Military Monday: The B-36 Peacemaker

by Crocker on March 29, 2010, 10:27 am

in History,Military

I betray my age and Cold War lifespan with this week’s topic, the Convair B-36 “Peacemaker” strategic bomber. The B-36 was an enormous, ungainly aircraft powered by six Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp radial piston engines arranged in a “pusher” configuration. Later production models also sported four General Electric J47 jet engines in twin pods slung near the bomber’s wingtips. These engines – and the pods themselves – were the same as found on the Boeing B-47 Stratojet. It was the first bomber with capacity to carry without modification first-generation nuclear and thermonuclear gravity bombs like the Mark 17.

The initial planning for the B-36 began in the early 1940s in response to an Army Air Force requirement for a bomber with range sufficient to fly to Europe and back again on its internal fuel load – this being before aerial refueling. While the B-36 was never conceived of as a nuclear-capable bomber, it was pressed into this role during the 1950s before more advanced aircraft entered service. The first prototype flew in 1946 and the bomber went into full production in 1949. The B-36 entered service at precisely the same time as a new generation of jet bombers – such as the B-47 and B-52 – were under development. Being relatively slow and relying on piston-engine technology, the design was arguably obsolescent at the time it entered service.

The B-36 was enormously expensive both to produce and maintain. Because they were employed in a pusher configuration, the R-4360 engines were prone to overheating, carburetor icing and fires. Lubricating oil consumption and fuel leaks were a constant headache. Still, the bomber was produced in great numbers and diverted funds from other branches, particularly naval construction and army readiness. In the opinion of then-Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, air-dropped nuclear weapons rendered all other branches – particularly the navy – superfluous. The Navy’s furious reaction to Johnson’s position has come to be known as the “Revolt of the Admirals”.

Still, the B-36 served as a front-line bomber until 1958 and operated constantly in missions throughout the world in every conceivable climate. Another oddity of bomber development during this era was Convair’s submission of the YB-60 prototype as a direct competitor to Boeing’s B-52. The YB-60 was an updated, swept-winged version of the B-36 judged inferior to the B-52 in about every respect. Another of Convair’s designs that did enter production, however, was the radical – and supersonic – B-58 Hustler.

Here are two videos with more information – and great views – of the B-36. The first is taken from the 1955 film, Strategic Air Command, starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson. This will give you an idea both of the aircraft’s size and its complexity. The second is an Australian documentary in five parts about the B-36. Enjoy.

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