There is a small group of Airmen, numbering less than .01% of the entire Air Force, of which I am a member. When you think of the thousands who wear the silver wings and perform duties as aircrew members and all the others whose wings are of gold, it is an honor to be a member of such a small and elite group. Belonging to this flying group was a great experience for me and provided memories very few have ever experienced. Now in 2003 it is much too late for anyone to ever again have such a chance. The small group of which I speak, having these fascinating flying experiences, are those crew members assigned duty in one of the B-36s the Air Force owned, of which only 388 were ever built. We called her the “Queen of the Skies.” That magnificent, easy to fly but hard to maintain, aircraft ruled the skies for several decades. Since so few have ever flown with her, would you like to come with me on a typical training mission? Take-off is scheduled about mid-morning tomorrow. (This is back in the early ‘50s.) To participate, you need to show up at least four hours prior to take-off.
Now fast forward one day. We’re about ready to go. Be sure your parachute fits properly, that you have your oxygen mask, and are ready for a wonderful and unique experience. As aircraft commander, I ask that you don’t interfere with the working flight crew members and stay off the interphone during the critical phases of flight, namely the take-off, the bomb runs and the landing. OK, we are set. Climb aboard and we’ll get going.
Here we are sitting at the end of 9,000 feet of runway; the flight engineer has just set “take-off” power and all six of those humungus R 4360 engines are rum-rum-rumming at about 2800 rpm producing 21,000 horsepower, 3,500 each. Then you push the overhead throttles forward which control the four GE-47 jet engines, adding another 20,800 pounds of thrust to this monster. (5,200 lbs. each engine) The old beauty is now shaking and shivering and straining at the brakes which are barely capable of holding her back. The 28 bucket-sized cylinders on each engine are going up and down at almost hyper speed, turning those 19ft three-bladed propellers around so fast you can’t see them. What a tornado you are producing behind the aircraft! Great clouds of dust and tumble weeds head for the next county.
The tower announces “Blubber 22 is cleared for immediate take-off.” The brakes are released and this magnesium monster slowly starts its trip down that concrete path which will result in another 20 hour mission. You know this is probably the only time you will have all 10 engines running and producing power. But right now, who cares? You need to get this great bucket filled with a million bolts, washers, wiring and other assorted items down the strip and ease the load off of the ten tires that by now are doing near 100 miles per hour. The further you roll the faster they go. This will prove there are no heavy spots in a tire or it would quickly become egg shaped.
It is rather easy to control the 10-15 feet of aircraft nose you have in front of you. It is the rest of this 162 foot long war machine that you hope follows along. The 230 foot-wide wings will have to take care of themselves for you are intent on staying close to that center line.
And then by golly, it’s time to fly. You’ve reached that mark where those massive 9 ft thick wings are making enough of a vacuum on the top side for the bottom pressure to slowly push the plane up.
Then 359,000 pounds of assorted metal and about a ton and a half of humans slowly gets off the ground. The tower says, “Cleared from our frequency, have a good flight.” You reply, “Yeah thanks. See you next week.” This is a bit of an exaggeration since you should be back home before the sun gets this high again. That is unless you land elsewhere. In that case it could take from two to three days to get the old gal ready to perform again.
This was our life when flying that mass of magnesium, the B-36, a transitional aircraft between the old four engine propeller jobs and the newer jet babies. It was this aircraft that, during the cold war, the free world depended upon, that SAC (Strategic Air Command) would use to contain the communist expansion and “do its job” if needed. Some of the smart ones in R&D (research & development) thought up and produced the 25 foot-long Mark-17 atomic bomb, which weighed a bit less than 42,000 pounds. It must have had enough explosive power to blow all the water out of the Caspian Sea, maybe even the Mediterranean. And since the B-36 was the only plane with a cavity large enough to carry this bugger, it was the aircraft of choice when the decision makers decided who would get the job of seeing that 42,000 pounds of disaster drop onto a target.
