Aircraft, awesome and awful: B-36 Peacemaker

Dr. Marshall Michel86th Airlift Wing historian

***image2***One of the most awesome Cold War bombers was the huge Convair B-36, which was the largest piston engine bomber ever built – by a good margin. Nicknamed the Peacemaker, the B-36 was built to carry the first generation of thermonuclear bombs, which were very large – 15 feet long and about 42,000 pounds.

The B-36 was originally powered by six piston engines, but these engines made the huge aircraft underpowered and very slow. This was a special problem with the rapid development of the jet fighter. The Soviets quickly designed lightweight interceptors such as the MiG-15 that could climb quickly to high altitude specifically to counter the B-36.

But while the B-36 was slow, its huge wings gave it the capability to fly at very high altitude, and as it burned off fuel it could climb even higher. It was also armed with sixteen 20MM cannon in remotely controlled turrets, and it was expected to be able to defend itself against cannon-armed fighters whose small wings cut their maneuverability at high attitudes.

The biggest challenge to the B-36, however, came not from the Soviets but from the U.S. Navy, which at the time was trying to build a new carrier, the United States, with the capability to deploy nuclear bombers. The Navy believed – correctly – that Congress would only fund one weapons system, the B-36 or the new carrier, and launched a massive campaign to discredit the B-36.

The Navy proposed a test where the B-36 would fly out to sea and attempt to bomb a carrier while Navy fighters tried to intercept it. The test came very close to taking place and was only cancelled at the last minute by the Secretary of Defense, who then cancelled the Navy carrier.

The Secretary of the Navy and several high-ranking admirals resigned in protest in what became known as the “Revolt of the Admirals.” Ironically, today Navy historians view the cancellation of the carrier as a good thing, because in the aftermath the Navy moved away from the nuclear attack role to conventional attack for its new carriers. Through the 1950s and 1960s it developed a significant conventional capability that was used successfully in Vietnam and later conflicts.