Convair B-36 – The Ultimate Peacemaker

The Convair B-36 Peacemaker was the primary nuclear weapon strategic bomber of the USAF Strategic Air Command (SAC) from 1948 to 1959 (it started to be replaced in this role from 1955 when the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress was first introduced with all being replaced 1958-1959). The B-36 had a range of 16,000 km (10,000 miles) meaning it became the first bomber with a unrefueled intercontinental striking range (enough to fly from the east coast of the USA to Moscow and back). In the 11 years the B-36 Peacemaker was in service it was never used in combat. It’s role as a nuclear deterrent to the Soviet Union during the Cold War could not have been better summed up than in its name.

USAF Convair B-36D Peacemaker
USAF Convair B-36D Peacemaker (Photo Source: USAF)

WORLD WAR TWO ORIGINS

The B-36 design process originally began in 1941 from a requirement to have a strategic bomber that was capable of bombing targets in Europe from bases in the United States. As World War Two progressed this requirement changed to bombing targets in the Pacific theatre but with the success of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress the aircraft was more or less put on the back-burner. Although the war was over in 1945, with the “success” of the nuclear bomb it was determined that a nuclear bomber aircraft was required and the B-36 eventually entered production in 1946 (the prototype first flew on August 8th, 1946). By then the Soviet Union and her Communist allies were the new potential target.

USAF Convair B-36B Peacemaker
USAF Convair B-36B Peacemaker (Photo Source: USAF)

PRODUCTION & SPECIFICATIONS

Between 1946 to 1954 Convair (originally Consolidated Vultee) built 384 B-36’s. The B-36 is the largest mass-produced piston engined aircraft in history and has the biggest wingspan of any combat aircraft produced (Length 49.4 m / 162.1 ft, height 14.3 m / 46.9 ft and wingspan 70.1 m / 230 ft). The B-36 was fitted with six reverse facing 3,800 hp Pratt & Whitney R-4360 engines that powered it to a cruising speed of 370 kmh / 230 mph. Introduced in the B-36D model onwards were an additional 4 General Electric J47 jet engines each with 5,200 lbs. of thrust that were fitted in pairs under each wing, The jet engines could provide an additional speed boost taking the top speed of the B-36 up to 700 kmh / 435 mph when required. This unique engine layout led to the saying “six turning and four burning” used by B-36 aircrews. The big bomber could reach an altitude of 13,300 m / 43,600 ft. (at combat weight).

The prototype Peacemaker the XB-36 was built in 1945. The giant single tyres were replaced by a 4 tyre configuration in production aircraft
The prototype Peacemaker the XB-36 was built in 1945. The giant single tyres were replaced by a 4 tyre configuration in production aircraft
First flight of the XB-36 on August 8th, 1946
First flight of the XB-36 on August 8th, 1946
B-36 B-29
In 1948 the XB-36 dwarfed its predecessor the Boeing B-29 Superfortress! (Photo Source: USAF)
Convair B-36J-75-CF (SN 52-2827) the last production B-36J(Photo Souce: USAF)
Convair B-36J-75-CF (SN 52-2827) the last production B-36J (Photo Souce: USAF)

The B-36 bombers had a crew of 15 (13 in the later “Featherweight III” high altitude versions) consisting of a pilot, copilot, two navigators, bombardier, flight engineer, radio operator, radar operator, two Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) operators and five gunners. The reconnaissance version had a crew of 22 (19 in the later “Featherweight III” high altitude versions).

Convair B-36B from the 7th USAF Bombardment Wing
Convair B-36B from the 7th USAF Bombardment Wing (Photo Source: USAF)

Armament on the bomber consisted of 16 M24 20mm cannons in eight turrets (later reconnaissance versions had just a twin 20mm gun turret in the tail) and a huge weapons payload capability of 39,000 Kg / 86,000 pounds of nuclear or conventional bombs. The B-36 could carry the massive Mark 17 atomic bomb which was 6.55m / 21.5 ft. long and weighed 21 tonnes!

