weapon; the B-47 could not. After the middle 1950s, large yield TN devices compatible with the B-47 were developed. Before 1954, SAC B-36s were required to fly to one of the main nuclear weapons storage Q Areas from their home base to receive their bombs, then proceeding on either a hypothetical strike mission or deploying to a forward base-such as those in French Morocco-from which they were posed to launch a strike mission. This first method of coordinating the bombers with the bombs was cumbersome and slow, and meant that SAC could not penetrate the Soviet early warning radar net in a mass strike in under 36 hours. Not until 1954 did several bases with operational special weapons storage sites (alert Q Areas) began receiving atomic bombs. And not until 1956 were atomic bombs in place at all five of the alert Q Areas neighboring Ellsworth, Fairchild, Loring, Travis, and Westover Air Force Bases. It was no coincidence that these five bases also each had large percentages of the total B-36 SAC inventory.

Production plans early in 1951 projected a normal growth in the B-36 employment through use of even more powerful engines. Adoption of the Pratt & Whitney R-4360-57 reciprocating engines would stretch the combat radius of a B-36 with a 10,000 pound bomb load from 3,360 to 4,200 nautical miles. It would also jump the bomber's average speed from 186 to 300 knots. These plans were dropped in August 1952, when the Air Force decided that no more B-36s would be built other than those now in production. The announcement coincided with USAF statement that Boeing's all jet, 8 engine B-52 would replace the B-36 heavy bomber, and that Boeing had been awarded a letter contract to build 70 of the new bombers.

The last B-36 was built in August 1954. The B-36 was certain to be entirely outmoded by mid 1955. Phaseout of the B-36 was settled before 1953. All kinds of technological advances called for it. Withdrawing B-36s from the inventory would also make it possible to do away with the strategic fighters that were to accompany the cumbersome bombers on most of their missions. It was to be replaced by the B-52. Until then, however, it remained SAC's primary atomic bomb carrier and perhaps the Nation's major deterrent to Soviet aggression. Meanwhile, the Air Force found ways to keep enhancing its effectiveness. Ever resourceful, the service set up the Quick Engine Change Program, which combined an engine and accessories in a power package that could be field installed in no time. Applied to other aircraft as well, the change program for B-36s ran from 1953 until September 1957. Another ingenious and long lasting project was Big Kel (devised by the San Antonio Air Materiel Area at Kelly AFB, 'Ibxas), which replenished the flyaway kits of B 36 spares utilized in SAC wing rotation overseas.

The B-36 also benefited from Project SAMSAC. This program, initiated in 1953, required the cyclic reconditioning of all operational B-36s (215 as of September 1954) and constantly tied up 25 aircraft in depots. Yet, the intensive maintenance paid off for both the older B-36s and the latest and final B-30s. In the same vein, the crew to aircraft ratio (too low for many years) began to improve as the number of combat ready crews grew steadily.

Defense fund cutbacks in fiscal year 1958 compelled the Air Force to alter plans for every USAF program at every echelon. SAC did not escape the crisis. The B-52 procurement was stretched out and the B-36 service life extended. Although the worldwide flying hours of the 2 bombers were reduced, these changes were fraught with complications. To begin with, phasing out the giant B-36s was a large undertaking. Because it could "find no other use for them;' the Air Force had ordered the $1 billion fleet scrapped. The scrapping of the first 200 B-36s was due to yield a return of $93.5 million, but the Air Force recouped much more. Various configurations of the B-36's basic R-4360 engines equipped other USAF aircraft (KC-97s, B-50s, C-119s, and C-124s) and $22,000 worth of parts (mainly, crankshafts and cylinders) was removed from each B-36 engine. This was no small savings because 4,000 engines (1,200 of the early R-4360-41s and 2,800 of the more powerful -53s) became surplus as a result of the B-36 phaseout.

Still, the B-36s were to remain first line strategic bombers up to their final day. As a rule, B-36s flew from their last operation straight to the Arizona storage base for reclamation and destruction. B 36s began arriving at Davis Monthan in February 1956. Reclamation and destruction were handled by the Mar Pak Corporation, Painesville, Ohio. Mar Pak had reclaimed 161 B-36s by December 1957 and processed the last B-36 in April 1959.

In 1958-59, the B-36 was replaced by the more modern B-52. On 29 June 1955 the first B-52 was delivered to SAC. At that time there were 340 of the B-36s assigned. When the last B-36 was retired in 1959, for a service life of 8 years, there were almost 500 B-52 aircraft in the US bomber fleet. A shortage of B-52s forced the withdrawal of B-36s from several reclamation contracts. By then, the Air Force had made it a practice to support the B-36s still in service with components from out of service planes. Moreover, to conserve the most in money and manpower, only required items were saved and unneeded reclamations were avoided. Hence, the reactivated B-36s obviously posed problems.

On 12 February 1959, the last of SAC's giant bombers and the final B-36J built by Convair left Biggs AFB, Texas, where it had seen duty with the 95th Heavy Bomb Wing. The plane (Serial No. 52 2827) was flown to Amon Carter Field in Fort Worth and put on display as a permanent memorial. During the years it was in service, the airplane was one of America's major deterrents to aggression by a potential enemy. The fact that the B-36 was never used in combat was indicative of its value in "keeping the peace."

The Air Force accepted a grand total of 385 B-36s (prototype, test, and reconnaissance aircraft among them). As recorded by the Comptroller of the Air Force, the program consisted of 1 XB-36, 1 YB-36, 22 B-36As, 62 B-36Bs, 26 B-36Ds, 34 B-36Fs, 83 B-36Hs, 33 B-30s, 24 RB-3613s, 24 RB-36Fs, 73 RB-36Hs, and 2 swept wing, all jet B-36 prototypes (known for a while as YB-36Gs but redesignated and flown as YB-60s). Be that as it may, these listings were far afield from most operational counts. Modifications and reconfigurations sharply altered the B-36 program. The Air Force accepted only 26 true B-36D productions, but conversion of the B-36Bs gave SAC another 50 B-36Ds. Similarly, the B-36A reconfiguration gave the reconnaissance forces 22 RB-36Es, not reflected in production data. Pinning a price on the B-36 was not so involved. Some true productions, like the B-36Hs, ran as high as $4.15 million, but early B-36s were far cheaper. The Air Force estimated the entire program (research, development, prototypes, and production) at $1.4 billion. Prorated, this came to $3.6 million per aircraft. Omitted from every unit cost, however, were the expenses incurred for all engineering changes and modifications, added on after approval of a basic contract.

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Page last modified: 24-07-2011 04:34:20 ZULU