Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"Blessed are the Peacemakers..."

"...For they shall find peace." For the B-36 Peacemaker, which had be conceived in the midst of fear of war, this biblical prophecy came true. In early 1941, with the real possibility of a Nazi invasion of the United Kingdom, and the potential loss of friendly landing fields for American aircraft, U.S Army planners decided that what was needed was an extremely long-range, intercontinental bomber that could reach enemy territory from bases in America. What this represented was an almost incomprehensible leap in technology - keep in mind, this was only ten years after the Keystone and Condor bombers that we've seen in other posts recently. And despite being developed during one war and in service during another, the B-36 never dropped or fired a weapon in anger. Our official Consolidated Vultee photo (the print is stamped on the back) shows the very first Peacemaker, the one and only XB-36 built, presumably on its first flight.

And as large of a leap in bomber state-of-the-art that B-36 represented, it still wound up pretty much obsolete by the time it came on line. There were some glaring design issues. The plane had the longest wingspan of any military aircraft ever built (even to this day), and the wing flexing resulting in persistent metal fatigue and cracking issues. The plane was powered by six P&W R-4360 radial piston engines (the largest production piston engines built), but they had issues, including chronic overheating, and if you weren't careful about starting them exactly correctly, all 56 (!) spark plugs (yes, that's in just one of the engines) would foul and have to be removed and cleaned. Later production aircraft supplemented the radials with four turbojet engines, paired in pods under the outer wings.

The XB-36 was an astoundingly huge aircraft, and there were some aspects of it that make you wonder what the engineers were thinking. For instance, the plane was designed with a single huge tire on each main landing gear. At that time, these were the larges tires ever manufactured, each was nine feat in diameter, three feet wide and weighed 1,300 pounds (you could manufacture 60 automobile tires with the rubber in just one of these bad boys). With the majority of the weight of the aircraft concentrated on just those two tires, the runway loading was so high that there were only three airports in the world which could handle the XB-36. Needless to say, this was re-designed for the production aircraft, and these were later retrofitted onto the XB-36 as well.

The XB-36 was used for flight testing and later a limited amount of flight training. It was judged too expensive to convert it to production standards, and so it ended up as a derelict at Carswell AFB as a fire fighting trainer.

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