B-36 — The Peacemaker Survivors
The B-36 Peacemaker was one of the largest airplanes to be built in quantity, and certainly the largest successful aircraft project up to the era of the Boeing 747 and Lockheed C-5. There are other bigger airplanes, like the HK-1 (Spruce Goose), but they either never made it into production, or were one-off examples of their type.
The B-36 project started during the dark days of WWII when it looked like England would fall to the NAZI’s. The B-36 would be needed to bomb Germany from bases in the US. When it became clear that England would not fall to Germany, the B-36 project was put on the back burner. The first prototype YB-36 did not fly until after the war.
After WWII, the B-36 project was revived when a need was identified to carry the huge A-bombs (and later H-bombs) to the heart of the Soviet Union. At the time, the bombs were huge and very heavy. This was also before the era of aerial refueling, so a nuclear bomber would need to carry all the fuel needed for the round trip. The B-36 was the only bomber that could carry out this mission, so it went into production.
The B-36 is huge. There is no other word for it. The airframe is 230 feet wide, 162 feet long (185 feet long for the recon version), and the tail is nearly 49 feet tall. It weighed in empty at 131,740 pounds, and could take off with a gross weight of 276,506 pounds. This included up to 19,976 gallons of fuel, or up to 72,000 pounds of bombs. With one 40,000 pound A-bomb, the Peacemaker had a combat range of 3500 miles, enough to hit Leningrad from bases in Maine. Top speed for early B-36’s was 346MPH at 35,000 feet. This was achieved using 6 R4360 “corncob” engines (3500 horsepower from 28 cylinders per engine) connected to 19-foot long props. Later B-36’s included 4 jet engines, which upped the top speed to 435MPH at 45,000 feet. This lead to the expression “6 turning and 4 burning”. The B-36 had a crew of 15, 10 up front, and 5 in the back. The two crew areas were pressurized, and connected by an 85-foot long tunnel. The recon version had a crew of 22. By omitting bombs, and carrying fuel in the bomb bays, the recon version could stay aloft for nearly 48 hours.
There were a number of B-36 variants. The YB-36 (and XC-99) had a single tire on each of the main landing gear struts. The tires were so heavy that concrete could not support the airplane. This lead to the development of the bogie with 4 tires on each strut. As planes came off the assembly line, improvements were added. The plane started as the A version, and went all the way up to the J version. As the B-47 and B-52 came on-line, a B-36 recon variant was introduced. Convair Aircraft also tried to enter the passenger market with the B-36. First, they built a double decker cargo version for the Navy, called the XC-99. The airliner version was canceled. The DOD also tried to build a nuclear powered version. The prototype, called the X-6, actually carried a running nuclear reactor. Protecting the B-36 was also a major priority, since fighters did not have the range needed to escort the Peacemaker. The idea was to carry the fighters with you. This included the parasite concept (carry a XP-85 fighter in the bomb bay), FICON (carry a jet fighter under the belly of the B-36), and TomTom (attach fighters at the wingtip of each side of the B-36). All of these programs were a failure. In the end, Convair tried to compete for the B-52 contract with the B-60 proposal...which was an all-jet powered swept-wing B-36. But the B-52 was nearly 100MPH faster, and the B-36 line came to an end.
The B-36 stayed on-line for 10 years. It rapidly faded from the scene when the B-47 and B-52 were ready. In the end, no one really knows if the B-36 would have been able to do its mission. Critics point to hundreds of problems with the B-36, and say it would have been toast when put up against a jet fighter. Supporters counter that B-36 flew higher than any contemporary jet fighter, and it would have been able to drop bombs on target before the fighters were able to climb to altitude. And SAC never did base the B-36 in the Arctic region, which is where it would have needed to be to fly round-trip to central Russia. Whether or not it was the billion dollar boondoggle, it was still a remarkable giant.
Of the 385 aircraft produced from the B-36 chassis, only 6 survive, of which, only 3 are on public display.
Surviving B-36 Peacemaker Airframes
Note—click on the Serial Number to see a photo of each airplane.
Authored by John A. Weeks III, Copyright © 1996—2016, all rights reserved.
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