Out in the Arizona desert stands a forgotten symbol of the nuclear age.
The nuclear age started in the West, which has its share of Cold War relics: the Trinity test site in New Mexico, the uranium mines scattered across the Southwest, and the Titan missile silos once clustered around Tucson. But there’s a lesser known relic at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson. One that flies.
At least it used to.
It’s the largest American warplane ever built, the largest mass-produced piston aircraft and the first plane to carry atomic bombs during the Cold War in the Strategic Air Command’s efforts to deter Soviet attacks in the early 1950s. It was the first plane that could fly for up to 40 hours at a time without refueling, with a range up to 10,000 miles. It carried the nearly 11,000-pound nuclear bombs of the early 1950s across the United States and the world. And it was the first plane to lose an atomic bomb.
“It could reach almost any point in the Northern Hemisphere from bases in the United States,” says James Stemm, director of Collections and Aircraft Restoration at the Pima Air & Space Museum. “It was the first plane capable of carrying the very large and heavy thermonuclear bombs of the 1950s to any target in the Soviet Union.”
Yet few people know about it—even airplane enthusiasts.
The B-36 bomber, nicknamed the Peacemaker, had the misfortune of coming into being at the cusp of the jet age. Designed during World War II, it was not built until after the war. Early versions had six engines, but most B-36s built had a whopping 10 engines—six propeller-driven and four jets, which hung off the back of each wing like afterthoughts. When the plane was ready for takeoff, the flight engineer would say “six turning and four burning” to indicate that all engines were operational.
Crewmember David Woods, a communications specialist on a reconnaissance B-36 from 1953 to 1956, says the saying was like a motto for the plane. “When we met somebody on base or in town, if you said you flew on the B-36, that’s when you got it: ‘six turning and four burning’. We would use it sometimes to impress a girl.”
The propeller engines were all rear-facing—an unusual design chosen so the aircraft’s wings would have smoother airflow.
“Having clean, undisturbed air flowing over the wing makes it more efficient at creating lift,” Stemm explains. “This was particularly important at high altitudes and helped increase the distance the plane could fly.”
At the end of World War II, it was clear to U.S. strategists that the Soviet Union was going to be a threat.
In 1946, the Strategic Air Command was formed as a branch of the newly-renamed U. S. Air Force. General Curtis LeMay was put in charge of the SAC in 1948 and moved its headquarters to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. In 1949, the Soviets detonated their first nuclear bomb.
The SAC was the first component in the U.S. Cold War strategy of nuclear deterrence. Its crews and bombers flew 24 hours a day, reminding the Soviets that they could be bombed at any time with a nuclear weapon. The B-36 was the first nuclear bomber in the SAC’s arsenal.
The policy of “peace through strength” continued to be the U.S. Cold War strategy until 1992 when the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The idea of deterring foreign nuclear attacks with an arsenal of our own is still a major part of U. S. foreign policy—as seen recently with President Trump’s veiled threats to North Korea. The bombs of the early 1950s were fission bombs with a plutonium core, and were the height of technological achievement. The first ones carried by the B36 were called Mark IV, and looked almost like a cartoon drawing of a bomb: rounded in the front, with a large tail in the back to keep them stable in the air as they dropped.
Today’s nuclear weapons are mounted on missiles, rather than flown by aircraft. North Korea is known to possess plutonium fission bombs (sometimes referred to as atomic bombs). North Korea’s government also claims they have miniaturized hydrogen fusion (thermonuclear) bombs, which carry more explosive power. North Korea’s latest detonation was estimated at 100 kilotons; in comparison, the yield of Mark IV bombs was between one and 31 kilotons, depending on the version.
Flying in the B-36
The men who flew in the B-36 remember it, for the most part, fondly.
The B-36’s 10 engines not only made the planes noisy, but created a maintenance nightmare for SAC crews, according to Raleigh H. Watson, a radio and communications specialist on the aircraft.
“The engines were started about 40 minutes before takeoff, and thoroughly checked by the engineers and pilots.” Due to the long missions, and the fact that the B-36 didn’t fit into standard hangars, crews frequently had to work on engines in the middle of the night, in bad weather and freezing cold. Despite this, Watson says his crew “never missed a takeoff or aborted a mission due to mechanical problems—and we rarely lost an engine. Those maintenance people were tops!”
