Monday, May 23, 2005

B-36; Shock and Awe, Cold war style

Perry Flippen's article today reminded me of a cold war relic most history books have neglected. As Flippen pointed out, there is no highway marker to commemerate the airmen who died in that crash. The why for that oversight is a tangle of still classified secrets nearly as old as I am.

When I went to Austin for the swearing in of the last legislature, one of the people I met in Representative Campbell's office was a retired Air Force officer who was there to lobby for a highway historical marker noting the event. There really ought to be one, this nearly forgotten warplane is a lesson in itself on how close the human race came to nuclear suicide.

The B-36 was, with the exception of Howard Hughes' "Spruce Goose", the largest piston powered aircraft ever built. Its size was necessary due to the size of the payload, namely nuclear bombs. Powered by six "pusher" prop engines, the three blade, 19 foot props were positioned behind the wings and were biting into airflow coming off the wings. The unintended harmonics of this design made it the loudest big plane ever built. I never personally heard one, but it is reported to have literally rattled windowpanes from 30,000 feet.

The B-36 is also the origin of the term "Broken Arrow", military code for a lost nuclear weapon. One flying out of Alaska was on a hot training mission, armed with a plutonium based fat man style weapon. The pusher prop design made the B-36 especially vulnerable to bad weather, and that was the cause of that incident. Originally thought to have been lost at sea, the wreckage was discovered four years later. The fat man was not there. To this day the Pentagon will not give a direct answer to whether the device was ever recovered, but the rational assumption is no. The bomb was apparantly dumped to reduce weight and gain altitude, it worked well enough to get back over land, but not to a safe landing.

Back to the local incident, Flippen missed a few details. It was a six engine, not ten engine plane. While we built nearly 400 of them, the program only lasted 5 years. The Convair piston driven model was replaced with the Boeing B-52, and since that ancient airframe is still giving good service, credit due to the procurement team that made that choice. Convair tried, with an eight engine jet mode, the YB-60, but the B-52 was way, way the better choice.

Notable was the reference to the seven crewmen found still strapped in their bunks. The subsonic B-36 was designed to carry an oversized payload to any point on the planet and took off with two full crews. In truckers' terms, these seven crewmen were in the sleeper behind the cab. It is doubtful they ever woke up on the way down. One will hear different stories, but I am convinced this was a "hot", or nuclear armed flight. Fortunately, this device was recovered. One thing to remember, this was the early days of atomic weapons. There were no suitcase bombs, we not only did not pack ten W-88 warheads in a MIRV'ed missle, there were no missles to pack such a payload in. Rather than carrying a nuke into New York in an SUV, the fat man bomb casing was nearly large enough to park the SUV in.

The airmen crewing this plane were, at that time, our final, doomsday defense against an aggressive Soviet Union. They well deserve a commemerative plaque at the very least.

1 comment:

  1. Tony Massaro pointed out to me I had the engine configuration wrong. My apologies to Perry Flippen and anyone else familiar with this beast. I had based the six engine comment on a picture I came across in a google search of one of the three museum models I found out about. I can only guess the particular shot was of a plane incompletely restored. All 385 production models did come with four J-47 jets slung under the wing outside the props. At 5,200 lbs thrust each, the jets had more to do with stability than lift on a 380,000 pound aircraft/cargo gross, but it was indeed a 10 engine plane in production mode. I would severely discipline the research staff, but said staff being me, what can I say except "Oops!"