Mark 17 atomic bomb at Castle Air Museum
Mark 17 atomic bomb at Castle Air Museum (2012)

PEACEMAKER VARIANTS

In addition to the B-36A/B/D/F/H/J bombers, variants of the B-36 were fitted for photo reconnaissance (RB-36B/D/E/F) and others were used for various experimental purposes including the FICON (Fighter Conveyer) project. In the RB-36D model, the number one bomb bay was equipped with 14 cameras, the second bay carried up to 80 x 100 pound photo flash bombs for nighttime photography, the third bay was for miscellaneous equipment or an extra fuel cell to extend range and the final bay was equipped with Electronic Counter Measures (ECM). The RB-36 models differed in appearance from a standard B-36 with extra antennas and 3 extra radomes along the bottom of the fuselage (reconnaissance and ECM equipment). USAF reconnaissance missions using the RB-36 included flights from Japan over Manchuria in Communist China and the Soviet Union (flight from the UK also flew over Soviet arctic bases).

Convair RB-36D in flight
Convair RB-36D Peacemaker in flight (Photo Source: USAF)
Convair RB-36H Peacemaker in flight. Note the dual radomes on the tail turret, a characteristic of the H and J model's with an improved AN/APG-41A fire control radar system. (Photo Source: USAF)
I really like this photo of a Convair RB-36H Peacemaker in flight with the contrails coming from the rear facing engines. Note the dual radomes on the tail turret, a characteristic of the H and J model’s with an improved AN/APG-41A fire control radar system. (Photo Source: USAF)

The FICON (Fighter Conveyer) project of the 1950’s involved the testing of modified parasite Republic GRF-84F Ficon reconnaissance fighters (25 were converted from the RF-84F Thunderflash in 1953 and later re-designated RF-84K. In addition the retractable hookup equipment in the nose of the fighter and a modified anhedral tailplane to better fit inside the bomber) that could be launched from the bomb bay of a specially equipped GRB-36D Peacemaker (10 RB-36 were modified) fitted with a retractable probe for hookup/retrieval of the fighter. The fighter could protect the bomber from enemy interceptors or conduct reconnaissance and bombing missions over target locations (the B-36 was a flying aircraft carrier). Testing was conducted from 1952 and between 1955 to 1956 the FICON concept saw limited operational service. Although found to be technically sound the hookup process was extremely difficult even for experienced test pilots (yet alone in inclement weather). The FICON project was cancelled in 1956 when the successful development of inflight refueling of fighter aircraft made it redundant to carry parasite fighters. The Lockheed U-2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft was also just coming into service in 1956 making it even more unneccessary to carry reconnaissance fighters.

USAF FICON (Fighter Conveyer) project YRB-36 and YF-84F in launch position
USAF FICON (Fighter Conveyer) project YRB-36 and YF-84F in launch position (Photo Source: USAF)
Republic YRF-84F Ficon at the Wright Patterson AFB USAF Research and Developmental Gallery Dayton Ohio
Republic YRF-84F Ficon at the USAF Wright Patterson AFB Research and Developmental Gallery (photo taken during my 2009 visit). Note the special nose attachment for connecting to the GRB-36D.

An earlier project along similar lines to FICON was the McDonnell XF-85 Goblin parasite fighter. This small jet fighter was planned to be launched from the B-36 as protection against enemy interceptors. 2 prototypes of the XF-85 were built for testing with the flying in 1948. Although in theory the small and stubby XF-85 was a good idea it was not as fast as the enemy jets it was intended to counter and there were also issues in re-docking with the test Boeing EB-29 Superfortress (none of the then new B-36’s were available for testing at that stage). The project was cancelled in 1949.

McDonnell XF-85 parasite fighter at the Strategic Air and Space Museum in Ashland, Nebraska
McDonnell XF-85 parasite fighter at the Strategic Air and Space Museum in Ashland, Nebraska – note the hook for connection/release from the bomber (2013)
McDonnell XF-85 parasite fighter at the Strategic Air and Space Museum in Ashland, Nebraska
The McDonnell XF-85 parasite fighter first flew in 1948 but the project was cancelled in 1949
A McDonnell XF-85 connected to the parasite fighter hook of a testbed Boeing EB-29 Superfortress
A McDonnell XF-85 connected to the parasite fighter hook of a testbed Boeing EB-29 Superfortress (Photo Source: USAF)

The Convair XC-99 was a one-off prototype heavy transport aircraft developed from the B-36 that could carry up to 400 troops. It shared the same wings, engines and some other airframe components. The XC-99 was tested and used for research from 1949 to 1957 before being retired by the USAF.

