Convair B-36 Peacemaker

Walter Colvin

Showlow, United States

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Digital fine art of a Convair B-36 Peacemaker. Made with Bryce, Daz studio and photoshop.
Best viewed Large.

The Convair B-36 “Peacemaker”[N 1] was a strategic bomber built by Convair and operated solely by the United States Air Force (USAF) from 1949 to 1959. The B-36 was the largest mass-produced piston engine aircraft ever made. It had the longest wingspan of any combat aircraft ever built (230 ft, 70.1 m), although there have been larger military transports. The B-36 was the first , capable of delivering any of the nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal from inside its two bomb bays without aircraft modifications. With a range of 16,000 km (9,900 mi) and a maximum payload of 33,000 kg (73,000 lb), the B-36 was the world’s first manned bomber with an unrefueled intercontinental range. Until it was replaced by the jet powered Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, which first became operational in 1955, the B-36 was the primary nuclear weapons delivery vehicle of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), and the B-36
set the standard for range and payload for subsequent U.S. intercontinental bombers.

The genesis of the B-36 can be traced to early 1941, prior to the entry of the United States into World War II. At the time it appeared there was a very real chance that Britain might fall to the Nazi “Blitz”, making a strategic bombing effort by the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) against Germany impossible with the aircraft of the time.The United States would need a new class of bomber that could reach Europe from bases in North America, necessitating a combat range of at least 5,700 miles (9,200 km), the length of a Gander, Newfoundland–Berlin round trip. The USAAC therefore sought a bomber of truly intercontinental range, similar to the Nazi RLM’s own ultra-long-range Amerika Bomber program, which emerged during early 1942, and itself eventually proposing six-engined designs by the end of 1943, much like the original B-36 proposal (as with the Ju 390 and Ta 400) but with each proposed German airframe somewhat smaller in size.

The USAAC opened up a design competition for the very long-range bomber on 11 April 1941, asking for a 450 mph (720 km/h) top speed, a 275 mph (443 km/h) cruising speed, a service ceiling of 45,000 ft (14,000 m), beyond the range of ground-based anti-aircraft fire, and a maximum range of 12,000 miles (19,000 km) at 25,000 ft (7,600 m).These proved too demanding—far exceeding the technology of the day—for any short-term design, so on 19 August 1941 they were reduced to a maximum range of 10,000 mi (16,000 km), an effective combat radius of 4,000 mi (6,400 km) with a 10,000 lb (4,500 kg) bombload, a cruising speed between 240 and 300 mph (390 and 480 km/h), and a service ceiling of 40,000 ft (12,000 m), above the maximum effective altitude of all of Nazi Germany’s anti-aircraft Flak guns, save for the rarely deployed 12.8 cm FlaK 40 heavy Flak cannon.

Early in the war, the military refused to supply materials, tradesmen, and engineers to the project, which slowed work. As the Pacific war progressed, the United States increasingly needed a bomber capable of reaching Japan from its bases in Hawaii, and the B-36 began its development in earnest again. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, in discussions with high-ranking officers of the AAF, decided to waive normal army procurement procedures, and on 23 July 1943 ordered 100 B-36s before the completion and testing of the two prototypes. The first delivery was due in August 1945, and the last in October 1946, but Consolidated (now renamed Convair) delayed delivery. The aircraft was unveiled on 20 August 1945, and flew for the first time on 8
August 1946.

After the establishment of an independent United States Air Force in 1947, the beginning in earnest of the Cold War with the 1948 Berlin Airlift, and the 1949 atmospheric test of the first Soviet atomic bomb, American military planners sought bombers capable of delivering the very large and heavy first-generation atomic bombs. The B-36 was the only American aircraft with the range and payload to carry such bombs from airfields on American soil to targets in the USSR. The modification to allow the use of larger atomic weapons on the B-36 was called the "Grand Slam Installation.

The B-36 was arguably obsolete from the outset, being piston-powered, particularly in a world of supersonic jet interceptors. But its jet rival, the Boeing B-47 Stratojet, which did not become fully operational until 1953, lacked the range to attack the Soviet homeland from North America without aerial refueling and could not carry the huge first-generation Mark 16 hydrogen bomb. Nor could the other American piston bombers of the day, the B-29 or B-50. Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) did not become effective deterrents until the 1960s. Until the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress
became operational in 1955, the B-36, as the only truly intercontinental bomber, continued to be the primary nuclear weapons delivery vehicle of the Strategic Air Command (SAC).

convair touted the B-36 as the “aluminum overcast”, a so-called “long rifle” giving SAC truly global reach. While General Curtis LeMay headed SAC (1949–57), he turned the B-36 arm, through intense training and development, into an effective nuclear delivery force, forming the heart of the Strategic Air Command. Its maximum payload was more than four times that of the B-29, and exceeding that of the B-52. The B-36 was slow and could not refuel in midair, but could fly missions to targets 3,400 mi (5,500 km) away and stay aloft as long as 40 hours. Moreover, the B-36 was believed to have “an ace up its sleeve”: a phenomenal cruising altitude for a piston-driven aircraft, made possible by its huge wing area and six 28-cylinder engines, putting it out of range of most of the interceptors of the day, and ground batteries.

