The Peacemaker

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Hrair H. Palyan
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
In the years following World War II, the Air Force's fledgling Strategic Air Command faced a serious threat from a new adversary. Following Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin's military takeover of several eastern European countries in 1946 - mirroring that of Nazi Germany in 1941 - SAC's mission became a top priority for the Air Force.

From its origin in 1947 until its last flight in 1957, the roar of the massive 10-engine RB-36 Peacemaker over South Dakota was a conspicuous reminder of SAC's mission to project strategic power and deter potential aggressors from starting a major international conflict.

The initial requirement for a heavy bomber with intercontinental range can be traced back to 1941, when the U.S. feared losing England to Adolf Hitler's military might. In that scenario, without the ability to stage missions out of England, any involvement in the war by the U.S. would have required a bomber with trans-Atlantic range.

"Neither the four-engine B-17 nor B-24 had the combat range to attack the German occupied England from bases along the U.S. east coast," said retired Lt. Col. George Larson, author of Dakota Thunder, the History of Ellsworth Air Force Base. "With concern growing over German military successes throughout Europe and North Africa, preliminary design work began on a new class of very heavy, long-range, intercontinental strategic bombers."

The B-36 was originally intended to be a mega-bomber, spanning 230 feet from wingtip to wingtip. It was designed to cross the Atlantic, enter German airspace, and drop 10,000 pounds of bombs from 40,000 feet, too high for ground-based artillery or enemy fighters of the time to reach it.

Fortunately, England warded off Germany's invasion, and before B-36s could be pushed into production, the U.S. succeeded in its island hopping campaign in the Pacific - proving that existing B-17s, B-24s, and B-29s in production were adequate to meet the strategic bombing requirements of World War II.

After the Soviet Union blockaded West Berlin in 1948, however, SAC once again called in for a replacement aircraft for their B-29 Superfortress. As the world entered the nuclear age, the need for an intercontinental bomber was renewed, and new life came to the development of the B-36.

"Edward Teller, a nuclear physicist with the top secret Manhattan Project, was working on a thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb," said Larson. "The hydrogen bomb was bigger and heavier than any other bombs then employed, requiring a very heavy bomber to deliver over intercontinental ranges."

The B-36 was the first and only design that could meet these ambitious specifications.

By June 1948, the 7th Bomb Wing at Carswell Air Force Base, Texas, received the first of 22 B-36s they would use for training and familiarization. Throughout the next two years, the 7th BW spent time addressing the B-36s performance. The data that the 7th BW collected assisted aircraft manufacturer Convair with upgrading the current B-36 with more powerful engines - an additional four J-47 turbo engines to its original six propeller engines - larger bomb bays and an upgraded navigation system.

The B-36s produced by Convair were the world's largest bombers. They could carry heavier loads of bombs across greater distances than any other aircraft in the world. Eventually, several B-36 models were converted to RB-36s, which were used for aerial reconnaissance.

On the outside, the RB-36 reconnaissance aircraft closely resembled the standard B-36 bomber, but internally, in addition to bombs, the RB-36 carried 14 cameras and other special equipment necessary to carry out long-range high altitude reconnaissance. Rapid City Air Force Base (now Ellsworth AFB) received their first RB-36D into service in June 1950. Serving with SAC's 28th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, their primary mission was gathering intelligence - both photo and electronic.

RB-36 engine mechanic Jim Evertone, then a senior airman with the 28th Periodic Maintenance Squadron, stationed at Ellsworth from 1953 to 1957, said the 28th SRW executed a variety of missions during his time at Ellsworth, including mapping most major cities in Europe both visually and by radar.

"Much like the Air Force is today, we had to focus on the mission at hand while still keeping up with training and ensuring we were following step-by-step procedures in repairing the RB-36 during inspections," said Evertone, a 77-year-old who now heralds from Chesapeake, Va. "It was hectic - it felt like we were on alert every single day."

Evertone spoke about the impact the RB-36 had in preventing conflict with the Soviet Union. He said that his leadership always stressed how important the successful completion of every job was to the U.S., saying, "We knew that every time we put an RB-36 in the air, everyone knew the power we possessed."

Retired Maj. Jerome Kimminau, 72nd Strategic Reconnaissance Wing RB-36 pilot, stationed at Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico from 1953 to 1956, said as an aircraft commander with more than 11,000 flight hours between the RB-36, B-25 and B-29, he led an aircrew of 20 whose responsibility was to conduct readiness missions across the U.S.

"We would take off from Ramey and fly through the entire east coast - simulating bomb
runs on all of the bomb plots we were responsible for," said Kimminau, an 87-year-old who now heralds from Aurora, Colo. "Other days we would take the same route and document entire cities with our cameras. The RB-36 cameras were very powerful - allowing us to read a newspaper from 20,000 feet in the sky."

The aircraft's unique arrangement of six piston-driven engines and four jet engines prompted the phrase "six turnin and four burnin." Though extremely powerful, these engines were incredibly complex, and required a tremendous amount of maintenance to keep them running. Consequently, the RB-36 was maintained by a large group of Airmen, all of which had to work around-the-clock to ensure the massive RB-36 functioned properly.

"There were usually five Airmen assigned to maintain and repair each engine on the aircraft," said Evertone. "After every 150 hours of flight, the aircrew would bring the RB-36 to us in dock one or two and we would get to work - repairing engine leaks, changing spark plugs and rocket box covers and looking over any issues the pilots reported. At the time Ellsworth was home to the 718th, 717th and 77th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadrons, so when we finished repairing an aircraft, we would return it back to its respective squadron."

RB-36 production superintendent Edward Sarviel, then a staff sergeant assigned to the 28th Periodic Maintenance Squadron, at Ellsworth from 1949 to 1953, said the RB-36 was an extremely high-maintenance aircraft, often losing up to four engines during some flights.

"Aircrews would fly high altitude missions that would last more than 30 hours," said Sarviel, an 82-year-old who heralds from Seward, Pa. "The aircraft would take damage and land with overheated and blown out engines. After landing, some pilots would give us a go with a quick sigh of good luck."

Near the end of 1957, SAC set plans in motion to replace Ellsworth's B-36s with the newer B-52 Stratofortress. The last B-36 left Ellsworth on May 29, 1957 and the first B-52 arrived 16 days later.

On Feb. 12, 1959, the last B-36 retired from Biggs AFB, Texas, where it had been on duty with the 95th Heavy Bombardment Wing, and was flown to Amon Carter Field in Fort Worth, Texas, where it was put on display. Today, four B-36s are on display in museums around the U.S., including the National Museum of the Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, the Strategic Air and Space Museum near Offutt AFB, Neb., the Castle Air Museum in Atwater, Calif., and the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Ariz.

Sarviel added that although the Peacemakers were never tested in combat, they lived up to their name, giving teeth to the U.S. policy of peace through superior airpower during the decade spanning from 1948 through 1958.

"After the retirement of the RB-36 from Ellsworth, I saw the mission evolve a great deal," Evertone said. "I'm glad to be part of a country that still employs the best - Airmen and aircraft."