B-36 Deterrence…Yesterday’s and Tomorrow’s

May 1, 1959

Three central themes dominate our postwar military history: cold war, interservice controversy, and extraordinary technical development.

Externally, the end product of these interacting factors has been the grand deterrent — a principle with weapon systems to carry it out.

Internally, the composition of our military forces, and a shift in the balance of power among their components, have mirrored this revolution in our basic concept of how best to fight war and be prepared in peace.

A giant item of aerial hardware, now obsolete, played a transcendent role in shaping the events of these years. It profoundly influenced our world posture. It set the tone of the times insofar as a machine can affect the lives of men.

This globally significant airplane, the B-36 intercontinental nuclear bomber, flew out of the operational inventory early this year while current attention focused on its successors — among others, the Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles; the B-47, B-52, B-58, B-70, and (someday) the nuclear-powered bombers; the ALBM, air-launched ballistic missile, and the projected Polaris missile being developed for used by Navy nuclear submarines.

Some of these are in being, some at earlier stages of development. All have this in common in succession to the B-36. They could strike with immense destructive power at an aggressor’s heartland; the threat of such a strike, it is hoped, deters any potential aggressor.

Now would seem an apt time, before it has faded too far into the past, to examine the life and times of the B036, which appear to have established the pattern for the immediate future of this planet. The B-36 also has considerable symbolic significance because, in the words of an Air Force general, it was “the first major weapon system to come into the operational inventory, superbly perform its deterrent mission, and be retired without firing a shot in anger.” And, in physical terms, it was an aviation phenomenon.

Two deadly mushroom clouds and the emergence of aggressive world Communism made the postwar B-36 a necessity.

The atomic bomb, as demonstrated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, approached the “ultimate” in destructive power. It also raised strategic bombing to more overwhelming military importance than ever — a position, incidentally, that had been predicted by airpower leaders back through the decades.

Consequently, if the B-36 had not already existed in test stage in the a-borning postwar world, it would have had to be created. As it was, the plane was reaching maturity at the Fort Worth plant of Convair Division of the General Dynamics Corp., after a genesis stretching back to April 1941.

At the same time, menacing words and deeds from Moscow, and a picture of armed Communism on the move from Southeast Asia to Europe, contrasted sharply with our own speedy demobilization and return to what the free world hoped would be peaceful normality.

The B-36, greatest aerial delivery system ever produced in the world up to that time, thus approached its rendezvous with the cold war.

As a top SAC officer put it a few years ago, the postwar Air Force was faced with the need to “develop a powerful strategic force in being, able to deliver such massive retaliation that any aggressor nation would hesitate to launch an attack against our homeland. Part of the fleet had to be able to launch additional sizable strikes from our North American bases. The B-36 gave us this capability.”

In the next decade Convair delivered 385 B-36s in a number of versions to the Air Force. The plane was variously known as the Peacemaker, the Big Stick, or, sometimes, “the Monster.” Poised combat-ready at bases from Main to California to Puerto Rico, it was the backbone of SAC in the organization’s formative years.

Five years ago Sir Winston Churchill thus placed SAC and the B-36 in perspective for the ages. He was addressing the British Parliament.

“The United States Strategic Air Command,” Churchill said, “is a deterrent of the highest order…. We owe much to their devotion to the cause of freedom in a troubled world. The primary deterrent to aggression remains the nuclear weapon and the ability of the highly-organized and trained United States Strategic Air Command to use it.”

Churchill and others had observed, from the time the Iron Curtain itself came into being, that strategic air almost alone prevented new and overt Red aggression. In the final analysis it prevented attack on the United States itself.

The late James V. Forrestal, the nation’s first Secretary of Defense, recognized this awesome fact soon after the war. He declared, “The only balance we have against the overwhelming manpower of the Russians, and therefore the chief deterrent to war, is the threat of immediate retaliation with the atomic bomb.”

But, despite this widespread recognition of the “big picture,” the B-36 experienced some rough going when it first began rolling off the assembly line.

First, it had almost inevitable technical bugs. SAC’s first commanding officer, Gen. George C. Kenney, close to the B-36 from its inception, himself expressed serious doubts about the plane shortly after it entered the aerial testing phase. He feared the plane’s performance and other characteristics were not good enough at that point for SAC and the nation to pin their hopes on it.

Others in high places disagreed. Gen. Nathan F. Twining, current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was then head of the Air Materiel Command, argued that the B-36 was the best plane for its purpose available and would be subject to numerous improvements.

Gen. Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz, who headed the AAF, agreed. The B-36 program continued in full swing. The plane was improved from stem to stern. General Kenney, convinced, then returned to his earlier position as one of its enthusiastic supporters.