But let’s rewind a bit and get back on the runway. The plane grunts and groans, shudders and shakes, slowly increasing speed until the point, about 110 mph, where you can raise the nose. If you’re still lucky and all six props are still turning, it takes little additional time until those 369,000 pounds of a little bit of everything is making like a bird. You are airborne. You depress the brakes to stop the wheels from spinning like a top and ask the co-pilot to “retract the gear.” The gear lever is then actuated and when lucky, as we were most of the time, a series of events takes place that results in those thousand pounds of not-needed-now appendages being pulled up and stored, again in that massive wing. In my 1200 hours of Instructor/Commander time, I never had a gear refuse to retract, they always tucked into the wing. Coming back down is another story.
Climb out time. The navigation team is preparing to take over. Here’s the heading the navigator desires. We turn as needed and continue climbing. The engineer reports all engines are still producing and none are overheating. Climb out at 3-500 FPM (feet per minute) and after your first cup of coffee, you should be near the initial cruise altitude of around 18 to 20,000 feet. Often we shut the jet engines down after level-off. Reaching this altitude was always a welcome event during the hot summer flights. Now we’re getting some cool air and that large greenhouse we call a cockpit is beginning to cool, a welcome relief! There was no provision made to provide cool air to the crew compartments while on the ground. And sitting in the sun, the old girl got hot. The crew sometimes felt like a bunch of ants in a hot tin can. After take off the ventilation system took over and that cooler dry air helped us dry out. Many times I, like the others, would be completely wet with sweat before take off.
So with this accomplished, the navigation team prepares for the first navigation leg. We pilots set the trim, engage the auto pilot and make our radio contacts. Extra personnel on board for training, observation or other reasons busy themselves with bookwork, just looking around or in some cases engaging in a card game. You had to settle into these missions, since you never returned home in less than 16 to 18 hours, unless it was just a test hop. Then it was only 4-5 hours. So one had to learn to pace himself, do a little business, stay out of the way of those working and save your energy until it was your time to perform.
Back in those days, you made do on the entire mission with what you had on take-off. There was no aerial refueling for these giants. For one thing there was no tanker plane available that could off-load the 33,000 gallons (yes we talked gallons, not pounds) to give us a full “fill-up.” Another reason, even if you could take on more 145 octane gasoline, you would also need an infusion of engine oil. Each of those large power plants had its own oil supply of 150 gallons and many engines would use a large portion of that during each flight. So for that and probably many more reasons, the only replenishing of fuel was done on the ground.
But back to the mission. Day navigation practice missions would be accomplished with one of the nav. team “shooting” the sun. Using sun lines, along with dead reckoning and some guesses and common sense, you would get to your destination. Night time saw us shooting the stars. “Hold her steady, pilot” would be our indication that a two minute shot of Aldebaran, Vega or one of the multitude of other stars was being taken. Azimuth and elevation was determined and when used in conjunction with the booklet of star factors, our position was determined. These navigational legs would usually be from 2 to 2 ½ hours in length. Finishing this we would be approaching one of the many RBS (radar bomb scoring) sites, SAC had placed all over our country. Since most of my flying was in the western US, we used those bomb sites. We always had scheduled times to arrive and depart each site.
These practice bomb runs were always interesting, exciting and required a large amount of skill between the radar operator and the navigator to correctly identify the necessary check points to arrive at “bombs away” time on the correct heading and on time. The co-pilot would normally contact the bomb site via VHF (Very High Frequency) radio and relay the required information. (no cell phones then, remember) If memory serves me, we reported crew number, operator’s name, target designator, altitude, and type of release, IP (initial point, where you started the bomb run) and direction of flight at the time of “release.” This info would be repeated to us and confirmed. Our position would be reported when over the IP point, usually some 50-60 miles out. After passing this point, directional control of the aircraft would be passed to the radar operator, who could tie it into his sighting system, and using the auto pilot small directional controls would be made. At the proper time prior to “release”, a continuous radio “tone” would be emitted which would alert the scoring site that release was imminent. At the proper time and place, the tone would stop. This was the release point. The co-pilot would announce to the site “bombs away.” The site would then “score” the probable impact point, using wind drift and other factors that apply. After a few suspenseful moments, the site would contact us with an encoded score. We could de-code this and find that our bomb had hit XXX feet in which direction and distance from the intended point of impact. Obviously close to the desired spot was always the hoped for results. We would then return to the same IP or another in the same area and perform another run. We often stayed at the same site for several hours running one practice run after another. The scores the operator obtained would be catalogued and a probable CE (circular error) would be determined. This would be determined for each set of bomb runs and would be considered in determining the “over-all” accuracy of the individual operator.
