***image2***by Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian
Immediately after its formation, the United States Air Force faced the challenge of establishing a credible global nuclear attack capability in accordance with national defense policy. The World War II B-29 and its follow on, the B-50, were obsolete and had neither the capability to carry large thermonuclear weapons nor the intercontinental range to deliver from bases in the United States. Fortunately, even before the Air Force became an independent service, an aircraft that could fulfill the mission was under development – the huge, six-engine Convair B-36 Peacemaker, which first flew on Aug. 8, 1946.
To say the B-36 was immense is an understatement. It was two-thirds longer than the B-29, had a wing area of 4,750 square feet (compared to, for example, a C-17’s wing area of 3,800 square feet) and could carry a bomb load of 82,000 pounds (a B-52 carries 60,000 pounds).
The huge, moderately swept, wing allowed the B-36 to carry a large amount of fuel, giving it a range of more than 4,000 miles with a full bomb load. That also gave it outstanding performance at high altitude. It was very slow − 230 mph − and its high altitude performance was considered its best defense. In those days of interceptors, armed with only guns, or small, unguided rockets, it would simply go into a turn when it was attacked; its huge wings would support it in the rarefied air, while the high wing loaded fighter would stall out and drop away.
Four jet engines were later added in an attempt to increase B-36’s speed, but they were mainly useful for heavy weight take off.
***image3***As it turned out, the B-36’s most dangerous enemy was not a Soviet interceptor but the United States Navy. When the Air Force became an independent service, a great debate was raging between the Air Force and the Navy about the direction of U.S. national defense policy. The Air Force pushed for a defense policy based on nuclear deterrence, which would require a strong strategic bomber force, led by the new B-36.
The Navy wanted a force balanced between conventional weapons and nuclear weapons, both based on a new aircraft carrier class. The debate seemed to be critical for the future of both services, since in the post-World War II budget environment the U.S. could afford either new intercontinental bombers or new carriers − not both.
This budget debate brought interservice rivalry to an unprecedented level, led by the Navy’s accusations that the B-36 was very vulnerable to air defenses. To make its case for the B-36, and to poke the Navy in the eye, on Dec. 7-8, 1948, a B-36 made a 35 1/2 hour flight from Carswell Air Force Base, Texas, to Pearl Harbor, dropped a simulated thermonuclear bomb on the Navy base, and returned to Carswell without refueling. It had been undetected by the Navy’s air defenses at Pearl Harbor, a point the Air Force made loudly and often as Congressional hearings began.
Nevertheless, the Navy pressed the case that the B-36 was vulnerable to interceptors. The Navy proposed an exercise where a B-36 would fly to a target while Navy F2H Banshee fighters tried to intercept it.
The exercise was scheduled but then cancelled by the Secretary of Defense, an Air Force supporter, in the name of “national security.” He also cancelled the United States class carriers, and this led to what became known as the “Revolt of the Admirals.”
Two members of the Navy staff falsified documents saying the Secretary of the Air Force and Secretary of Defense chose the B-36 because they would receive financial benefits; the documents were distributed to the press and Congress, generating a huge outcry.
When the fraud was discovered, the Chief of Naval Operations was fired and only the fact that the Secretary of the Navy had recently resigned saved that official from the same fate. Thus ended one of the most unpleasant chapters in U.S. military history.
Was the B-36 vulnerable to enemy inceptors? The answer is a resounding, “that depends.”
Certainly in daylight it was vulnerable to radar-controlled fighters who could find it, but given the fact that the in war the B-36s would have attacked at night and from points where Soviet radar coverage was marginal, many if not most would have probably made it to their targets.
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