The four bomb bays could carry up to 86,000 pounds (39,000 kg) of bombs, more than 10 times the load carried by the World War II workhorse, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, and substantially more than the entire B-17’s gross weight. The B-36 was not designed with nuclear weaponry in mind, because the mere existence of such weapons was top secret during the period when the B-36 was conceived and designed (1941–46). Nevertheless, the B-36 stepped into its nuclear delivery role immediately upon becoming operational. In all respects except speed, the B-36 could match what was arguably its approximate Soviet counterpart, the Tu-95, which began roduction in January 1956 and was still in active service as of December 2013. Until the B-52 became operational, the B-36 was the only means of delivering the first generation Mark-17 hydrogen bomb, 25 ft (7.6 m) long, 5 ft (1.5 m) in diameter, and weighing 42,000 lb (19,000 kg), the heaviest and bulkiest American aerial nuclear bomb ever. Carrying this massive weapon required merging two adjacent bomb bays.

The defensive armament consisted of six remote-controlled retractable gun turrets, and fixed tail and nose turrets. Each turret was fitted with two 20 mm cannon, a total of 16. Recoil vibration from gunnery practice often caused the aircraft’s electrical wiring to jar loose or the vacuum tube electronics to malfunction, leading to failure of the aircraft controls and navigation equipment; this contributed to the crash of B-36B 44-92035 on 22 November 1950.

The Convair B-36 was the only aircraft designed to carry the T-12 Cloudmaker, a gravity bomb weighing 43,600 lb (19,800 kg) and designed to produce an earthquake bomb effect. It was in fact tested by dropping two of the 44,000 pound bombs on a single flight mission, one from 30,000’ and the second from 40,000’, for a total bomb load of 87,200 pounds.

The first prototype XB-36 flew on 8 August 1946. The speed and range of the
prototype failed to meet the standards set out by the Army Air Corps in 1941. This was expected, as the Pratt & Whitney R-4360 engines required were not yet available, and there was a lack of the qualified workers and materials needed to install them.

A second aircraft, the YB-36, flew on 4 December 1947. It had a redesigned high-visibility bubble canopy, which was later adopted for production, and the engines used on the YB-36 were a good deal more powerful and more efficient. Altogether, the YB-36 was much closer to the production aircraft.

The first of 21 B-36As were delivered in 1948. They were interim airframes, intended for crew training and later conversion. No defensive armament was fitted, since none was ready. Once later models were available, all B-36As were converted to RB-36E reconnaissance models. The first B-36 variant meant for normal operation was the B-36B, delivered beginning in November 1948. This aircraft met all the 1941 requirements, but had serious problems with engine reliability and maintenance—changing the 336 spark plugs was a task dreaded by ground crews—and with the availability of armaments and spare parts. Later models featured more powerful variants of the R-4360 engine, improved radar, and redesigned crew compartments.

The four jet engines increased fuel consumption and reduced range. The advent of air-to-air missiles then rendered conventional gun turrets obsolete. In February 1954 the USAF awarded Convair a contract for a new “Featherweight” design program which significantly reduced weight and crew size. There were three configurations:
Featherweight I removed defensive hardware, including the six gun turrets.
Featherweight II removed the rear compartment crew comfort features, and all hardware accommodating the McDonnell XF-85 Goblin parasite fighter.
Featherweight III incorporated both configurations I and II.

The six turrets eliminated by Featherweight I reduced the aircraft’s crew from 15 to 9. Featherweight III had a longer range and an operating ceiling of at least 47,000 feet (14,000 m), especially valuable for reconnaissance missions. The B-36J-III configuration (the last 14 made) had a single radar-aimed tail turret, extra fuel tanks in the outer wings, and landing gear allowing the maximum gross weight to rise to 410,000 pounds (190,000 kg).

Training missions were typically in two parts; first, a 40-hour flight—followed by some time on the ground for refueling and maintenance—then a 24-hour second flight. With a sufficiently light load, the B-36 could fly at least 10,000 mi (16,000 km) nonstop, and the highest cruising speed of any version, the B-36J-III, was only 230 mph (380 km/h). Engaging the jet engines could raise the cruising speed to over 400 mph (650 km/h), but the resulting higher fuel consumption reduced the range. Hence a 40-hour mission, with the jets used only for takeoff and climbing, flew about 9,200 mi (15,000 km).

The B-36 was not a particularly enjoyable aircraft to fly. Its overall performance, in terms of speed and maneuverability, was never considered sprightly. Lieutenant General James Edmundson likened it to "…sitting on your front porch and flying your house around. Despite its immense exterior size, the pressurized crew compartments were relatively cramped, especially when occupied for 24 hours by a crew of 15 in full flight kit.

War missions would have been one-way, taking off from forward bases in Alaska or Greenland, overflying the USSR, with survivors landing in Europe, North Africa (Morocco), or the Middle East. Recollections of crew veterans reveal that, while crews were confident of their ability to complete a mission, they were less confident of surviving the weapon delivery itself. Their concerns were about dropping extremely powerful bombs from a relatively slow-moving aircraft, leaving the aircraft within blast range; they were borne out by the 1954 Operation Castle tests, in which B-36s flew near detonations in the 15-megaton range at distances believed typical of wartime delivery, and suffered extensive blast damag

Production of the B-36 ceased in 1954.

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