The training schedule that SAC sat up required a set number of practice bombing runs of several types for each individual assigned that duty. Because of this and the need to keep the staff personnel current and up to date, we often had one or more additional flight members along. Since they were assigned staff duties and were not on a crew, they would rotate flying between the regular crews to maintain proficiency and remain current. Our crew always had one or more of these individuals along, which would mean we spent extra time at either this, or another RBS site, boring large holes in the sky and announcing “bombs-away!”
After finishing our time at one bomb site, we would often run another navigational leg (we had from 3 to 6 crew members, each needing these requirements). These were designed so we would arrive at a second RBS site at our scheduled time. When we arrived, the procedures would be the same, give them our information, have them acknowledge, make the run, cut the tone and receive our score. After that we sometimes heard “Oh, heck” or “Hey, that’s pretty good” come from the nav deck. All in all it was intense work, requiring great concentration and skill to achieve their best results.
And why did the average crew member care how well they/we did? Well, back in those days, early ‘50s to mid ‘60s, we were very much aware of the Cold War and the possibility of going to war with Russia. Since most B-29s had been retired and the B-47s were just being developed and flight tested, it was up to us in that 10 engine biggie to provide much of the air power. Missiles were just coming into their own with few, if any, on combat status. The other leg of the triad, the nuclear submarine, was still being developed. And at that time the US had no bombs small enough to be used by either the missiles or those under-sea warriors, the submarines. To add to the “kitty” of incentives, SAC implemented the “spot promotion” program. This was a program under which a member of a combat crew could be nominated for promotion to the next higher grade by their Wing Commander and could receive a “temporary spot” promotion. The requirements for this were tough and for any person to achieve such recognition, the crew he served with had to excel in all fields. If all crew members met the required level of proficiency and maintained it for a required length of time, the Wing Commander could recommend certain individuals, officer or enlisted, on that crew be promoted. It was always an individual thing, the entire crew was never promoted, just one or more individuals. Since this selection board met periodically, it was possible that in a year or two all members of a very proficient crew could be so honored. They would keep this rank as long as their and the crew’s proficiency met the high standards SAC established. It was possible for a year in-grade Major to be promoted to L/Col and serve as such for several years. This proved to be a big incentive and in many ways made up for the long hours and rigorous duties the crews put up with while assigned to that great command, SAC! For normal promotions for the enlisted crew members, the aircraft commander was able to recommend those individuals he felt deserving. His recommendation along with the member’s proficiency record usually carried a lot of weight.
Back to flying. After you had been airborne for 8-10 hours, meal time was certain to roll around. To handle this we bought flight lunches to bring along. We were not to eat food prepared at any other source on these long missions. The lunches were prepared in the in-flight kitchen, often located near the base operations building, and cost about forty cents per lunch. Such a lunch would usually consist of one or two sandwiches, a boiled egg, celery or carrot sticks, sometimes some chips, a cookie or two, a candy bar and a pint of milk. The very early lunches often had a package containing 3 cigarettes. (This was before we learned that smoking was a nasty habit, was bad for your health and was not as cool as we thought.) We had a choice of meat in the sandwiches, and would order lunches by the numbers. No. 1 might have a ham sandwich, no. 2 beef, etc. The order for the required lunches was turned in the day prior and the boxes picked up shortly before launch. Each meal came in a white box about the size of a shoe box, with the individuals name on top making it easy to distribute. A couple thermos two-gallon jugs of coffee would be taken as well as water. We had an electric hot cup so could always heat the coffee. Back then that was the beverage of choice for most crew members. No meal time for the entire crew was observed, each person ate when hungry and when his duties would permit. Since we had from 15 to 20 people on board, all having ordered 2 to 3 lunches, you can imagine the amount of garbage that accumulated. During the very early years a lot of this “garbage” (mostly paper) would be disposed of over the mountainous areas or over the ocean. This again was before we, as a nation, got smart and figured out that “garbage is garbage” and should be properly disposed of. Then we started carrying large plastic sacks to hold the debris.