A second major hurdle the B-36 program had to face came from outside the Air Force. Navy leaders and other military “traditionalists” leveled an attack on the B-36, the concept of strategic bombing itself, and the manner in which the plane’s contract was awarded and administered.

An unofficial, anonymous, behind-the-scenes memorandum circulated in Washington and given to the press alleged “fraud” and “corruption” surrounded the contract. It also charged published performance characteristics for the plane were falsified.

The House Armed Service Committee conducted hull-length hearings on the plane and the backstage charges in 1949. Top Army, Navy, and Air Force officers, civilian officials, military experts, and other were heard. The outcome was that charges of underhanded activity were dismissed outright and the Air Force got a green light to proceed with its B-36 plans.

In the next few years the plane came to rule the sky as the embodiment of the whole doctrine of deterrence. There remains today, in addition, a considerable body of opinion that a go-ahead for SAC’s B-36s and then-operational B-29s to exercise their full potential would have brought victory in Korea in days, in contrast to the traditionally fought three-year stalemate. There were, of course, manifold complex issues involved, many of them not military.

Inclusion of the Polaris submarine missile on the above roll call of successors to the B-36 points up the 180-degree turn the principle of strategic deterrence has brought in traditional US military circles.

In its early days, when the B-36 and the strategic doctrine it served were brought under attack, Navy admirals almost unanimously spoke out sharply against it.

Adm. Arthur W. Radford, shortly to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the plane a “billion-dollar blunder” during a typical Navy statement before the House hearing. Along with this much-headlined phrase, he and others suggested strategic bombing of population centers was both immoral and ineffective militarily.

But listen to Adm. Arleigh Burke, present Chief of Naval Operations, in a recent television interview. Asked how many Polaris submarines he thought this country needed Admiral Burke replied:

“…You can take from the number of Russian cities, the number of megatons it takes to destroy a Russian city, the reliability of the missile, the accuracy of the missile, and you can compute it pretty accurately yourself. And then you double it just to make sure and you come out somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty.”

The Navy’s top leader, a distinguished officer of the surface fleet, discussing the Navy’s newest and proudest weapon system, spoke in the language of strategic bombing.

Later in this same interview, Admiral Burke observed, “We have more power at sea than the Russians do and we have more power in our SAC bombers. We have a tremendous SAC—-Russia has very few long-range bombers.”

Admiring praise for SAC, from the nation’s top naval officer. This does not seem really surprising today, but it would have a decade ago, at the time of the House hearings.

This change does not show Admiral Burke or the Navy in a bad light; long-term consistency is not an unmixed virtue in a rapidly changing world of weaponry. Nor is it intended to suggest that the Navy has necessarily chosen to abandon more traditional, and essential, missions.

But the simple fact is this: A decade intervened between charges such as Admiral Radford’s and these views from Admiral Burke. That roughly, was the period of the B-36’s active life, the period on which the B-36 and SAC assumed their ascendant place in free world strategy — and all the armed forces realized, by and large, that nuclear weapons changed the facts of life.

Weapons and doctrines of former wars, including World War II, have been largely replaced, at least in theory. From the Polaris to the nuclear fox-hole spade, transition sparked initially by nuclear-armed SAC — is the order of the day.

Not that everything changes. Recently, for instance, the present SAC commander, Gen. Thomas S. Power, vigorously rebutted opinions expressed by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor and Admiral Burke before the House Defense Appropriations Committee. Taylor and burke had told the congressmen in closed session that they believed this country already has too big a deterrent force for its purposes. This was the theory of “minimum deterrence.”

General Power declared bluntly: “Many people are living in the past….they still think they will get warning, strategic warning. They still think they will get word of an attack, perhaps from Mata Hari, or that the courier will drop a piece of paper out of his pouch, or perhaps they will see troops marching onto ships or into planes.”

So traces of things past have not been wholly swept away, either in the field of military doctrine or the nature of discussion before Congress.

Now let us look at the B-36 itself more closely.

The B-36 was big news from its very beginnings for reasons quite apart from matters of strategy or world affairs, so far as a major weapon can ever be divorced from its historic milieu. The word “big” deserves to be underlines. The B-36 was huge, its performance capabilities unprecedented, especially when viewed in circa 1941 comparative terms.

In Aril of that year, the Army Air Corps invited aircraft manufacturers to submit preliminary design studies for an intercontinental bomber capable of delivering a 10,000-pound bomb load on a target at 5,000-mile range — and returning safely to Western Hemisphere bases. These requirements, quite literally, seemed fantastic.