A B-36 with and XC-99 which was a one off transport version of the B-36 that could carry up to 400 troops. It was tested and used for research from 1949 to 1957
A B-36 with a Convair XC-99 which was a one off transport version of the B-36. It was tested and used for research from 1949 to 1957. Today it is in storage at the USAF Museum (Photo Source: USAF)

Scarily there was the NB-36H Peacemaker variant (originally designated XB-36H) fitted with a nuclear reactor for trials as part of the Nuclear Test Aircraft (NTA) program to test the viability of a nuclear powered bomber from July 1955 to March 1957. The NB-36H was fitted with a three megawatt, air-cooled nuclear reactor in its bomb bay (Aircraft Shield Test Reactor) and had a revised cockpit and raised nose with a special crew cabin that was lead and rubber lined (this was the first aircraft to ever be fitted with a nuclear reactor)! The crew consisted of the pilot, copilot, flight engineer and two nuclear engineers.

Convair NB-36H Peacemaker experimental aircraft (s/n 51-5712) and a Boeing B-50 Superfortress chase plane fitted with nuclear reactor
Convair NB-36H Peacemaker experimental aircraft (s/n 51-5712) fitted with a nuclear reactor and a Boeing B-50 Superfortress chase plane (Photo Source: USAF)

47 test flights and 215 hours of flight time were completed over New Mexico and Texas in the NB-36H (the nuclear reactor was operated for only 89 of these hours). Luckily the program was cancelled and the aircraft was scrapped in 1958. It was bad enough having “Broken Arrow” incidents where a bomber with nuclear weapons has crashed or accidentally dropped a nuclear weapon that has not detonated (at least 32 “Broken Arrow” incidents have occurred involving US aircraft since the 1950’s including at least one with a B-36) yet alone having them flying around with nuclear reactors onboard!

Convair NB-36H in flight. Note the radiation warning symbol on the tail. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Convair NB-36H in flight. Note the radiation warning symbol on the tail. (Photo Source: USAF)

A further aircraft was developed from the B-36. This was the Convair YB-60 which first flew on April 18th, 1952. The YB-60 was a larger 8 engine bomber in competition with the Boeing YB-52. It was originally designated YB-36G and was fitted with a new 37-degree swept wing, a bigger tail section and revised nose section.

USAF Convair YB-60 1952
Convair YB-60 (S/N 49-2676) in 1952. Note the B-36 in the background (Photo Source: USAF)
The Convair YB-60 in flight
The Convair YB-60 in flight (Photo Source: USAF)

The YB-60 had a top speed of 820 kmh / 510 mph and a cruising speed of 700 kmh / 435 mph. Although 330 kmh / 205 mph faster than the B-36 at cruising speed and a more efficient aircraft (the crew was reduced from 15 in the B-36 to 5 in the YB-60) the project was cancelled on August 14th, 1952 when it was obvious that the Boeing YB-52 was a faster and better option (the YB-52 had a maximum speed 982 kmh / 610 mph with a cruising speed of 845 kmh / 525 mph).  The YB-60 did have a larger bomb load, but the decision to continue with the YB-52 has been well and truly proven by the fact that the later model B-52’s are still in service today. Of the two YB-60 prototypes built only one was fully completed and unfortunately both were scrapped in the mid 1950’s (S/N 49-2676 and 49-2684 the latter was not completed).

Convair YB-60 in 1952 B-36
Convair YB-60 in 1952. Note the three B-36s in the background (Photo Source: USAF)
Convair YB-60 kid dressed as cowboy
My favourite photo of the Convair YB-60
Boeing YB-52 in flight
The winner was the Boeing YB-52 (Photo Source: USAF)

THE PEACEMAKER GOES TO HOLLYWOOD

The 1955 movie Strategic Air Command starring Jimmy Stewart as Lt. Col. Robert ‘Dutch’ Holland featured great footage of the Convair B-36 Peacemaker. In 1955 the US National Board of Review of Motion Pictures awarded the film a special citation for aerial photography and it was nominated for the Best Writing, Motion Picture Story category in the 1956 Academy Awards.

