Captain Mike Daciek’s stories
“Would you cadets like to see a B-36?” Our heads turned to see an air force officer dressed in a tan short-sleeved summer uniform. The sunlight flashed off of his silver senior pilot wings.
It was the summer of 1953 and ten awestruck cadets stood under the wing of an XC-99, one of history’s largest six engine transport airplanes stationed at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. We were Aviation Cadets in navigation training stationed at Harlingen Air Force Base, Texas. While on a training flight our Convair T-29, a “flying classroom” for student navigators, had developed an oil leak on the right engine so we made an emergency landing at Kelly.
“What’s a B-36?” I asked, still mesmerized by the huge five story tail of the “Aerial Goliath” XC-99.
“It’s Strategic Air Command’s intercontinental bomber,” answered the tall lanky pilot. He reminded me of Jimmy Stewart. He pointed across the field. “It’s parked between those two hangars.”
Joking, I asked, “Is it bigger than the XC-99?”
He laughed, “The XC-99 was built after the B-36 and has the same tail, wings and engines. I think you’ll find it more interesting than the transport. This model is the RB-36H, a reconnaissance aircraft as well as a bomber. It can do photo mapping from horizon to horizon and also do spot jamming of enemy radar.”
“Let’s see it!” yelled Cadet Red Coates.
“I’m Captain Banda,” the pilot said, smiling. “I’ll be your tour guide today. Follow me!”
What we saw was a huge airplane with a wingspan of two-hundred-thirty feet, almost as long as a football field. Standing at the nose of the Peacemaker, Captain Banda pointed at one of the engines. “There are ten engines; six pusher-propellers, nineteen feet in diameter, mounted on the rear of the wing and four J47 turbojets, two on each wingtip, modified to run on aviation fuel. The wing measures seven feet thick at the wing root, tall enough to work on the engines in flight if need be. This large wet wing carries enough fuel to fly 10,000 miles without mid-air refueling! It also enables the B-36 to fly above 40,000 feet, out of reach of most piston fighters and early jet interceptors. Its maximum take-off weight of 410,000 pounds makes it the largest bomber in the world.”
Cadet Charles Fletcher asked, “Why do we need an airplane like this?”
“Good question,” replied Captain Banda. “The Cold War began in earnest after the Berlin airlift and the 1949 atmospheric test of the first Soviet atomic bomb. The Russians had become belligerent and antagonistic and we needed a deterrent to keep them at bay. American military planners sought bombers capable of delivering the very large and heavy first-generation nuclear bombs. The B-36 is the only American aircraft with the range and payload to carry such bombs from airfields on American soil to targets in the USSR, as storing nuclear weapons on foreign soil is diplomatically delicate. The nuclear deterrent the B-36 afforded may have kept the Soviet army from fighting along side the North Koreans and Chinese armies during the Korean War.”
“When did the military first design the B-36?” asked Cadet “Ski” Wislosky.
“Another good question,” Captain Banda said. “Actually it all started in 1941 when the United States feared it would be drawn into World War II and would have to bomb Nazi-occupied Europe from bases in the United States. We needed a plane capable of carrying 10,000 pounds of bombs on round trip of 10,000 miles. The B-36 was in competition with the Northrup B-35, our country’s first flying wing, a plane way ahead of its time. (Northrup built the B-2A Spirit thirty years later). The B-35 only had an 8,000 mile range with just 2000 pounds of bombs and was very difficult to fly. The B-36 was contracted in September 1945, one month after the war ended. The first plane flew in 1946 and entered production in 1948 just in time to thwart the Russian menace.”
“Why do the Russians fear the B-36 so much?” I asked. “Don’t they have similar aircraft and weapons?”
“Another good point,” Banda said. “We have the Mark 17, thermonuclear weapon, otherwise known as the Hydrogen Bomb, capable of killing everything within a one hundred mile radius, including the B-36 flight crew.”
Wow! That got our attention. “Is that a joke about the flight crew,” I asked?
“Unfortunately, no!” Captain Banda took a deep breath. “During the live drop test in the Pacific, a B-36 dropped a three megaton weapon. The over-pressure from the blast damaged the plane so badly that the aircraft limped home, was grounded, and turned into scrap metal. It’s my opinion that a B-36 cannot outrun a twenty megaton blast. We just don’t talk about it.”
