B-36 Peacemaker – Six Turnin’ Four Burnin’

The Convair B-36 Peacemaker stands out as one of the largest bombers ever developed by the United States. Its creation in the late 1940s marked a significant leap in aviation technology, primarily driven by the need for a bomber capable of reaching targets across continents without refuelling.

The Peacemaker was a key component of America’s strategic bombing capabilities during the Cold War, designed to deliver nuclear payloads deep into Soviet territory if necessary.



The Convair B-36 Peacemaker, originally conceived in the early 1940s, underwent a rigorous design and development process shaped by the urgency of the Second World War and the emerging strategic needs of the Cold War.

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Engineers faced the monumental task of creating an aircraft capable of delivering a nuclear payload from the continental United States to targets within the Soviet Union without the need for refuelling.

At the core of the Peacemaker’s design philosophy lay its impressive size and range capabilities. The aircraft featured a wingspan of 230 feet, larger than any other combat aircraft at the time, which enabled it to carry more fuel and a heavier bomb load.

The prototype XB-36.
The prototype XB-36.

The design team opted for a high-wing configuration to provide ample ground clearance for its six large piston engines, each producing significant thrust and range.

To address the challenges of long-duration flights, designers equipped the B-36 with a pressurized cabin, allowing the crew to operate comfortably at high altitudes where the air is thinner and colder. This feature was critical, considering the aircraft could operate at altitudes exceeding 40,000 feet, beyond the reach of most enemy fighters and anti-aircraft guns of the era.

Piston & Jet Power

The development of the B-36 also highlighted the transition from piston-powered propulsion to jet propulsion in military aviation. Initially, the aircraft relied solely on its six pusher-propeller piston engines.

However, as jet technology advanced and the need for greater speed became apparent, Convair introduced an innovative solution by adding four jet engines to later models of the B-36. This hybrid configuration allowed the bomber to maintain its extraordinary range while improving its takeoff performance and operational ceiling.

Moreover, the development team incorporated cutting-edge avionics and radar technology into the B-36, which was crucial for navigation and bombing accuracy over long distances.

It was only on the later variants that the four jet engines were added.
It was only in the later variants that the four jet engines were added.

Advanced Bombsight

At the heart of the B-36’s bombing capabilities lay the Norden bombsight, an advanced optical-mechanical device initially developed during World War II and continuously refined thereafter.

In the B-36, improvements to the Norden bombsight enabled it to deliver payloads with remarkable accuracy, even when dropping from the aircraft’s operational ceiling, which often exceeded 40,000 feet. The bombsight worked by mechanically computing the bomb’s trajectory based on the bomber’s altitude, speed, and wind conditions.

Operators manually input these data points, after which the bombsight automatically adjusts the bomber’s flight controls to align with the target precisely at the moment of release.

To gain a true sense of scale, you need to see the B-36 next to other familiar aircraft. This thing was truly massive.
To gain a true sense of scale, you need to see the B-36 next to other familiar aircraft. This thing was truly massive.

This level of automation was revolutionary, allowing the bomber to maintain a stable bombing course without manual intervention, minimizing human error and increasing the likelihood of a successful strike.

The bombsight’s ability to function effectively at high altitudes made it particularly suitable for the B-36, as it ensured the bomber could stay above the effective range of most anti-aircraft defences of the time.

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The Radar System

Complementing the bombsight, the B-36 featured a state-of-the-art radar system known as the AN/APQ-24, which included both bombing and navigation radars. This dual-system approach was critical for operations under all weather conditions and during night missions, environments where optical bombsights would be less effective or completely unusable.

The bombing radar of the AN/APQ-24 system allowed the B-36 to detect and identify targets over long distances and through cloud cover, which was essential for operations in the often-cloudy skies of Northern Europe and Asia, where Soviet targets were located.

It even dwarfs the B-29!
It even dwarfs the B-29!

The radar mapped the ground below, providing the crew with a continuous image of the terrain and potential targets, which was critical for navigation over the unmarked expanses of the Arctic or oceanic approaches to the Soviet Union.

The navigation component of the radar system further enhanced the B-36’s operational effectiveness by ensuring high accuracy in reaching the target area.

It allowed for real-time corrections to the flight path, adapting to changes in wind speed and direction, which could significantly alter the trajectory of the aircraft over long distances.

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Operational History

Following its introduction in 1949, the B-36 quickly became the backbone of the United States’ strategic bombing capabilities, symbolizing American air power with its formidable presence and extensive reach.

As the only aircraft capable of intercontinental flight without refuelling, the B-36 undertook numerous strategic missions designed to demonstrate the United States’ ability to strike back in the event of a Soviet attack.

The bomber’s operational plan typically involved flying from bases in the United States directly into Soviet airspace, simulating long-range bombing runs in exercises that often included actual deployments across the North Pole. These missions were critical in refining strategic air command procedures and provided valuable data on the logistics and challenges of intercontinental nuclear warfare.

Throughout its service life, the Peacemaker participated in several high-profile exercises that showcased its capabilities and tested the limits of aerial warfare strategy. One notable example was Operation Ivy, where B-36 bombers played a crucial role in testing nuclear weapons.

These operations were not only about demonstrating force but also about perfecting the tactics and technologies that would be needed to deliver nuclear payloads accurately and effectively.


Despite its imposing capabilities, the B-36 never engaged in combat. Its primary role was strategic deterrence; its mere presence was often enough to caution potential adversaries against aggression.

