Air-Minded: the Magnesium Overcast

After ranting about the media I need a palate cleanser. The internet equivalent of a breath mint is a LOLcat. But I’m into airplanes, so I’ll give you a LOLbomber instead.

B-36J Peacemaker, Pima Air & Space Museum (photo: Paul Woodford)

As with the B-58 Hustler I described in a previous post, even though I was around during the B-36 bomber’s heyday I never saw one in flight. It’s not something you’d forget: it would have been akin to seeing the Hindenburg or a tidal wave. They say the ground shook when one of these took off, and I shouldn’t wonder: the sound and vibration from six twenty-eight cylinder piston engines and four turbojets, all turning and burning at full military power, should have been enough to warp the space-time continuum itself, let alone rattle windows and crockery for miles around.

They called it the Magnesium Overcast. It was built to deliver the gigantic hydrogen bombs of the early 1950s. Fully loaded the B-36 weighed over a quarter of a million pounds. It could fly from Texas to Moscow and back without refueling. It flew so high it was beyond the reach of the fighters and interceptors of the day. Jimmy Stewart flew one in Strategic Air Command (okay, it was a movie, but Stewart really was a bomber pilot in WWII, and a general in the reserves after the war). Some versions of the B-36 could carry and launch their own jet fighters. One was built and test-flown with a nuclear reactor inside (and a lead-lined cockpit) to explore the concept of atomic-powered bombers that could stay aloft indefinitely.

I once intercepted a Soviet Bear H bomber over the Arctic Circle. When I closed inside a hundred feet I could hear the roar of its four turbines and eight counter-rotating props. The noise and vibration cut right through that of my own two jet engines, the hiss of air moving past my canopy at 600 miles per hour, and my padded helmet. The B-36 was twice the size of the Bear … and it had six more engines. Damn.

This post is just a teaser: I’ll write more about the B-36 in a future Air-Minded post. I’m just getting started. In fact, it’s hard to stop, but stop I must. Please stay tuned for more.

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