SURVIVORS

Of the 384 B-36’s built only 4 complete and assembled airframes exist today. All 4 are on display in museums in the United States and I am happy to say I have managed to see them all in my travels:

  • B-36J (S/N 52-2220) – National Museum of the USAF in Dayton, Ohio. This is the last one to ever fly. It was flown to the museum from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona on April 30th, 1959.
  • B-36J (S/N 52-2217) – Strategic Air and Space Museum in Ashland, Nebraska. This one was built in Fort Worth, Texas and delivered to Strategic Air Command on December 22nd, 1953.
  • B-36J (S/N 52-2827) – Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona (adjacent to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and AMARG “the Boneyard’). This was the last B-36 built (1956) and was named “The City of Fort Worth”. In 1959 it was returned to Texas and displayed at Amon Carter Field. After years of neglect in the outdoors it was eventually taken back by the USAF and later loaned to Pima where it has been restored in the markings of the 95th Bomb Wing, Biggs AFB, El Paso, Texas.
  • RB-36H (S/N 51-13730) – Castle Air Museum (at the former Castle Air Force Base) in Atwater, California. 73 RB-36H models were built and this is the only survivor. It served with the 28th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota from 1952 to 1957.
The last B-36J built at Forth Worth, Texas on July 1st, 1954
The last B-36J built at Forth Worth, Texas on July 1st, 1954 (Photo Source: University of North Texas Library)

Note: There is one other disassembled example, a YB-36 (S/N 42-13571) that is in private hands in Ohio but was originally at the USAF museum. In 1972 the airframe was cut up and being readied for scrap when it was purchased and saved by Walter Soplata (it remains in pieces on his farm).

The Convair XC-99 still exists today too. It is disassembled and in storage at the USAF Museum awaiting restoration.

The B-36’s at Castle and Pima are displayed outdoors. The others are displayed indoors. The first thing you notice with the B-36 is the overwhelming scale of the aircraft. They are impressive to say the least and you cant help but feel very small when you walk around under the massive fuselage, wings and all those engines.

The evolution of USAAF and USAF bombers in just over 40 years - a great size comparison (WW1 -  Airco DH4 & Martin MB-1, 1930's - Martin B-10, 1940's Boeing B-17, B-29 & Convair B-36)
The evolution of USAF bombers in just over 40 years – a great size comparison (WW1 – Airco DH4 & Martin MB-1, 1930’s – Martin B-10, 1940’s Boeing B-17, B-29 & Convair B-36)

National Museum of the USAF

The B-36J at Dayton, Ohio was the first I ever saw. When you see that massive airframe and huge wings you cant help but be impressed. It dwarves all other aircraft around it! Unless stated otherwise the following photos were taken during my visit to the museum in 2009.

Convair B-36J Peacemaker at the National Museum of the USAF
Convair B-36J Peacemaker at the National Museum of the USAF in Dayton, Ohio (2009)
Convair B-36J Peacemaker at the National Museum of the USAF in Dayton, Ohio (2009)
Convair B-36J Peacemaker at the National Museum of the USAF in Dayton, Ohio (2009)
DAYTON, Ohio - Convair B-36J cockpit at the National Museum of the United States Air Force (Photo Source: Lockheed Martin Code One)
DAYTON, Ohio – Convair B-36J cockpit at the National Museum of the United States Air Force (Photo Source: Lockheed Martin Code One)
USAF SAC Convair B-36J Peacemaker at the USAF Museum in Dayton, Ohio
Convair B-36J Peacemaker at the National Museum of the USAF in Dayton, Ohio (2009)

Strategic Air & Space Museum

The B-36J in Ashland, Nebraska naturally dominates the display hangar. It is interesting to see the B-36J alongside its successor the mighty B-52. Uniquely the bomber is displayed with a McDonnell XF-85 Goblin parasite fighter from the FICON (Fighter Conveyer) project. The following photos were taken during my visit to the museum in 2013.