The B-17 Flying Fortress, the great standby of those years, could hardly be called upon to do the job. Its effective combat radius was no more than 1,000 miles.

The times dictated the new requirements. Nazi Germany held most of Europe. The London blitz was at its height in April of 1941. U-boats were slowly starving Britain’s population and industry. The war party had control in Japan, and war clouds hung heavy over the western Pacific.

Might we be forced, if Britain fell, to go it alone against a victorious Axis? “Yes” to this question meant we would have to fight a global war without overseas bases, at least at the outset. And “yes” to this question appeared a quite reasonable answer.

Against this background President Roosevelt directed, in conference with Air Corps leaders, that an “intercontinental” heavy bomber, which could carry the war to the prospective enemy from this side of the troubled water, should be developed.

This is where the story of the B-36 begins, although men had dreamed of such a plane back through the years.

Four aircraft manufacturers took up the design challenge. The Air Corps, some four months before Pearl Harbor, chose Consolidated Aircraft’s preliminary plans. These called for a swept-wing, twin-tail, pressurized giant that, it appeared, would be able to do the job. It was powered, at the stage, with six pusher-type engines on the trailing edges of its wings.

A few comparisons illustrate what manner of plane this was that the service specified and Consolidated said it could build.

The plane’s wingspan was to measure 230 feet. The Flying Fortress, by comparison, was only 103 feet between wingtips. The planes’ lengths contrasted similarly. The Flying Fortress’ maximum loaded weight, a vital statistic, stood at 65,000 pounds; the B=36’s was listed as a mammoth 278,000 pounds.

The contrast with Navy ships was even more staggering. From wingtip to wingtip, the -36 was one-third the length of a South Dakota class World War II battleship, more than one-quarter the length of the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Lexington or the main deck of the giant battleship Missouri.

General Kenney, who then headed the Air Corps Experimental Division and Engineering School at Wright Field, took Consolidated’s drawings to General H. H. Arnold. Arnold was chief of the newly designated Army Air Forces.

Kenney recommended, “That we go ahead on that design. Our evaluation at the Materiel Division indicated it was the best of the lot.”

Interestingly, Wright Field personnel, working independently of Consolidated’s engineers, also had come up with a six-engineers, also had come up with a six-engine pusher-type bomber for the intercontinental mission. It was not vastly different from the firm’s proposed design. Arnold, with this information and the recommended manufacturer’s design before him, directed that a contract for two experimental aircraft be negotiated with Consolidated.

The full bag of requirements for the plane was forbidding: 10,000-mile range, 10,000-pound payload, 35,000-foot ceiling, cruising speed of 240 to 300 miles an hour. This performance was to be accomplished under conditions of the times — no aerial refueling, 5,000-foot runways. Refueling was a much later development, becoming “routine” during the tenure of Gen. Curtis LeMay as SAC Boss.

The experimental B-36 project was assigned by Consolidated to a new major plant in Fort Worth, history-making “home” of the glob-roaming B-36 throughout its life.

There was, at this time, little or no past experience with the structure-gross weight ratios dictated by the plane’s size. The engines to power the plane were still on paper at Pratt & Whitney. The 3,000-horsepower promised for each of the R-4360 Wasp Major engines was unheard of.

The job progressed slowly. Pressure was on for high-priority production of other aircraft. Consolidated facilities were turned mainly to producing vitally needed B-24 Liberators, C-87s, and Navy patrol bombers.

In July 1943, with this developmental work grinding forward, the Air Corps awarded a letter of intent for 100 B-36 aircraft to Convair, which had by then been formed by merger of Consolidated with Vultee aircraft Corporation. It was decided that as much as two years could be cut from developmental time of the B-36 if work were begun on production models even before the experimental planes had been rolled out.

(Here again, the B-36 left a legacy of experience for the future. Concurrent development of this sort was called into play once more to step up the pace in a life-or-death missile race fifteen years later.)

Roll-out of the first XB-36 took place a little over two years later, after V-J Day. A year later it was airborne on a successful thirty-seven-minute flight over the Texas countryside. Except for malfunction of a wing-flap system, the test hop went well and was accompanied by the cheers of 7,000 assembled Convair-Fort Worth workers and other folk from the vicinity.

This model was already somewhat revised from the original accepted design. During the preflight developmental period the AAF ordered a shift from twin to single-tail configuration and also revised armament requirements.

Its measurements, along with a 230-foot wingspan, included a 162-foot length, a vertical stabilizer rising forty-six feet and nine inches above the runway, a high cantilever wing 4,772 square feet in area and seven feet six inches thick at its deepest point.

Flying this plane somewhat later, an Air Force pilot made the famous observation that he felt as if he were “sitting in the bay window and flying an apartment house.”

