Monday, May 11, 2020

Before The B-52

The transition to jet bomber aircraft wasn't made in a single step. The B-24s and B-17s gave way to the B-29 at the end of WWII. What would become the B-52 started as a conventional straight wing 4 engine propeller aircraft like the B-29 when the design first began in 1946. Technological developments brought radical changes in those years. Those plans were modified several times leading to the swept wing 8 jet bomber that the Air Force made operational in 1955.

But there was a bomber in between the B-29 and the B-52. The B-36. It had it's genesis before the U.S. entered WWII . When it looked like England was going to fall to the Nazis, the Army was looking for a long range bomber capable of launching from Greenland and bombing Europe. The original design was a multi-engine bomber with a 45,000 foot ceiling and a 12,000 mile max range. It got shelved for most of the war when B-24s and B-17s were being built and flown out of England.

Late in the war, it got revived as a bomber capable of bombing Japan from Hawaii. Two prototypes were built at the end of the war and were test by the Army in 1946. It was a six engine propeller plane in the original configuration.

The largest production piston aircraft ever made. The longest wing of any production aircraft. Capable of staying in flight for up to 40 hours and traveling about 7,000 miles, it was the final development before the jets took over. To get an idea of what this plane was, here's a picture of an early B-36 side by side with a B-29.

It was obsolete when it entered service In a time of incredibly rapid technological change, it would become obsolete in a few years. The jet age had begun. But it was an intercontinental bomber capable of reaching any point in the world with the capacity to carry nuclear weapons. It had a payload lift capacity that was not exceeded until the 747 and C5-A entered service decades later. So it was produced and made operational with the new Air Force in 1949.

With one radical design change. Four jets engines were mounted, two on each wing. In the words of the time, six turning and four burning.

As I said at the start, the B-52 entered service in 1955. The last B-36s were mothballed in 1959. There are four in museums. None in flying status and none likely of ever being returned to flight. Big, complicated, and increasing vulnerable to more modern fighters that could climb to their cruising altitude, their day was past.

None of my recent posts would be complete without a video, so here is a 7 minute clip from the 1955 movie Strategic Air Command starring Jimmy Stewart. It is preflight to takeoff and shows off the aircraft in great detail.


Directrix Gazer said...

[earlier version deleted due to grammatical error - oh for an edit button]
The B-36's vulnerability to fighters is often greatly exaggerated, in part a fossilized remnant of memes that came out of the great inter-service squabble of the late '40s. The reality is that there's a lot more to making an intercept that simply being able to match altitude with the bomber. The early jet fighters of its heyday were gasping by the time they got to the B-36's cruising altitude and, given the disparity in control-surface area, it was actually more maneuverable than them in that thin, high air.

Of course, the march of technology soon led to more capable fighters, but that reduces the argument to "in a time of incredibly rapid technological change, it became obsolete after a decade," which I suppose is less sexy than "It was obsolete when it entered service."

ASM826 said...

Directrix Grazer,

Edit made.

LindaG said...

Thanks for this but of history. :-)

Cliffdweller said...

The transition period into all jet propulsion yielded many odd designs, especially from Boeing and Northrop.

Beans said...

Yup. The B-29 evolved into the B-50, which fixed most all of the issues with the B-29 regarding engines catching on fire and stuff like that.

Then there was the B-47, when forward-looking individuals specified a jet-powered bomber in 1943. First flight in December of 1947, after the design incorporated many new concepts learned from the Germans, and firs entered into service in 1951.

A long-range strategic bomber, capable of carrying nukes or conventional ordnance, but really fitting the role of a medium strike bomber.

Pretty plane, and you can also see it in the Jimmy Stewart movie "Strategic Air Command."

Tandem seating, more fighter than plodding bomber, a very interesting plane.

And... when first introduced, the B-52 also had tandem seating, but was quickly modified to the more conventional heavy bomber side-by-side seating.

drjim said...