Cadet Al Reis asked, “Have any airplanes and crews been lost since the B-36 went operational?”
Captain Banda stiffened. “Yes, unfortunately over the first two years we lost nine ships and over seventy fatalities. Military flying, even with ten engines, is a risky business when you consider the scope of our mission, global flying under extreme conditions, we’ve really done quite well.”
We all nodded in agreement.
Banda continued. “We will never attack first so we keep forty percent of our three-hundred-eighty-four B-36s airborne around the clock. Every time a plane lands, another one takes off, flying an average of twenty-four hours on every flight. We have a “Failsafe” or “Go-No-Go” point enroute to our target which is sent in a code whether to proceed on or to return home.”
Cadet Allen Heather raised his hand. “How large a bomb is it?”
Captain Banda put a finger across his lips and spoke in a low tone. “I’ll tell you if you promise not to tell anyone.”
Playing his game we all whispered, promising not to tell.
Banda continued. “It’s approximately twenty-five feet long, five feet in diameter, weights twenty-one tons, and can be carried internally in two bomb bays.” Grinning, Captain Banda added, “We carry two in case the first one misses. After all it’s just a twenty megaton bomb, one thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.”
Cadet Bob Grimes asked, “Can we see the inside of the airplane, Captain Banda?”
“Okay,” Banda said, “but the cockpit instrument panels and the navigators’ stations are all covered with black tarps so no peeking. It’s classified top secret.”
We entered the aircraft from the left side which took us into the radio compartment. From there we scanned the cockpit, flight engineer and navigators’ compartment.
Captain Banda squeezed in among us. “If all engines function normally at full power during the pre-takeoff warm-up, the lead flight engineer might say to the AC (Aircraft Commander), ‘six turning and four burning.’ Erratic reliability might led to the wisecrack, ‘two turning, two burning, two joking, and two smoking, with two engines not accounted for.’”
We all laughed.
Captain Banda asked for a volunteer to enter the pressurized twenty-four foot tunnel (paralleling a bomb bay) which takes you back to the camera compartment. “The smaller you are the better,” Banda said.
Cadet Jack Nichols entered the twenty-five inch diameter tube by lying on his back on a wheeled trolley and pulling himself through via an overhead clothesline pulley.
Banda cautioned Nichols, “While crew members are in the tunnel they don’t push against the skin of the aircraft as it is very thin and easy to puncture. In flight, while pressurized, we always close the door behind us because if you have a rapid decompression it will shoot you out like a bullet!”
From the camera compartment was another eighty foot tunnel (Paralleling two bomb bays) which took you back to the ECM (Electronic Counter Measures) compartment. It featured six bunks and a galley for rest and relief on a long mission. Beyond that was the rear gun turret.
The defensive armament consisted of six remote-controlled retractable gun turrets, and fixed tail and nose turrets, a total of sixteen cannons, the greatest firepower ever carried by a bomber.
Banda continued. “As you can see it’s a large, versatile aircraft requiring a lot of crew members. A standard crew complement is fifteen but we’re always training new people so we might have twenty-five to thirty aircrew members on board.”
Someone yelled from outside the B-36 that our plane was ready to go so we thanked the captain and rushed back to our T-29. We all agreed that none of us had any idea that such a plane existed.
Back at Harlingen we talked a lot more about what assignments we would get after graduating. Everyone wanted to go to MATS (Military Air Transport Service), TAC (Tactical Air Command),or ATC (Air Training Command).
After receiving my commission and wings in July of 1954 I reported to Travis AFB, Fairfield, California, my first operational assignment with the 5th Bomb Wing, 31st Bomb Squadron. Upon arrival at Travis I went to the flight line to report to Major Bo Bowers, 31st Operations Officer.
My first question was, “What airplane will I be flying, Major Bowers?”
Major Bowers stood up and motioned for me to follow. We walked to the window and looked out. The ramp was full of B-36 Bombers! “You’ll be flying as a Radar-Navigator-Bombadier on the ‘Aluminum Overcast,’ the RB-36H Peacemaker.”
The “Peacemaker” served its country for thirteen years, 1946 until 1959, bridging the gap before the B-52, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and nuclear subs came into play and NEVER DROPPED A BOMB IN ANGER.
END – Mike Daciek STORY #3