One feature of the B-36 that especially caught the popular imagination was the pressurized tunnel crewmen had to use to move forward and aft. This connected the crew compartments at the two ends of an eighty-foot bomb-bay section. To move from one end to the other of the plane, a crewman had to lie on a cart on rails sand pull himself along with the aid of an overhead cable — this at perhaps 40,000 feet over the surface of the earth.

Along the same line, a “crawlway” ran through the wings to provide access to the engines while the plane was in flight.

By the following summer thirteen production B-36s reached the final assembly line, and further modifications were in the works. A new four-wheel truck-type landing gear made the plane operable from most heavy bomber fields. A bubble-type canopy improved pilot visibility. A further souped-up engine also was in the immediate offing, but the real revolution in the power plant remained in the more distant future.

The first of the operational planes was turned over to the Air Force in August of 1947. Then new and troublesome problems began to appear.

For example, engines on the ear end of the wing created unexpected vibration difficulties. Wing metal fatigue was the result. New materials, fabrication methods had to be used.

The fuel tanks leaked with use of new fuels. They had to be sealed with a substance specially developed for the purpose.

The supposedly improved, higher-horsepower engine was disappointing.

Nevertheless, in 1948 a B-36 dropped an impressive load of seventy-two 1,000-pound bombs over the open sea on a simulated mission. Another B-36 flew a little under 10,000 miles nonstop and dropped a 10,000-pound bomb load.

Then came a power modification of immense importance. The Air Force approved a Convair proposal to install four auxiliary jet engines in pods on the B-36’s wings. The B-36B received the four additional engines and they were speedily installed on older models. New snap-action bomb-bay doors also were installed.

As a result, the B-36 top speed went up from 360 miles an hour to over 435. Maximum ceiling went up from over 40,000 to 45,000 feet. Almost doubled power gave the plane greatly increased “dash” speed over target. Greater thrust also meant shorter takeoff.

The powerplant improvement was in the nature of a technical “breakthrough” for the plane were awarded following it.

In 1949, the first year of General LeMay’s period as commander of SAC, a B-36 powered with ten engines gained what may be the all-time record for bomb load. It loaded two 42,000-pound “grand slam” bombs and dropped them over Muroc Dry Lake, now Edwards AFB, Calif.

This bomb load actually weighed more, at 84,000 pounds, than a wartime B-24 bomber fully loaded, a fact which belongs in the believe-it-or-not category with such other data as this:

At high speeds the B-36’s ten engines developed more than 44,000 horsepower, roughly comparable to that of nine locomotives or 400 average passenger cars.

Volume of the B-36 bomb bay, 12,300 cubic feet, was equivalent to the capacity of three railroad freight cars.

An automobile could circle the globe ten or more times with the quantity of fuel in the B-36’s wing tanks.

A B-36’s deicing gear could have heated a 600-room hotel.

Such a list could continue almost endlessly, a statement that further characterizes the plane. Still another prime characteristic of the B-36 was that it readily lent itself to modification and experimentation.

In 1949 and 1950 the RB-36 was born. A long-range strategic reconnaissance modification of the basic plane, it carried fourteen cameras and an airborne darkroom.

In 1951 the novel “Ficon” GRB-36 was developed. This incorporated a fast jet fighter, the RF-84, into the B-36 weapon system. The plane was carried partially withdrawn into the bomb bay and launched and retrieved by means of a retractable boom.

The NB-36H was a B-36 converted to serve as a test-bed for the world’s first airborne nuclear reactor. The plane was conventionally powered but employed the “hot” reactor to test radiation effects on equipment and crew shielding. First flight was made on July 20, 1955.

The C-99, cargo-carry version of the B-36, was perhaps the champion weight lifter of all time.

Two —YB-60 heavy bombers of modified B-36, design were also built in test-configuration, but this project was discontinued.

Throughout, the B-36 “family” of aircraft were safe planes, generally considered easily manageable for pilots and comfortable for crews. The B-36 compiled one of the best safety records of any bomber ever built. Under conditions that prevailed on most missions, crewmen had plenty of room to get up and move around, change stations, sleep if they wished. Crews ranged from fifteen to twenty-two men, depending on the configuration.

Today the B-36 no longer exists, so far as the operational Air Force is concerned. Actually, two B-36s no longer exists, so far as the operational Air Force is concerned. Actually, two B-36s will be preserved, one at the Air Force Museum, Wright-Patter AFB, and one as a memorial at Amon Carter Field, Fort Worth.

In reality, however, the B-36 will be with us so long as the policy of deterrence remains in force or in the history books of a free and peaceful world.