Speaking of flight lunches, I very seldom ate all the contents of mine. And since a Captain’s pay was very little above the poverty line, we wasted nothing that was edible. I would always take a portion of my boxed meal home. Getting home late at night (as we almost always did) I would put the box in the refrigerator and what a find for my children the next morning! They knew when I was flying and would try to beat each other to the ’frig. to claim the leftovers. To this day they remember what fun it was to find a whole sandwich, a banana, a Twinkie or a Hostess cupcake.
But I’m off the track, let’s get back in the air. Other conditions arose that needed attention also. Too much coffee made trips to the relief area necessary. We had a double bucket type toilet located in each compartment and also a “relief tube” which drained into a holding tank which was emptied after flight. You can imagine that in the 20-22 hours with 15-20 people aboard these were necessary items and served their purpose well.
While all of this is going on, the flight engineers (we always had two) would be managing the fuel, attending to the engines, keeping their logs, etc. They followed the proper sequence in fuel usage to keep the center of gravity within desired limits. They had to adjust the power as needed as the fuel was used and the gross weight decreased. An “analyzer” unit was available and by going through a series of steps the flight engineer could tell if each engine was operating normally and whether each individual spark plug was firing as it should. As changes in altitude were required, the engineer would manage the engines by going from low to high boost (super chargers), changing propeller pitch and setting power using the manifold system. The method used to keep the engines at the desired operating temperature was by controlling a movable round shield that surrounded the engine at the back side of the wing. Extending this “sleeve” further toward the prop, would decrease the size of this opening which would reduce the airflow and cause the engine to either maintain or increase temperature. By retracting this sleeve, more airflow would be permitted, thus cooling the engine. The degree of closure was determined by checking on how many “diamonds” one could see from the back of the aircraft. Diamond shapes were painted on this sleeve on the inboard side so that observers in the back could readily tell how many shapes were showing. This information was included in the regular crew checks, with these crew members reporting how many diamonds showing.
In the rear compartment we had positions for four side gunners, (two upper, two lower) and the tail gunner. Unless we were on a higher classified mission, we normally manned only the two lower positions. These seats were next to a large (approximately thirty inches in diameter) plastic bubble that extended far enough into the slipstream for a person to look down the side of the aircraft. The gunner’s duties were to monitor the engines and wings and report any abnormal conditions. On the missions when we were to fire the guns, at the designated time and position each gunner would man his station. SAC requirements called for us to be over the ocean, several hundred miles from land. We checked the area visually, by using our radar and also asking ATC (air traffic control) if there were any other aircraft in our vicinity. We did not want to gain notoriety by shooting down one of Northwest’s Japan- bound flights. When satisfied, the aircraft commander gave the order to “commence firing.” To prolong the life of the barrels, firing bursts was limited to 3 seconds. As I remember, it took about 30 minutes to expend the ammunition we had on board. Since this was always done at altitude, there was nothing to aim at so each gunner could claim a hit with every burst! During this short period we probably fired more shots than were fired during the first three months of the Civil war!
Another valued and important crew position was that of radio operator. We had two operators on each crew. Their place of business was in the lower level of the front compartment, behind the navigator’s section. Radio operators were our “communicators” on these long missions. They made use of the old dit-dit-dah of Morse code and maintained proficiency in receiving fourteen words per minute and sending a minimum of eighteen. They made hourly reports via HF (high frequency) radio to the various command centers around the US and the world. The VHF (very high frequency) radios required the insertion of crystals to obtain the proper frequencies for our areas. This they did. The use of ECM (electronic counter-measures) was still in its infancy and the systems we used were also their responsibility. They dropped many hundreds of rolls of tin-foil chaff, used to keep “opposing” radar from “locking on” to us. They also manned one of the forward gunnery positions. Since the coffee jugs were stored near their position, one of their volunteered activities was to provide hot coffee to the pilots. Very much appreciated!
