The B-36 Peacemaker was one of the largest bombers ever to take to the air. Its story is unique in American aviation history. Conceived during the final days of the Second World War as the first true intercontinental bombing platform, the Convair Corporation biggest program endured a tumults short life span despite huge investments. Develop as a purely deterrence weapon, the massive plane barely booked on the United States Air Force’s active arsenal ten years. At a cost of just under 300 million dollars, the B-36 would go down in the record books as one the most expensive aviation program of all time.
Despite it, the B-36 achieved its mission profile with astonish success. During the four years the Pacemaker was assigned full operational status, no major incident erupted between East and West. But by 1955, the Pentagon decided that its ‘ultimate bomber’ could not longer be expected to penetrate the ever more sophisticated Russian air defense system, thus the decision to axe the entire program was made. Delays in the development of the B-52 project extended the life of several Pacemaker airframes well into the early 1960s.
Now, almost five decades since its conception, a downfall of details regarding this amazing piece of engineer is becoming available. From its traditional role as the ultimate heavy bomber platform, to its position as America’s first and only true nuclear powered plane, the B-36 has seen it all, including the active deployment of nuclear weapons.
The United States Department of Defense (DoD) has several terms to address a number of nuclear weapon incidents or mishaps. They are stated on the Nuclear Weapon Accident DoD Directive 5230.16. The incidents involving an un-sanctioned release of a nuclear ordinance includes the accidental or unauthorized launching of a weapon, an unauthorized nuclear detonation, the non-nuclear burning of an atomic warhead or one of its components, radioactive contamination and the jettison of a nuclear payload due to accidental causes.
DoD utilized several terms and definitions to classify an incident involving a peacetime atomic weapon deployment. They are as follow:
• Broken Arrow: Term that identify an accident involving a nuclear payload.
• Bent Spear: Term that identifies a significant incident involving a nuclear weapon.
• Empty Quiver: Term use to report the seizure or loss of a nuclear weapon.
• Faded Giant: Term involving a nuclear reactor or radiological incident.
On a cloudy April afternoon in 1981, the DoD and the US Department of Energy, released to a waiting world its once top-secret Narrative Summaries of Accidents Involving US Nuclear Weapons: 1950 to 1980. In a gripping and detailing matter, the report described thirty two (32) incidents involving an atomic warhead releases during those three decades. Of that number only two (2) involved B-36 operations.
The first one occurred over the Canadian Pacific Ocean coast, near British Columbia. On February 14th 1950, a B-36B (tail number 44-92075), member of the 7th Bomb Wing stationed out of Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, was on a routine, cross continent simulated combat flight pattern from Eielson to Carswell AFB, Texas when, six hours into its profile, the massive bomber began developed serious engine problems that forced the crew to shut down three of its power plant.
Flying at 12,000 feet with icing conditions forming on its wing structures and with half of its engines out of commission, 44-92075 commenced experimented problems maintain level flight. Under those strenuous conditions, the pilot decided to turn the big bomber away from land and towards the relative safeness of the ocean in order to drop its nuclear ordinance, an Mk 4, Fat Man-type of system, over open waters. Release of the weapon occurred from 8,000 feet. At around 3,800 feet, the altitude on which the weapon’s detonator was pre-set, the high explosive (HE) on the warhead detonated causing a bright flash followed by a robust sound and a shock wave. After release, the aircraft turned south east, towards Princess Royal Island where the crew of 17 bailed out, just one mile outside Island’s coastline. Two days later, the entire wreckage of the plane washed up on Vancouver Island.
Incident No. 2 occurred almost seven years later. Not as detailed as the previous deployment, the report did relates the story of a B-36A ferrying a Mk 17 nuclear bomb from Biggs, AFB in Texas, to Kirtland AFB, New Mexico. On May 22 1957, this particular Pacemaker (no tail number posted on the incident memo) took off from Biggs for its mission envelop. At exactly 11:50 am Mountain Standard Time and while on approach to Kirtland at an altitude of 1,700 feet, the aircraft’s bomb bay door began to gave way releasing the weapon, along with the entire bay structure two minutes later 4.6 miles south of Kirtland’s control tower. The weapon’s parachute mechanism open, but due to the low operational ceiling, it did not completely retarded.
The HE material inside the Mk 17 detonated on impact. The explosion completely destroyed the weapon and left a gapping crater of 12 feet deep and 25 in overall diameter. Such was the violence of the detonation that the Armed Forces Special Weapons Program, the assessment unit assigned the investigation of the accident, found debris fields as far as a mile outside the contact zone. The final incident report blamed the crewman who removed the weapon’s firing pin (a procedure use to secure the ordinance before final bomb run) with snagging a piece of his cloth against the bomb’s parachute release wire for its partial deployment.