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TIMING: IT’S IMPORTANT in peace as well as in war. Ironically, one of the latter’s weapons of mass destruction has the name Peacemaker, and this aircraft is an interesting example of timing.
The Convair B-36 Peacemaker superbomber was, in a sense, an aircraft that turned out to be too much, too late. Not, however, before one B-36 crashed into Canadian wilderness after jettisoning an unarmed nuclear bomb over British Columbia’s Inner Passage. And, two years later, another B-36 co-starred with aviation enthusiast James Stewart in a stirring motion picture.
The Douglas DC-3 first flew in 1935; the Boeing B-17 in 1936 and its B-29 sibling in 1943. Design work had begun in 1941 on the B-36, an aircraft dwarfing any of these earlier planes. Its wingspan was 230 ft., compared with a B-29’s 141 ft. To put the B-36’s span in perspective, a modern Boeing 747’s is 196 ft.
The Peacemaker was powered by six massive 71.5-liter Pratt & Whitney Wasp Major 28-cylinder four-bank air-cooled radials arranged pusher-fashion. To aid this 262,500-lb. aircraft getting off the ground, later variants also had a pair of General Electric J-47-19 jet engines slung under each wing.
The B-36 was an extremely complex aircraft with plenty of development challenges. Throughout the Peacemaker’s life, its aircrews joked about its engines, “two turning, two burning, two smoking, two choking and two more unaccounted for.”
The Peacemaker’s initial design goal was to make it capable of bombing Germany directly from the U.S. England’s victory in the 1940 Battle of Britain precluded this requirement. Later in World War II, its mission was reassessed into round trips to Japan from Hawaii.
However, the B-36 first flew in 1946, an aircraft without a mission until deployment of large, and heavy, nuclear weapons. The B-36 entered service in 1948 as the primary nuke-delivery aircraft of the U.S. Strategic Air Command, headed 1948-1957 by the mercurial General (and sports car fan) Curtis LeMay.
It was on February 14, 1950, that a B-36 on simulated nuclear-attack maneuvers encountered not uncharacteristic engine trouble. Three of its six piston engines failed over the Alaskan-Canadian border and the aircrew prepared to ditch the aircraft by first jettisoning its Mark IV nuclear weapon. This bomb contained substantial amounts of uranium and 5000 lb. of conventional explosive, but lacked its plutonium-core trigger. It was dropped and exploded over Canada’s Inner Passage.
Fourteen of the 17-man crew bailed out over Canadian wilderness and survived. Those who had bailed out earlier perished in frigid Inland Passage waters. The craft’s autopilot was set to bring it down out in the Pacific, but instead it crashed near British Columbia’s Mount Kologet. So rugged was the terrain that the crash site was not identified until 1953, with crews finally reaching it a year later. U.S. and Canadian authorities were not on the same page in regard to this matter. In late 1998, the Canadian government declared the site a protected one, with no unusual levels of radiation.
In 1955 Jimmy Stewart, June Allyson and Frank Lovejoy (as General Hawkes, the LeMay character) co-starred with another B-36 in Strategic Air Command. This flick was stunning in its scenes of Peacemaker operation, on the ground and in the air. It wasn’t a bad photoplay either, with a 1956 Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Motion Picture. However, Marty took the 1956 Oscar in that category.
Combat requirements passed the B-36 by. Its top speed of 435 mph made it vulnerable to jet fighters. And its design could not be adapted to air-to-air refueling. A research role of using a B-36 to launch an X-15 from 40,000 ft. got scrapped because the Peacemaker was being phased out by the B-52.
My inspiration for sharing the Peacemaker lore here was prompted when I found an old tiepin of mine. Truth is, I rarely wear a tie these days, even more rarely with a tiepin. Like I said, timing. ds
c Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017