All crew members were connected to the interphone system and necessary chatter was going on much of the time. The rear compartment was also our flying hotel. A row of three double bunks were near the forward center. Off-duty crew members could get a few hours of fairly comfortable sleep. In the forward compartment one bunk was located behind the engineer’s panel, positioned sideways, while those in the rear were aligned with the aircraft.
Both crew compartments were pressurized, but there was quite a distance between them. So how was a crew member able to go from one compartment to the other? Well, the designers figured that would be a concern so they installed an 85ft long tunnel, about 30” in diameter, along the left side of the aircraft to connect the compartments. A mechanics type crawler cart was in the tunnel with a rope along the top of the tunnel. To change compartments, you would pull the cart to your end, get on it and go through the tunnel, usually head first. This was certainly not a joy if you were claustrophobic. The tunnel had a slight decline until about the middle, then a slight upgrade. This was to keep the rider from going too fast. By using the overhead rope you could propel yourself along fairly well. To trick a crew member we might either raise or lower the aircraft nose while the cart was en route to make it more of a chore for his transit. Normally we were too busy for such play, but it was comic relief. Humor defeats tension we found.
So after we had witnessed at least one sunset or sunrise, and often both, it was time to head home. SAC placed a high amount of attention on instrument approaches. GCA (ground controlled approach) was our primary method with the ILS (instrument landing system, no “A” in it then) as a back-up. So we very seldom made a visual approach. It was always an instrument approach regardless of weather. This was an excellent way to build confidence in the system and in your abilities. Nothing was sweeter to a tired pilot’s ears than to hear the controller say “You are on center line, on glide slope, seven miles from the runway, continue your approach.” Each pilot was required to make a given number of approaches and landings each training period. As we often had 3, or 4 pilots, (some staff members,) on board, we often flew several approaches to help fill their requirements.
Fairchild AFB, near Spokane, Washington (where I did much of my crew flying) was noted for its fog. In the spring, fall and early winter, fog would form taking the visibility to minimums in a hurry. So any pilot who could not fly a decent GCA approach was not going to be in the left seat very long. It was a must. This also was before the days of the strobe lighting on the aircraft or on the runway approach. We had just the normal wing/tail lights plus red rotating beacons both on top and underneath.
But let’s get this tired crew on the ground and head home. We usually arrived back over our home station anywhere from 18 to 26,000 feet. It was then time for the engineer/pilot team to take over and do the necessaries to get the plane down. When cleared by traffic control we would shut down the jet engines if necessary and start a slow descent. The engineer would take the superchargers from hi-blower to a lower setting, change the propeller pitch, tend to the wing and prop anti-icing requirements, set fuel controls properly, turn carburetor heat on, mixture and fuel settings changed etc, etc. It took a qualified person several minutes to run the check list and accomplish all needed actions. During this, it was decided which of the pilots would make the landing. The lucky one would begin the descent and start positioning the aircraft to intercept the approach radial that would line us up with the runway. Or, for a GCA approach, the GCA controller might vector you around and suggest descent altitudes to get you lined up and at the proper altitude for the GCA final controller whose radar was able to give more precise information. He would pick you up at the proper point and start talking you in. Often, while in a never ending batch of clouds or fog and unable to see anything but the sometime flashing of the aircraft’s rotating light, you would hear the words “This is your final controller. How do you hear?” Our answer was “four by four” or another comment meaning we heard and understood, his reply, “You need not acknowledge anymore instructions. Now turn left to a heading of xxxx, begin your normal rate of descent” etc. He would continue with steady instructions, in a well-understood professional voice, void of all emotion. He might say “You’re a little high on the glide slope, increase your descent,” then “That’s bringing you back to the glide slope, resume normal descent,” then “You are drifting slightly to the right, turn left two degrees” and so forth. The controlling pilot would be on instruments, the other watching both outside and the instruments inside. When the runway lights came into view, near your 200ft minimum altitude, it would be announced within the aircraft. But GCA continued “You are doing well, one half mile to the runway, slow your descent slightly” then “You are near the end of the runway, on center line, on course.” Then that statement all on board were waiting to hear, “You are on course, over the touch down point, take over and land, GCA out.” Power was reduced and those eight big cold tires would kiss the runway, leaving a small smudge and a bit of blue smoke. We always had time for a quick “Thanks a lot GCA, that was great!” The nose gear was lowered onto the runway, six throttles to idle, then “arm the props” then “reverse.” All six of those wind-weary props would start pushing air forward instead of behind. As the engineer increased engine power while in reverse pitch the aircraft would slow to taxi speed. After turning off the runway, the props were returned to normal pitch and the aircraft taxied to the assigned parking spot. The APU (auxiliary power unit) was started for electrical power and the mixture controls moved to the cut-off position. Out of fuel, the engines wound down slowly and stopped.
