Cold War: Convair B-36 Peacemaker

B-36 Peacemaker. US Air Force

The Convair B-36 Peacemaker bridged the pre- and post-World War II worlds. Conceived as a long-range bomber for US Army Air Corps should Great Britain be defeated by Germany, the design was pushed forward to serve as the United States' first dedicated nuclear bomber of the postwar atomic age. To meet its design specifications, the B-36 proved to be a massive aircraft and was ungainly to fly. Its early development was plagued by design issues and a lack of priority during the war years.

Fast Facts: B-36J-III Peacemaker

  • Length: 161 ft. 1 in.
  • Wingspan: 230 ft.
  • Height: 46 ft. 9 in.
  • Wing Area: 4,772 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 171,035 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 266,100 lbs.
  • Crew: 9


  • Power Plant: 4× General Electric J47 turbojets, 6× Pratt & Whitney R-4360-53 "Wasp Major" radials, 3,800 hp each
  • Range: 6,795 miles
  • Max Speed: 411 mph
  • Ceiling: 48,000 ft.


  • Guns: 8 remotely operated turrets of 2× 20 mm M24A1 autocannons

Once it was introduced in 1949, the B-36 was chastised for its cost and poor maintenance record. Though it survived these criticisms and relentless attacks from the US Navy, which was also seeking to fulfill a nuclear delivery role, its service life proved short as technology quickly made it obsolete. Despite its shortcomings, the B-36 provided the backbone of the US Air Force's Strategic Air Command until the arrival of the B-52 Stratofortress in 1955.


In early 1941, with World War II (1939-1945) raging in Europe, the US Army Air Corps began to have concerns regarding the range of its bomber force. With the fall of Britain still a potential reality, the USAAC realized that in any potential conflict with Germany, it would require a bomber with the transcontinental capability and sufficient range to strike targets in Europe from bases in Newfoundland. To fill this need, it issued specifications for a very long-range bomber in 1941. These requirements called for a 275 mph cruising speed, a service ceiling of 45,000 feet, and a maximum range of 12,000 miles.

These requirements quickly proved beyond the capabilities of existing technology and the USAAC reduced their requirements in August 1941 to a 10,000-mile range, the ceiling of 40,000 feet, and cruising speed of between 240 and 300 mph. The only two contractors to answer this call were Consolidated (Convair after 1943) and Boeing. After a brief design competition, Consolidated won a development contract that October. Ultimately designating the project XB-36, Consolidated promised a prototype within 30 months with second six months later. This timetable was soon disrupted by the US entry into the war.

Development & Delays

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Consolidated was ordered to slow the project in favor of focusing on B-24 Liberator production. While initial the mock-up was completed in July 1942, the project was plagued by delays caused by a lack of materials and manpower, as well as a move from San Diego to Fort Worth. The B-36 program regained some traction in 1943 as the US Army Air Forces increasingly required long-range bombers for the campaigns in the Pacific. This led to an order for 100 aircraft before the prototype had been completed or tested.

B-36A Peacemaker
B-36A Peacemaker with a B-29 Superfortress for size comparison, 1948. US Air Force

Overcoming these obstacles, designers at Convair produced a mammoth aircraft that far exceeded any existing bomber in size. Dwarfing the newly arriving B-29 Superfortress, the B-36 possessed immense wings which permitted cruising altitudes above the ceilings of existing fighters and anti-aircraft artillery. For power, the B-36 incorporated six Pratt & Whitney R-4360 'Wasp Major' radial engines mounted in a pusher configuration. While this arrangement made the wings more efficient, it led to problems with the engines overheating.

Designed to carry a maximum bomb load of 86,000 lbs., the B-36 was protected by six remote-controlled turrets and two fixed turrets (nose and tail) which all mounted twin 20 mm cannon. Manned by a crew of fifteen, the B-36 had a pressurized flight deck and crew compartment. The latter was connected to the former by a tunnel and possessed a galley and six bunks. The design was initially plagued with landing gear problems which limited the airfields from which it could operate. These were resolved, and on August 8, 1946, the prototype flew for the first time.

XB-36 Peacemaker, first flight
XB-36 Peacemaker during its first flight, 1946. US Air Force

Refining the Aircraft

A second prototype was soon built which incorporated a bubble canopy. This configuration was adopted for future production models. While 21 B-36As were delivered to the US Air Force in 1948, these were largely for testing and the bulk were later converted to RB-36E reconnaissance aircraft. The following year, the first B-36Bs were introduced into USAF bomber squadrons. Though the aircraft met the 1941 specifications, they were plagued by engine fires and maintenance issues. Working to improve the B-36, Convair later added four General Electric J47-19 jet engines to the aircraft mounted in twin pods near the wingtips.

Dubbed the B-36D, this variant possessed a greater top speed, but the use of the jet engines increased fuel consumption and reduced range. As a result, their use was typically limited to takeoffs and attack runs. With the development of early air-to-air missiles, the USAF began to feel that the B-36's guns were obsolete. Beginning in 1954, the B-36 fleet underwent a series of "Featherweight" programs which eliminated the defensive armament and other features with the goal of reducing weight and increasing the range and ceiling.

Operational History

Though largely obsolete when it entered service in 1949, the B-36 became a key asset for the Strategic Air Command due to its long-range and bomb capacity. The only aircraft in the American inventory capable of carrying the first generation of nuclear weapons, the B-36 force was relentlessly drilled by SAC chief General Curtis LeMay. Criticized for being an expensive blunder due to its poor maintenance record, the B-36 survived a funding war with the US Navy which also sought to fulfill the nuclear delivery role.

During this period, the B-47 Stratojet was in development though even when introduced in 1953, its range was inferior to the B-36. Due to the size of the aircraft, few SAC bases possessed hangars large enough for the B-36. As a result, the majority of the aircraft's maintenance was conducted outside. This was complicated by the fact that the bulk of the B-36 fleet was stationed in the northern United States, Alaska, and the Arctic in order to shorten the flight to targets in the Soviet Union and where the weather was often severe. In the air, the B-36 was considered a rather ungainly aircraft to fly due to its size.

RB-36D Peacemaker
RB-36D Peacemaker in flight,. US Air Force

Reconnaissance Variant

In addition to the bomber variants of the B-36, the RB-36 reconnaissance type provided valuable service during its career. Initially capable of flying above Soviet air defenses, the RB-36 carried a variety of cameras and electronic equipment. Possessing a crew of 22, the type saw service in the Far East during the Korean War, though it did not conduct overflights of North Korea. The RB-36 was retained by SAC until 1959.

While the RB-36 saw some combat-related usage, the B-36 never fired a shot in anger during its career. With the advent of jet interceptors capable of reaching high-altitude, such as the MiG-15, the B-36's brief career began to come to a close. Assessing American needs after the Korean War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower directed resources to SAC which allowed for the accelerated replacement of the B-29/50 with the B-47 as well as large orders of the new B-52 Stratofortress to replace the B-36. As the B-52 began entering service in 1955, large numbers of B-36s were retired and scrapped. By 1959, the B-36 had been removed from service.


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Hickman, Kennedy. "Cold War: Convair B-36 Peacemaker." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 28). Cold War: Convair B-36 Peacemaker. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Cold War: Convair B-36 Peacemaker." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).