Veterans Voices: Turnin and Burnin: What it was like to fly in a B-36 bomber

Veterans Voices

BERRYVILLE, Va. (WDVM) — Like Korea, the “Forgotten War,” the B-36 is the “Forgotten Bomber” of the Cold War.

B-36 Peacemaker on training flight over mid-America.

This eight-engined bomber was the world’s first intercontinental bomber which was capable of flying to targets in the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons in its cavernous bomb bays and returning to the United States without refueling.

MK17 Thermo-Nuclear Bomb ready to be loaded into a B-36 bomb bay.

The B-36 could carry a 43,500-pound thermo-nuclear bomb and a 6,000-pound atomic bomb, “but the B-36 was never designed to be a nuclear bomber,” said Dr. Raleigh Watson Jr., one of 23 crewmembers on the long-range aircraft.

“It was to be a strictly a long-range conventional bomber,” Watson said as he held a scale-model of his plane, an RB-36, the reconnaissance version could also carry weapons.

The bomber’s role changed from conventional bomber to nuclear/reconnaissance when the United States and the Soviet Union locked horns after World War II over which country would become the world’s “superpower.”

Before World War II broke out in Europe, both the United States and Germany saw the need for a long-range bomber, but Berlin gave up on its Amerika-Bomber.

Only three ME-64s were built. But al

The Nazis decided the ME-264 was not “technically feasible.”

The United States flew its first ‘Peacemaker,” as the B-36 was known in the Strategic Air Command, a year after Japan surrendered to the U.S. during World War Two.

B-36 bombers were built at Convair’s plant in Dallas-Fort Worth.

Convair built 388 of the giant bombers at a cost of $3.5 million each, but the Peacemaker kept the piece until it was replaced by the B-52 which with continuing upgrades could fly for 100 years.

B-36s could fly above 40,000 feet, higher that enemy flak, fighters or most surface-to-air missiles.

The Soviets had long-range Bear bombers, but they couldn’t fly high enough to avoid being intercepted by American fighter planes.

“I used to say we owned 40-thousand feet at that time because very few fighters could get up there where the air was rare and have any capability and maneuverability because of the thin air. The B-36 had six pusher-type turbo-prop engines and two B-47 jet engines, hence the term, ‘Turnin and Burnin,'” Watson said, who was one of several ECMs, electronic countermeasure operators on board.

Two aircraft mechanics fine-tuning twin 20mm cannons that drop down from the belly of a B-36.

Watson says the B-36 was a flying “War Wagon” with sixteen 20 millimeter cannons; two in the nose, two each behind the cockpit, four in drop-down belly turrets and twin 20s in the tail.

“Believe me, when they were all shooting at one time, there was a lot of vibration and shaking,” Watson said with a laugh.

In addition to being well-armed, the B-36 carried three pilots, because Watson says it could stay in the air for a day or so. His longest flight last 24 hours and 40 minutes.

Tragedy struck Watson’s bomb group on its way up the east coast where it flew simulated strike missions against major cities; a mission that began in the Azores, an island in the South Atlantic.

B-36s like this one sometimes had to fly through bad weather.

“We were coming back at less than 1,000 feet over the water to sneak in under the radar as long as possible, before popping up and dropping an imaginary bomb, but the weather was absolutely terrible,” said Watson. “There was a string of ships that was supposed to be giving us weather information on the way up, but we didn’t get it and the group commander’s plane slammed into a hill on Greenland, killing all 23 men aboard.”

The tail section of a B-36 bomber that crashed in Greenland.

That man was Brigadier General Richard Ellsworth. Rapid City Air Force Base, the home of the B-36, was named in his honor and is now home for B-1s and B-2s, America’s long-reach bombers.

After Airman Raleigh Watson’s enlistment ended, he went to college on the GI Bill and became a dentist in Berryville. Active in his church, Dr. Watson also became an ordained Anglican priest in Winchester.

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