During the descent crew members not involved with the landing began gathering their belongings, putting their gear away, putting all trash into bags and generally cleaning up their stations. The large round hatch on the left side of the aircraft forward of the wing, was the personnel exit for the forward compartment. Ground crew personnel would place a maintenance stand in place. One or two crewmen would exit and start passing out the flight bags of heavy clothing and the extra items used during flight. Exit at back was from the rear door, using the same method. After all had exited, we boarded the crew bus and went to the maintenance de-briefing center. Here discrepancies noted with the aircraft would be entered onto the proper forms and items discussed with the maintenance personnel. After all the maintenance and flight forms were properly executed and turned in, the next stop was at the personal equipment storage building where we left our oxygen masks, helmets and other gear needed for flight. This “after-flight” activity took from one to two hours. Following all that, we were DONE! The mission had been a success (hopefully), all the forms properly completed and we were free to go home. A 20 to 22 hour flight, which had been planned the day prior and started some four to five hours before take-off, was ending. And it had taken only a bit less than a day and a half. All of this, and one pilot made one landing. Wouldn’t the fighter jocks laugh?
During my 1,200 hours piloting the B-36, this “Queen of the airways,” most flights went according to schedule and were completed with no significant problems. But there were those moments of concern. Once, after flying un-refueled and non-stop from Fairchild AFB, Washington to Anderson AFB on Guam, (which took some 33 hours) the left main gear decided it was tired and did not want to come down. We probably had enough fuel left to divert to an alternate airfield, possibly on Tinian or Saipan, but what good would that do? If the gear wouldn’t do its job here, it wouldn’t work there? So thanks again to that big nine foot thick wing, a flight engineers could and did crawl over and along the equipment in the bomb bay and out into the wing where he pulled the gear manual release handle and unlocked that gear. Gravity did the rest. The gear relented, extended and locked into position. What a thrill for this man in the wing to see a hole about ½ the size of a football field (well, not really but it was BIG) suddenly appear right in front of you and with enough wind turbulence to empty his pockets of any spare change! He surely needed something stable to hang onto. Green lights all around! No big deal they said, but it might have been looked at differently by the crew of 15 plus the 25 or so maintenance passengers we had on board had it not relented. Many would not have enjoyed landing with only one main gear extended. But our great God who watches over and protects all who fly was on duty for us that day. So it ended well.
And so the B-36 era has ended. Those aircraft, once so magnificent, have all been retired and many disposed of. A few are still around, used only for display. I believe there are only five B-36s still intact, none flyable. The individuals involved in manning these aircraft, who often put in a 60 to 70 hour SAC work week, are all retired and scattered. Some have passed on and we who await that appointment are enjoying living with our memories. So it is for me when remembering the happenings of that long ago time, back when I was young. I hope you enjoyed your memory flight.
Francis H. Potter
Col. USAF, Ret.
7 August 2003