Convair B-36 Peacemaker
Convair B-36J Peacemaker at the Strategic Air & Space Museum in Ashland, Nebraska (2013)
B-36 Peacemaker Strategic Air & Space Museum
The big B-36J dominates all the other aircraft on display at the Strategic Air & Space Museum in Ashland, Nebraska (2013)
Strategic Air & Space Museum in Nebraska
Strategic Air & Space Museum in Nebraska (2013)
The McDonnell XF-85 parasite fighter was intended to protect the B-36 but the project was cancelled in 1949
The McDonnell XF-85 parasite fighter was intended to be launched from and protect the B-36 but the project was cancelled in 1949 (Strategic Air and Space Museum 2013)

Pima Air and Space Museum

The dry desert air of southern Arizona keeps this beautifully restored B-36J in nice shape! Pima is a massive air museum. Nearby the B-36 are three B-52’s! The following photos were taken during my visit to the museum in 2011.

The B-36J at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Arizona
The B-36J at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Arizona (2011)
Pratt & Whitney R-4360 engines B-36 Pima
All those engines (Pratt & Whitney R-4360)!
Pima P-36J walk around
Pima P-36J walk around
B-36J Pima air and space museum
A fine restoration
Pima air and space museum B-36J
Despite all those engines the B-36 really wasn’t fast enough hence the addition of the jet engines in later models

Castle Air Museum

The last surviving RB-36H reconnaissance model was still undergoing some restoration when I visited the Castle Air Museum in Atwater, California in 2012 (one of the largest air museums on the west coast). The museum is opposite Castle airport which was formerly Castle Air Force Base (1941 – 1995) which in later years was the home of the 93d Bombardment Wing and the primary Boeing B-52 Stratofortress training base of the USAF Strategic Air Command. The following photos were taken during my visit to the museum in 2012.

The RB-36H at Castle Air Museum in California
The RB-36H at Castle Air Museum in California (2012)
RB-36H walk around Castle Air Museum
RB-36H walk around
Castle Air Museum Convair RB-36H Peacemaker
RB-36H walk around

The Convair B-36 Peacemaker is an impressive aircraft to see. Its sheer size was probably enough deterrent alone but it served its nation well in those terrifying early days of the Cold War by providing a suitable balance of power and nuclear deterrent to maintain peace when it was needed most.

last B-36H flight from Carswell AFB in Texas on May 30th, 1958 - flying in formation with a Convair YB-58 Hustler and Boeing B-52 Stratofortress
SAC Past and Future: The last B-36H flight from Carswell AFB in Texas on May 30th, 1958 – flying in formation with a Convair YB-58 Hustler and Boeing B-52 Stratofortress (Photo Source: USAF Historical Research Agency)
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20 thoughts on “Convair B-36 – The Ultimate Peacemaker

  1. What a rich post this one is–it could be used as the source for a college level lecture, congratulations. The video clip was too cool and I think I heard “Col. Potter” as the flight engineer — I guess Harry Morgan always had that rich basso voice 😉 You have seen all the displayed Peacemakers it seems, kudos! I like how Castle Air Museum has theirs displayed now — when I saw it the Mark 17 was not there and the gun turrets were not deployed — I like the display much better how you saw it. The Peacemaker was large (it had to take off with the fuel required for the entire mission–not to mention the immensity of the Mark 17) and the last really large aircraft needed since aerial refueling began in earnest once it was built — so Peacemaker’s are the end of some sort of period. Also, two more details to add if that’s okay: 1) The construction was of magnesium alloy so crashes followed by fire left very little for the investigators, and 2) Those 20mm cannon were many and awesome but when fired their recoil vibrations shattered many of the vacuum tubes used in the radar and other electrical systems (again, the end of another era?). A marvelous post Deano 🙂

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    1. Thanks Joe. One of my favourite Cold War warriors. I will never forget seeing my first one at the USAF Museum – the sheer size! I wish I could have seen one fly back in the day! They were still working on the one in Castle when I was there. Long term project for sure. You are right about the guns being an end of an era, after that a tail gun was all that was deployed on bombers.