Those things were monsters. I've never seen one in person, but I've walked around B-52's and C-5's at airshows, so I can imagine what they're like.
The Jimmy Stewart movie sparked a life-long fascination with all things USAF and SAC, even though we were a "Navy House".

libertyman said...

I guess there were problems with the propellers being pushers that were unforeseen. The fuselage must have been an easy drafting assignment, just make a tube a mile long.

There is nothing like having 10 engines to keep track of. The B-52 only has eight. Wasn't Jimmy Stewart a real bomber pilot? I will have to see that movie now.

Anyone else notice the prices on movies at Amazon have gone up ? Since we are all sitting around with no place to go, that must be why.

ASM826 said...

Yes, Libertyman, watch this space for an upcoming Jimmy Stewart post.

Murphy's Law said...

That Stewart movie was awesome, and not just for the B-36 and B-47. Stewart was the MAN, having flown B-24 missions over Europe during WW2.
Hard to believe at one time there were 384 of those B-36 bombers out there. The last one salvaged as a museum aircraft, #52-2827 was on display at an airport in Ft. Worth for a long time until it was ordered removed by the city in 1969. The Peacemaker Foundation stepped in and got permission from the city to fly it out in 1970 and actually had the six piston engines up and running again before the Air Force blew a gasket and said "No freaking way!" Now it's disassembled in a Lockheed-Martin hangar in FT. Worth.

The Freeholder said...

One of my favorite movies. But I'm a sucker for anything with planes in it.

Old NFO said...

BG Stewart was actually qualified in B-36/?B-47/B-52s and flew a mission during Vietnam. And they were notorious as bad flyers, especially the earlier version without the jets.

Beans said...

There were lots of issues with the engines. Being pushers, the engines weren't cooled by prop wash when not in the air. Engine fires were not an uncommon problem, which, I think, they touched in in the movie.

Now, the B-36 re-engined with turboprops? More powerful, smaller, lighter, and might have allowed the design to stay operational for more years. Like the Soviet turboprop copy of the B-52. But then again, the B-52 solved all the problems, had the range, the speed, and really was a better aircraft overall.

Kurt said...

At the risk of posting something more revealing than I normally would, I point out that they were called, by many, especially those who worked on them, BUFFs - Big Ugly Fat, er, Fellows.

I knew the man, not as well as I would have liked, whose last name matched that semi-affectionate pet name. He was my father, and worked on the Hound Dog missiles on those beasts starting a couple of years before I was born.


John in Philly said...

Got a chance to walk around the one in the Museum of the Air Force and that is one big airplane.

The piston engines contain a bewildering number of finely machined moving parts.

Ed Bonderenka said...

Yep, I was thinking Jimmy Stewart the whole time I read this. The hero.

Jeffery in Alabama said...

Thanks for a very interesting piece.

MrGarabaldi said...

Hey ASM;

I had done a blogpost years back about the B-36 and a phrase that stuck with me was "Bucket of Spark Plugs" that the mechanics had to use to service the engines and they would have to shut down t least one engine during flight because it exhausted it allotment of 150 gallons of oil. I remember stuff like this because I am am an An A&P mechanic and how better it is now then back then, LOL. Excellent post and the plane filled an interesting spot in history and it is BIG.

Tom in NC said...

great post - sorry I'm late to this party! I grew up in Dallas in the 50's and 60's and remember well the drone of the B-36's as they flew overhead, way up there! The SAC base at Carswell AFB was the source of them at the time, and they were huge/YUGE! Always enjoyed seeing the Peacemaker at the Air Force Mueseum in Dayton, including the little Goblin parasitic jet fighter. Not very useful, but out of the box thinking. The other denizen of Carswell that was even more cool was the B-58 Hustler. That the same company and plant that made the B-36 could then transition to the B-58 was kind of amazing to me. But then look at all the aircraft Boeing has come up with over the years...

Mikey said...

The transition in SA was actually from the B-36 to the B-47. B-52 came later.