Aug. 25, 1953: Peacemaker becomes flying aircraft carrier
It’s hard to believe this story began with the German Blitz of England in 1940 to 1941. England took such a pounding, America was not sure Britain could withstand the onslaught. So, if America had to go it alone, it would need an intercontinental bomber that could reach Berlin. The B-36 entered the inventory in 1948 as the largest combat aircraft ever built.
With a wingspan of 230 feet, it used six piston and four jet engines with a crew of fifteen, which later shrank to nine. The Peacemaker had an approximate combat range of 4,000 miles. Additionally, it could fly over 40,000 feet, which was higher than enemy artillery, missiles, piston fighter aircraft, and even early jet aircraft could reach.
The aircraft could also carry the large nuclear weapons of its day. By 1952, the enemy’s defense had improved.
Gen. Curtis LeMay, Strategic Air Command commander, ordered three experiments with bombers carrying fighter aircraft to recon for and defend the bombers. Three efforts took shape. The first two proved unsafe, even deadly. The third, the Fighter Conveyor, or FICON, led to the 1953 announcement.
In 1952, SAC modified B-36s with a trapeze in the bomb bay. Initially a McDonnell XF-85 Goblin attached itself to the trapeze while in flight and the bomber raised the top of the aircraft into the bomb bay. In May 1953, they replaced the Goblin with the Thunderjet. While a challenge for test pilots in perfect conditions, it proved less successful in weather and with less experienced pilots.
Additionally, if the fighters carried fuel tanks, the bomber had less than six inches clearance with the ground upon landing. The FICON’s last flight was April 27, 1956. On that date, SAC was already in the process of replacing the B-36 with the Boeing B-52 Stratofortess.
Due to its strategic role and deterrence value, the Peacemaker never fired a shot or dropped a bomb in combat.