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The aircraft’s ability to fly at high altitudes—far beyond the reach of most Soviet fighters and anti-aircraft guns—added an extra layer of security, making it an ideal platform for reconnaissance missions and intelligence gathering.

However, the operational life of the B-36 was not without challenges. The bomber’s size and complexity made maintenance a costly and time-consuming affair. Moreover, advances in radar and missile technology gradually diminished the B-36’s ability to operate unchallenged.

The Peacemaker never actually saw combat. But was certainly a good deterrent.
The Peacemaker never actually saw combat. But was certainly a good deterrent.

The development of faster, more capable Soviet fighters and surface-to-air missiles meant that the Peacemaker’s ability to penetrate enemy airspace unscathed became increasingly doubtful.

By the mid-1950s, newer technologies and aircraft designs began to emerge, signalling the end of the Peacemaker’s era.

The introduction of the jet-powered B-52 Stratofortress, with its faster speeds, higher operational ceiling, and enhanced payload capacity, made it a more suitable choice for the changing dynamics of global military strategy.

Consequently, the Air Force began phasing out the B-36 in 1956, and by 1959, all B-36s had been retired from active service.


For conventional missions, the B-36 had the capability to carry up to 86,000 pounds of ordnance. This included a variety of bomb types, such as general-purpose bombs, incendiary bombs, and fragmentation bombs.

The general-purpose bombs were designed to cause damage primarily through blast effect and were used against a broad range of target types, including industrial facilities, railways, and troop concentrations. Incendiary bombs, aimed at creating firestorms, were typically used against urban targets to disrupt enemy infrastructure and logistics.

Fragmentation bombs, designed to project fragments at high speeds, were effective against exposed personnel and light equipment.

Nuclear Bombs

However, the most notable aspect of the B-36’s capabilities was its role as a nuclear delivery platform. The bomber was initially designed to carry the Mark 4 nuclear bomb, an early atomic bomb that was an improved version of the “Fat Man” device dropped over Nagasaki. As nuclear technology advanced, the B-36 was equipped to carry more sophisticated and powerful thermonuclear weapons.

The B-36 was initially designed to carry the Mk 4 Fat Man.
The B-36 was initially designed to carry the Mk 4 Fat Man.

One of the most significant bombs in its arsenal was the Mark 17, which was the largest and heaviest nuclear bomb deployed by the United States at that time. Weighing approximately 21,000 pounds and with a length of about 24.5 feet, the Mark 17 had an estimated yield of 10 to 15 megatons of TNT, making it immensely destructive.

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The deployment of such a bomb would have been a strategic game-changer, capable of obliterating entire cities and causing severe damage to hardened targets.

Special Weapons

The B-36 also had the capability to carry the Mark 21 nuclear bomb, which was a refined version of the earlier Mark 17 with a reduced weight and a slightly lower yield, making it more efficient and manageable.

Additionally, the aircraft was tested as a carrier for the Mark 15 nuclear bomb, a smaller-yield weapon but one that offered greater tactical flexibility and could be produced in larger quantities.

NB-36 – A Nuclear Powered Bomber

The NB-36 was an experimental development of the B-36 Peacemaker, designed to explore the feasibility of nuclear-powered aircraft. This venture reflected the Cold War era’s intense focus on nuclear technology and its potential applications beyond weaponry, specifically for long-duration flights with unprecedented range.

The concept behind the NB-36 was to create an aircraft that could stay aloft almost indefinitely, eliminating the need for refuelling and thus significantly extending the operational range of strategic bombers.

The project commenced in the early 1950s under the auspices of the U.S. Air Force’s Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion (ANP) program, which aimed to harness nuclear energy for aviation use.

Modifications and Design

The primary modification involved the installation of a nuclear reactor in the aircraft. Engineers equipped the NB-36 with a small air-cooled nuclear reactor, placed in the rear section of the bomber where conventional fuel tanks would typically reside.

The reactor was not intended to power the plane’s engines directly. Instead, it served as a source of heat for a system designed to study the effects of radiation on aircraft components and systems, as well as to explore the shielding requirements necessary to protect the crew from radiation exposure.

The NB-36H in flight. Note the radiation sign on the tail.
The NB-36H in flight. Note the radiation sign on the tail.

To address the safety concerns associated with flying a nuclear reactor, the NB-36 underwent significant modifications. The crew compartment received heavy lead and rubber shielding, and additional protective measures included remote handling tools for adjusting the reactor during flight.

The aircraft was also equipped with numerous sensors to monitor radiation levels in real-time, ensuring crew safety was maintained.

Experimental Flights

The NB-36 took to the skies for experimental flights between 1955 and 1957. During these tests, the reactor was brought to criticality to assess the shielding’s effectiveness and to study the reactor’s operation during various flight conditions. These flights marked the first time a nuclear reactor had been operated in an airborne environment, providing valuable data on the behaviour of such systems under flight stresses.


Despite the groundbreaking nature of its experiments, the NB-36 faced numerous challenges. The weight and complexity of the nuclear reactor and its shielding significantly limited the aircraft’s operational performance.

Moreover, the inherent risks and technical difficulties associated with maintaining and operating a flying nuclear reactor raised concerns about the practicality and safety of nuclear-powered flight.

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By the late 1950s, advances in missile technology and the realization of the logistical and safety challenges associated with nuclear aircraft led to the termination of the ANP program. The NB-36 was retired without having achieved its goal of powering flight directly through nuclear energy.