Today, we fall into a technological crack. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
I suppose Howard Hughes'
is the yardstick we use to measure any really large airplane. But others have since
beaten it. The Boeing 747,
for example: It has a larger body and far greater carrying capacity.
One airplane that flew before the Goose came close to beating its numbers; but,
unlike the Goose, it saw years of service. The B-36 bomber was conceived in 1941,
before we entered WW-II. The government wanted an airplane that could make a
ten-thousand-mile roundtrip, carrying five tons of bombs to a target. And it
was supposed to fly almost four hundred miles an hour.
Douglas Aircraft was already working on a clunky behemoth called the
Consolidated Aircraft undertook the B-36. By then, we had
and Liberators. They were
the heavy bombers that would be used throughout the war. But both looked small
alongside this dream of aerial immensity.
War never has been friendly to radical new designs. The B-36 kept being shuffled off
to the margins. Generals wanted its features, but more urgent demands crowded it out.
The first B-36, not yet finished, rolled out of a hanger six days after the war ended.
It didn't fly until another year had passed.
From then on, the B-36 served as a kind of airplane design laboratory. The first ones
tried to carry most of their 200-ton weight on one wheel under each wing. Those wheels
chewed up air-strips and had to be replaced with two four-wheel carriages.
Its 230-foot wing carried six backward-facing propellers. But the future would be the jet
engine. The B-36 compromised by adding a double jet-engine pod near each wingtip. With
ten engines, the B-36 now did almost 440 miles-an-hour. And that's how it served the
Strategic Air Command in the worst of the cold war.
All the while, designers used every trick to extend its usefulness. The wildest idea was
adding attachments so it could carry its own short-range fighter planes along with it.
Consolidated also made a fat-bodied cargo version. It could carry a whopping fifty-ton load,
but there wasn't enough demand for it. Then they made a huge passenger version, and --
sure enough -- it couldn't compete with the new jet airliners.
By 1959, the B-36 was made completely obsolete by the
B-52 jet bomber.
By then, almost four hundred had been built. And, in less than a decade of service, none ever
dropped a bomb or fired a shot upon our largely imaginary enemy. By the way, Consolidated-Vultee
called it The Peacemaker. Maybe it really was.
But it served the thankless role of straddling the epochs of the propeller and of the jet. It
lost its struggle for survival only after countless inventive people had tried every way to keep
it functional. Today, only four remain. And, like the Spruce Goose, they are all are
museum pieces. None will ever fly again.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
M. K. Jacobsen & R. Wagner, B-36 in Action. (Illustrated by Don Greer)
(Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications, Inc., 1980).
This is the website of the Peacemaker Museum in Ft. Worth, TX: http://www.b-36peacemakermuseum.org/
And these two sites offer additional B-36 images and information.
Three images of the B-36 from various government sources. The lower one shows
wingtip devices for attaching fighter planes.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H.