Watson remembers the thrust of the 10 engines would push the crew back into their seats as the plane started to roll for takeoff. “The acceleration was far more than one would expect from such a large aircraft.”
Inside, the plane was divided into a number of compartments. The fore and aft compartments were pressurized and were connected by a tunnel. The majority of the airplane’s real estate was devoted to unpressurized bomb bays, according to Roger Stigney, who flew as a radio operator and right forward gunner on the B-36 from 1954-1956. There was also a gun turret in the tail.
“It was a dream come true,” Woods says of his time in the plane. “I got to fly in every compartment in the RB-36.”
Woods recalls going through the long tunnel between the front and back of the aircraft, which was the only way to get between the compartments. The crewmembers would need to lie down on a sled and pull themselves along with a rope. The tunnel would be 60-80 feet in length, depending on the configuration of the particular aircraft.
As Woods remembers, “The B-36 always flew nose-high. That made for a great ride going aft. When the sled stopped, you shot out of the tube into the left scanner’s seat.”
Despite its large exterior, inside the plane was not spacious, particularly given its crew size—anywhere from 15 to 22 men, according to former crewmembers.
“The flights were long and tiring,” recalls Stigney. Many missions were 20 to 30 hours long, or even longer.
“We flew from Spokane, Washinton, to Guam in 33 hours and 45 minutes,” says Woods. “We didn’t have video games in those days. It was a very long flight.”
Watson says it was a “fairly comfortable airplane,” but recalls the noise and vibration. “Routine missions were 20 or 25 hours—one takeoff, one landing, no stops!” he recalls, and says that flights of 32 hours or more were common.
The creature comforts left a lot to be desired, Stigney says. “Most flights in the summer started out with everyone pouring sweat until we reached altitude where it cooled off,” he recalls. When they got to cruising altitude, which was at 40,000 feet (where temperatures range from -40 to -70 Fahrenheit), the crew used heaters. But when the bomber crews simulated bombing runs, Stigney recalls, “The electric heaters had to be turned off and everyone had to be on oxygen. It was quite cold and heavy clothing was required to stay warm.”
Woods says, “At altitude, if we spilled coffee on the floor, we turned off the floor heater, put on our arctic boots and in a few minutes the coffee was frozen. We just picked it up and tossed it in the trash.”
While the B-36 was never stationed at Davis–Monthan Air Force Base, it did fly in and out. Chuck Merrick, a docent at the museum, remembers B-36 planes taking off from Davis-Monthan in the 1950s. “They were noisy as heck,” he recalls.
Crews took turns sleeping on the floor, as there was not enough bunk space, recalls Watson. There was a “head” at the back of the aft compartment, but not much privacy. Woods says that, on his crew, “whoever used the toilet first had to empty it when it landed. Thank god I was never the one.”
None of the B-36 planes still in existence can fly, but it is possible to see footage of them taking to the air in the 1955 Jimmy Stewart movie “Strategic Air Command.” Watching a B-36 take off is rather like watching an albatross. On the ground, it’s ungainly and awkward, an oversized metal cigar somehow managing to look squat despite its skinny, 162-foot length and 230-foot wingspan. But once the wheels come off the ground, it’s a different beast. Suddenly the wings reach into the sky and spread in flight, the graceless fuselage becomes sleek, the engines seem to stream behind the wings. The silver plane becomes part of the clouds.
The First Broken Arrow
On a rainy, icy night off the Canadian west coast a B-36 crew developed serious engine problems. Two engines caught fire, and shortly thereafter the 17-man crew lost a third engine. That version of the B-36 only had six engines, and after losing half of them the plane was unflyable. The crew jettisoned the bomb on board, and bailed out. Some of the crew reported seeing a detonation as the bomb hit the water.
It was February 1950, and the U. S. Air Force along with Canadian search and rescue teams headed quickly to the crash site. The plane was thought to have crashed in the water, but the 12 crewmembers were rescued over the next few days on land. The bomb was apparently at the bottom of the ocean, but the plane’s location was unknown.
Thus began the first “Broken Arrow” incident—the U.S. Air Force’s code for an accident involving a nuclear weapon. Not only were the plane and five crewmembers lost, but the fate of the bomb and the plane were far from certain.
