Sunday, February 09, 2014

Two Air Force greats: The B-36 Peacemaker and General James Stewart

Here's a clip from the 1955 movie Strategic Air Command, with Jimmy Stewart, himself a real Army Air Force bomber pilot in World War Two and an Air Force Reserve General by the time he retired. Granted, you can only see him for a few seconds in the first cockpit shot, but he's there, as is actor Harry Morgan, who sits with his back to the camera but speaks at 02:45 and 03:04.

And then there's the Convair B-36 Peacemaker bomber that was the real star of this movie. Yes, they were real. They really flew. The one in this movie is really flying.

There were 384 of these bombers built, and they were operated by the US Air Force for ten years, from 1949-1959. They required a crew of 15, and they had a range of 10,000 miles. The original idea when they were designed was to be used to bomb Europe from American airfields if England fell, but during the Cold War, they were tasked with dropping the nuclear hammer on Soviet Russia if the need arose. And they were big; three feet longer than today's B-52s and they had a wingspan 45 FEET greater to lift that massive fuel and bomb load and to hold six prop and four jet engines.
The B-36 bombers never dropped nukes on Russia, but they did accidentally drop two of them due to emergencies in training operations, losing one atomic bomb into the Pacific off the coast of British Columbia in 1950, and one hydrogen bomb into the desert outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1957. Whoopsie.

There are five of these aircraft left today. Just five out of three hundred eighty four. Wright-Patterson Air Force Museum has one in Dayton, Ohio. I've seen it. There's another at the Strategic Air Command Museum in Offutt, Nebraska. I've seen that one, too. Both are stored indoors and you can really get up close and personal with them.
A third is at Pima Air Museum in Tucson, Arizona, and a fourth one resides at Castle Air Museum in Atwater, California.
A fifth one was bought by military collector Walter Soplata and he's deceased now but the B-36 is reportedly still in pieces in his yard in Newbury, Ohio. The rest were taken out to the Davis-Monthan AFB in the Arizona desert and destroyed.

And the B-36 at Pima barely survived. I found this excellent article on what it took to save that one, with no real help from the Air Force.

The Last B-36 and the people who saved it from destruction.

Here's another clip on the B-36 and the then-new Strategic Air Command.


  1. I saw the movie when it was on Amazon Prime. Still on Amazon but not on Prime.

    When my wife and I visited the Udvar Hazy museum at Dulles Airport I was enthralled by the cut away of one of the 4 row radial engines. Absolutely beautiful and at the same time, way too many moving parts.

    Although by the time you add up all the machinery in an engineroom and fireroom, there are maybe, too many moving parts.

    Visit You Tube and you can see there are a few of these big radials still being run.

    John in Philly

  2. I always liked the quote about the engines:
    "two turning, two burning, two smoking, two choking, and two more unaccounted for."

    Definitely a 'stop gap' aircraft until the B-52 could be put into service.

  3. Yep, one helluva airplane, and thankfully it NEVER had to actually do it's job in anger...

  4. The link about the last B-36 is kind of a pisser. After a 4th grade field trip to the nearby American Airlines academy in late '70 or early '71, we made a side trip to the other side of SH 360 to view the awesome B-36 display at the entry of GSW International Airport (which closed 1974) with the opening of nearby Fort Worth/Dallas International. While I never flew commercially from GSW, I recall a flight in my Dad's C-23 Sundowner from that airport.

    That this particular B-36 was allowed to be neglected in the region of its birth is an astounding tragedy. Kudos to Tucson for succeeding where Fort Worth would not.

  5. I had taken my son a year ago? to Dulles to the Museum and yes the B36 is BIG, you don't really know how big they are until you see one in person. I saw that movie with James Stewart and it was a good movie and it describes a class act of a man and an actor.

    1. (Having to post under a "reply" as I can't seem to get the comment link to stay up. . .)

      A great book on the B-36 is Cold War Peacemaker. The Story of Cowtown and the Convair B-36. The book is hardback and co-written by Don Pyeatt and Dennis R. Jenkins. I met Don at a book signing in July 2012 at the Veterans Memorial Air Museum at Fort Worth Meacham Airport where a bunch of us were hanging out signing books for the visitors.

      Dennis is retired aerospace engineer and Don is the historian for the Peacemaker Museum and the 7th Bomb Wing B-36 Association.

      They have pictures in this book you will not find anywhere else, not to mention firsthand insight and experience with this magnificent airplane.

      I think the book is available on Amazon, but if you have trouble finding it, let me know and I'll give Don a call and put you in touch with each other.


    2. AOA: Thanks for the tip. Much appreciated!

  6. I saw the movie several times in the theater when it first came out. There are some absolutely beautiful areal sunset scenes. One of my favorite movies of all time.