They call her Peacemaker, she’s a beautiful thing/Five big-*** motors hung on each wing/Pistons and turbines is what makes her run/Bet your ***, bro, she gets the job done.”
That verse comes from the song Peacemaker, sung by the late great James Patterson “Bull” Durham (Lt. Col, USAF Ret.), a former Strategic Air Command (SAC) bomber pilot turned professional singer (the bomber pilots’ counterpart to “the fighter pilot’s minstrel,” retired USAF Lt. Col. Jonas).
The “Peacemaker” that Bull was referencing here was not the famous Colt Single Action Army “Peacemaker” .45 caliber revolver of the Old West, but rather one of the planes he flew during his days as a “SAC trained killer“: the most monstrous — in terms of sheer physical size, that is — early Cold War-era B-36 Peacemaker heavy bomber.
What We Know: She Ain’t No Mach-Buster
The B-36 Peacemaker was manufactured by the now-defunct Convair (shorthand for Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation), the same company that would go on to manufacture the F-106 Delta Dart, a jet plane that still holds a 63-year-old world record as the fastest single-engine fighter.
The Peacemaker was unveiled on 20 August 1945 (three months after V-E Day; and coincidentally, 30 years to the day before Yours Truly was born) and made her maiden flight on 8 August 1946. In turn, she officially entered U.S. Air Force service in 1948 (the year after the USAF became a separate and independent branch of service).
Just how big was this beast? We’re talking a 230-foot (70.1-meter) wingspan here, which means that the B-36 still holds the title for longest wingspan of any combat aircraft. To put that in perspective for you, as Alex Hollings points out in a 2021 Sandboxx News article, “Its wingspan was so big, in fact, that you could lay a B-52 Stratofortress’ wings over the B-36’s and still have room to throw a Super Hornet on the end for good measure.” (Author’s original emphasis.) And speaking of the B-52 Stratofortress, as impressive and devastating as her 71,000-pound (32,205-kilogram) bomb capacity is, that still pales in comparison to the 86,000-pound (39008.9-kilogram) bomb load that the Peacemaker could pack. That wingspan, combined with the fuselage length of 162 feet 1 inch (49.40 meters), height of 46 feet 9 inches (14.25 meters), and maximum takeoff weight of 410,000 pounds (185,973 kilograms) made the B-36 the largest mass-produced piston-engine aircraft ever built.
About those engines: as hinted at by the Bull Durham song verse quoted at the beginning of this article, the Peacemaker had 10 — yes, that’s correct, ten — of them; six Pratt & Whitney R-4360-53 Wasp Major radial piston engine, and four General Electric J47 turbojet engines. That turbojet-and-piston combo could push the B-36 along at a max airspeed of 435mph (700kph/378 knots). Furthermore, as noted by Dario Leone of The Aviation Geek Club, in turn citing aviation expert Myke Predko, “‘While the cruise speed of the B-36 was basically the same as the B-29 (around 235 MPH) it could do it at over 40,000 feet! There were no anti-aircraft cannon that could reach that altitude in World War II. Its range of 4,000 miles (in the early versions) with a 10,000 lb. payload didn’t quite give it the range to attack Japan from the Aleutians but it could easily attack Berlin from Iceland…Of course, if any fighters could climb to an altitude which would put the B-36 into danger, it could ably defend itself with 16 20mm cannon (12 in remote turrets).'”
Not surprisingly, this behemoth of a bomber was just a wee bit lacking in the agility and maneuverability departments. Lieutenant General Jim Edmundson, former commander of the 17th Air Force, likened flying the big bird to “sitting on your front porch and flying your house around.”
Missing Out on the Action
Alas, for all the B-36’s awe-inspiring potential, she was soon rendered obsolescent by heavy bombers that were completely jet-powered, starting with the B-47 Stratojet and then of course the B-52. As stated by Daniel Ford in an article for Smithsonian Magazine, “The B-36 never went to war, never dropped a bomb in anger, nor (so far as we know) even fired its cannon at an enemy airplane. Created at a time when the atomic bomb redefined strategic air power and the turbojet redefined performance, its career spanned the crossroads that divided two eras.”
Though the Peacemaker never got to see combat, she at least got to taste a wee bit of movie stardom, thanks to the 1955 film Strategic Air Command starring the late great Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson.
Where Are They Now?
A total of 384 B-36s were built before the plane’s retirement on 12 February 1959. Only four completely intact Peacemakers survive today: one each at the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum in Ashland, Nebraska; the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio; the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona; and Castle Air Museum in Atwater, California.
Since we began this article with a quote from the Bull Durham song, methinks it appropriate to end the article accordingly: “Some day I will leave her, then what will I do? I’ll park my young *** in a B-52.”
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).