Dirk Septer, an aviation historian who has researched the incident extensively, reported in his book “Lost Nuke” that the U. S. Air force has always maintained that the bomb on board was not armed with a plutonium core. At the time of the incident, the entire investigation was classified, and has remained so, according to Septer, with the exception of a few documents that have been declassified over the decades.
“It was the beginning of the Cold War and they were really paranoid about the Russians getting the technology, “ Septer says, “even the size and shape [of the bomb].”
The plane’s wreckage was found in 1953 in a very remote mountainous region of British Columbia near the west coast. In 1954, after several attempts to reach the remote site, U. S. Air Force personnel succeeded in reaching the wreck and blowing it up into small pieces. Ultimately, the cause of the wreck was determined to be carburetor icing of the engines, which was a common problem on the B-36. Only some remains of one of the five remaining crewmembers were ever found.
In November 2016 a diver found what at first was thought to be the missing bomb. Upon further investigation, however, the Royal Canadian Navy determined it was only industrial equipment.
Septer does not think the bomb will ever be found. “I think it’s in the ocean,” he says, perhaps in pieces, perhaps intact.
“The City of Ft. Worth”
According to the National Museum of the U. S. Air Force, 385 B-36 aircraft were built. The builder, Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation, later known as Convair, manufactured them in their Ft. Worth, Texas plant.
The Pima Air & Space Museum has one of only four remaining B-36 bombers on display. It’s the last B-36 to come off the production line at the factory in Ft. Worth, according to Stemm. The airplane, named “The City of Ft. Worth,” had been deteriorating for many years in Texas, and in the early 2000s the National Museum of the U. S. Air Force decided to let the Pima Air & Space Museum take it. Tucson’s dry climate is famously conducive to storing aircraft for long periods of time without much deterioration. It was a project to transport it—Stemm says it took 14 trucks to haul all of the pieces from Texas to Arizona.
The airplane began to arrive in pieces in June of 2005, and for the next six years museum staff worked on reassembling and restoring it, and protecting the delicate skin of the plane.
“Much of its skin is made of magnesium,” says Stemm. “The metal is lighter and stronger than aluminum, but it corrodes very easily.” The plane is currently protected by paint to stave off the inevitable degeneration. Stemm says the museum hopes to delay the corrosion for a while to avoid the “long and expensive process” of replacing the magnesium skin with aluminum.
By 1953 the Air Force had the B-47 Stratojet, a six-engine jet capable of refueling in flight. By 1955 the B-52 Stratofortress, a long-range jet bomber, was in operation. The B-36 became obsolete, although some had argued it was obsolete even at the time it was put into service.
Stemm puts it in perspective. “The 1950s and 1960s were for aviation technology what the 1990s and 2000s have been for computers and electronics. The technology advanced so quickly that by the time an aircraft went from the drawing board to being in service it was often on the edge of being obsolete.”
The B-36s arriving at Davis-Monthan after 1956 came here to die. They were scrapped in the Boneyard, with only four left for aircraft museums. The last flight of a B-36 was from Davis-Monthan to the National Museum of the U. S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio on April 30, 1959. That plane is still there, the second of the four remaining B-36s on display.
Many see the Cold War as ancient history, but the nuclear age is still omnipresent. The U.S. has nuclear weapons, as does Russia, France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India and Israel. Other countries, such as Iran and North Korea are on the verge of having similar capabilities. The world seems conflicted about nuclear weapons. Despite the many still in existence, the United Nations adopted a treaty this July banning nuclear weapons. On Friday Oct. 6, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
Most people don’t know what the B-36 looks like, or its significance in the early Cold War. Its crewmembers feel that it played a critical role during a time when the U.S. was emerging from World War II and developing its long-term strategy for the nuclear age.
Watson remembers meeting a World War II pilot in the 1990s. “When he found out I had been a B-36 crewmember, he reached across the table, grabbed my hand and said ‘Thank you—you guys won the Cold War!’”
“I believe the B-36 came along at the right time in our history,” Woods says. “For about 3 years while I was flying, there were no missiles or fighters that could stop us…It turned out to be long enough to prevent a war.”
Dominika Heusinkveld is a graduate student in journalism and environmental science at the University of Arizona. She fell in love with airplanes at age 9 when she regularly accompanied her stepdad as a navigator on flights in small private aircraft.