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  2. Growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana I was able to see B-36’s and B-47’s over fly the city. The story was that Fort Wayne had similar characteristics to a city in Russia. Fort Wayne was used as a practice target. It was really a thrill to see the aluminum overcast fly over. What a time to grow up.

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    1. I’ve wondered how often Hoosiers got to see the B-36 in the day. Growing up in central Illinois my dad & I would go to Chanute AFB to see the RB-36 on display (currently in California). I eventually landed in Indiana. I know they made a few appearances at Detroit Air Shows so speculated where Ft. Wayne fit into a flight path. The B-36 represented an exciting time for the Air Force. Its effective career was short, though. After 1956 it was placed on the back burner. Almost an obsession, I know WAY too much about it after years of research.

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  3. […] My Dad was with SAC for 20 years and in the Air Force for 30 years. I’ve seen every plane that the air force had and has. Our living Quarters were right inside the main gate at Offuct air force Base so I could see planes landing and taking off. From the B-36 to the B-52, early in the mornings. I was 7 years old and have never been close to an airplane.Source: Convair B-36 – The Ultimate Peacemaker […]

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  4. My Dad was stationed in Omaha, at the SAC Base there OFFULT . He was with General LeMays outfit. Photo Intelligence underground there. The runway was right across the street right inside the main gate. I watched the first B-47 take off, B-36, B-52. I Built every airplane that the air force had. I joined the Navy and served 27yrs. I remember the Cuban Missile crisis my dad didn’t come home that much except to change uniforms and go back. My whole life was the Military even when I went to VietNam for 2 tours at Quang Trang, then Panama

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  5. I lived in Dallas as a youngster in the mid 50s and B-36s were a common sight. You could tell when they were on approach to Carswell before you could seem them as the china would begin to rattle. I recall one day in particular when a flight in formation flew over my school at low altitude. Happily, it was during recess so we were all outside jumping up and down and waving frantically. The lead pilot must have seen us; he gave us a ponderous wing waggle. Made my day for sure.

    There was a group restoring the City of Ft. Worth at Alliance Airport, which is north of Ft. Worth, in the 80s/90s. The story is the Air Force got wind that they intended to fly it and made them stop working on it, telling them in no uncertain terms that no B-36 would be restored to flying condition. That, I believe, is the one now at Wright Pat. Too bad, it would have been a hit at any air show with a runway big enough to handle it.

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    1. Great memories! Yes that is the same B-36. As a kid in Australia I had to settle for smaller yet much faster aircraft flying over my school (F-111’s). A formation of B-36’s must have been some sight?

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      1. They blotted out the sun.

        I have never understood what the issue was between the guys restoring City of Ft. Worth and the AF. There is a relative plenty of B17’s and even at least 1 B-29 that are flown fairly regularly. Were they afraid they’d load it up with ordnance and go bombing? Makes no sense to me. The fact that 115/145 avgas has been made of near unobtainium for decades would pretty much preclude flying it anyway, but the AF should have kept hands off despite the fact they own it. JMHO

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  6. A great informative link. Please note that the pilot of 2220 for its last flight to W/P was Lt Col Karl Ross.
    Now Col Ross is a retired USAF veteran, an ordained minister and a proud member and Padre of RCAF 441 (Huronia) Wing of the Royal Canadian Air Force Association. We are honoured to have him as a member of the RCAFA. http://www.rcaf441wing.com

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  7. From November 1956 to November 1960, I was stationed at Ft. Bliss, TX which was under the flight path to Biggs AFB. Many B-36 flights went right over my training areas: awesome! I loved every flight. I wrote many letters in 1990 to try to persuade the powers to fly the Chanute B-36H to Castle AFB, but to no avail. I visited the Chanute AFB and could see the runway would not allow it. When the B-36H arrived at Castle, I was privileged to be given a walk through of the area where the pieces were deposited: very sad. I have many pictures of the pieces if anyone is interested. I have since visited the assembled B-36H: nice.

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