In early 1949, the B-36’s future was highly questionable but although the Peacemaker’s ability to evade enemy fighters, the Air Force emerged triumphantly from the October hearings.
The B-36 was first conceived in 1941 as a transatlantic bomber to strike Europe from bases in the US. By 1943, the focus switched from the European Theater to the Pacific for use against the Japanese home islands. After more design changes and greater success of the B-29s, the prototype XB-36s first flight was delayed until Aug. 8, 1946; nearly six years after initial design contracts were signed.
The B-36 Peacemaker is the largest production bomber ever built. Pilots referred to it as the “Magnesium Monster.” Although the B-36 was the largest bomber ever built and held the greatest combat unrefueled radius, it never dropped a bomb in combat.
As explained by Meyers K. Jacobsen in his book Convair B-36: A Comprehensive History of America’s “Big Stick”, it is interesting to note that the B-36 program might have been canceled at least five times during the big bomber’s career. It is a testament to the plane itself that it did manage to survive during a difficult transitional period in Air Force history.
First possible cancellation:
The letter of intent, dated Jul. 23, 1943, from the Army Air Forces to Convair, was superseded a year later by a definitive contract for 100 B-36 airplanes. This $160 million contract included a $6 million fixed fee, and the cost of all spare parts and engineering data. However, the contract had no priority by that time, but delivery schedules remained the same, with the first B-36 off the production due in August 1945 and the last in October 1946.
With victory in sight, war contracts were being scrutinized for cancellation, or drastic cutback. Aircraft production was actually cut by 30% on May 25, 1945, a reduction of 17,000 planes. As far as the B-36 was concerned, there was no question that a long range bomber was needed. In 1945; the B-36 seemed the best answer, so, on Aug. 6, 1945, General Arnold approved the Air Staff recommendation to keep the B-36 production contract intact.
Second possible cancellation:
On Dec. 12, 1946, General Kenney, who had been promoted to four star general in March 1945, and had headed SAC since April 1946, suggested reducing the procurement contract for the 100 B-36s to just a few service-test aircraft. After studying available performance estimates on the B-36, the SAC commander believed it to be inferior to the forthcoming B-50, an advanced B-29 design. Among the shortcomings of the B-36 cited by General Kenney, were a useful range of only 6,500 miles, insufficient speed, and lack of protection for the bomber’s fuel load. Neither the Air Staff or Lt. General Nathan F. Twining, AMC commanding general, agreed. General Twining said that the B-36 should not be judged solely from the XB-36, which had just started its flight testing. He added, all new airplanes encounter teething problems, including the B-17 and B-29. Moreover, the B-36 was the only suitable aircraft far enough along to serve as an interim long range atomic bomb carrier until the B-52 arrived. General Carl Spaatz, the AAF’s new commander, wholly agreed with General Twining. The B-36 contract was retained in full.
Third possible cancellation:
The new Air Force Aircraft and Weapons Board, formed by new Deputy Chief of the Air Staff General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, met on Aug. 19, 1947, and discussed the future role of strategic bombing, and the means of accomplishing such missions, if so needed. The senior officers were to recommend the weapons that best supported the long range plans for the Air Force’s development and gradual buildup to 70 groups.
The board members differed on how to solve these complex problems. Some considered the B-36 already obsolete and favored buying fast jet bombers—a gamble, since these would have insufficient range and would not be available for years. Others wanted to increase the B-36’s speed with the new proposed VDT engine, using the plane as an all-purpose bomber. Still others preferred the B-50, because it was faster than the present B-36 and could also obtain greater range and speed with the addition of VDT engines.
However, after prolonged discussion, a consensus emerged to retain the B-36 as a special purpose bomber, which would eventually be replaced by the B-52 (1953 at the earliest). The B-36 program avoided cancellation once again.
Fourth possible cancellation:
When it became obvious that a faster B-36 (designated B-36C, equipped with VDT engines) could not be obtained, the Air Force once more thought of cancelling the entire B-36 program. Yet, various factors had to be considered. Twenty-two of the basic and relatively slow B-36As were nearly completed by spring 1948. A great deal of money had already been spent on the controversial program. Therefore, the Air Force decided to postpone any decisions. It instructed Air Materiel Command to waive the modification of several shop-completed B-36As that had been awaiting adjustments, and to expedite their delivery. This would allow Convair to speed up the aircraft’s flight test program. Also, new yardsticks, the VR diagrams, were to be used to measure the B-36’s real performance against other bombers under similar conditions.
Test results, though not spectacular, favored the B-36. It seemed that the B-36, so maligned, might turn out to be a better airplane than had been expected. If so, any hasty reduction of the production contract might wreck the program, just as it was beginning to pay off. The beginning of the Russian blockade of West Berlin on Jun. 18, 1948, spared the Air Force’s indecision. USAF officials, deeply concerned by the Soviets’ aggression, unanimously agreed to stay with the B-36. The proposed 34 VDT-equipped B-36Cs would revert to the B-36B configuration, assuring the Air Force of getting 95 of the 100 B-36s under contract since June 1943. The B-36 was saved from cancellation another time.
Fifth possible cancellation:
Curtailment of the defense budget in 1949 brought interservice disagreements to a boil. The Air Force and the Navy had long recognized that whichever service possessed the atomic mission would eventually receive a larger share of the budget. Thus, they had grown more and more wary of each other’s strategic programs. Meanwhile, the B-36, the Air Force’s atomic carrier, had been the target of much criticism, even though few people had even seen it, let alone flown in it.
In early 1949, the B-36’s future was highly questionable. An anonymous document began making the rounds in the press, congressional, and aircraft industry circles charging that corruption had entered into the B-36’s selection, and that the aircraft’s performance did not live up to Air Force claims. In August, a second unsigned paper accused the Air Force of having greatly exaggerated the importance of strategic air warfare. The charges of corruption and favoritism were investigated by the Armed Services Committee of the House of Representatives, and were quickly proven false. On Aug. 25, 1949, the investigation closed, after clearing the Air Force and Convair.
However, hearings on the B-36 resumed in October. Briefly stated, the committee had to decide, at least for the time being, whether the nation should rely on massive retaliation with intercontinental bombers in case of attack, or depend upon the Navy’s fleet and air arm, to defend the North American continent. Even though there were doubts about the B-36’s ability to evade enemy fighters, the Air Force emerged triumphantly from the October hearings.
This direct challenge to the B-36, done in a very public national debate, resulted in the bomber being vindicated. The B-36 program was retained and AF avoided cancellation for the fifth time.
Convair B-36: A Comprehensive History of America’s “Big Stick” is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force