The B-36 Peacemaker mechanic

Responding to the US Army Air Forces’ requirement for a strategic bomber with intercontinental range, Consolidated Vultee (later Convair) designed the B-36 during World War II. The airplane made its maiden flight in August 1946, and in June 1948 the Strategic Air Command received its first operational B-36.

As Lee Burtman explains in her book “Waiting in the Wings: Arming the Bomb in a World Gone M.A.D.,” as the largest warplane ever built, the B-36 fulfilled a crucial nuclear deterrent role as part of SAC. Her father Neal was responsible for the plane’s maintenance even in flight. Actually, much was made of the fact that the B-36’s wing was deep enough to allow engineers to enter it and maintain the engines in flight.

Neal felt honored he was chosen to fly in the Peacemaker, but the assignment was decidedly no walk in the park! His typical route was called a “milk run,” where minimal resistance from the enemy was expected. After gassing up in Rapid City, the team flew to Maine. If all systems checked out well, the plane made a rough circle from Newfoundland to Greenland, across Norway and Sweden, grazing Russia and North Africa, and then back across the Atlantic. Neal wasn’t sure where they even were half the time!

These simulated bomb runs lasted fourteen to forty hours, averaging thirty-two hours during the week. Neal exclaimed that even after overcoming his initial fear of flying and having flown for several months, the tense initial hours in the air still “scared the hair off your teeth!” Despite his excellent care of the plane, inherent system malfunctions could bring her down, not to mention the Soviet MiGs hovering below.

An unnerving sound

The bomber’s sound alone was unnerving. A distinctive undulating drone created by her engines running at their top RPMs coursed through his lungs and stomach. He felt the reverberation throughout his body long after returning to the ground. It was so loud that Neal could hear nothing else, and his ears rang for hours and hours after a flight. People on the ground knew she was approaching from ten miles away, and their houses and windows would rattle wildly to announce her arrival.

The unnerving mission of a B-36 mechanic: hours spent waiting in the wings of a Peacemaker to Maintain the Engines in Flight

The airplane’s throbbing vibrations felt and sounded like they would rip apart its body. Indeed, it looked as if they would—Neal could see daylight as the “skin” and “ribs” were pulled apart, then shoved back together at the seams like an accordion playing. After each flight, sheet metal workers spent hours repairing the “skin” and securing the rivets that had popped off.

The constant tension; gas fumes; lack of food, sleep, and nicotine; and three days of intense plane convulsions forced Neal and his buddies to vomit violently on the tarmac shortly after landing. He detested the shorter weekend flights when the crew may have just three or four hours on the ground to refuel and re-acclimate. To prevent the engines from freezing up, the men had to head right back up into the blue before their stomachs were settled.

F-1 electrically-heated suit

Even having spent many frigid Minnesota winters as a child playing in the snow for hours dressed in a thin jacket and wet mittens, Neal was unprepared for the bitter cold of the stratosphere. It could be twenty to thirty below zero in some areas of the plane where he worked. By contrast, the bunk bed in the aft compartment could be ninety degrees on top and twenty degrees on the bottom bunk, making it impossible to sleep on either level. It was so uncomfortable that Neal did very little sleeping in the bed—he napped or read wherever he could while sitting or even standing.

Neal was outfitted with an F-1 electrically-heated suit plugged into the plane. Unfortunately, it barely stopped one from freezing to death. He wore gloves, boots, an oxygen mask, a heated high-altitude flight helmet with earmuffs, and a headset to stay in touch with the cockpit. Most importantly, he wore a parachute and a “Mae West” on his chest (a life vest named for the shapely, risqué actress of Vaudeville, theater, and film).

A small galley held two mini-stoves, but there was rarely time or motivation to cook anything. Typical meals consisted of sandwiches in self-heating packages or C or K rations. The rations usually included some type of meat (Spam anyone?), powdered eggs, cheese and crackers, canned purple plums, chocolate bars, instant coffee, and gum (plus toilet paper and cigarettes).

Making use of the toilet paper was particularly problematic. It was often too cold to use the “head,” so one could either wear a diaper, which Neal adamantly refused to do, or employ a “pee tube” that emptied into a plastic bag. Neal admitted that he was too scared during the flights to attempt eliminating anything else!

The unnerving mission of a B-36 mechanic: hours spent waiting in the wings of a Peacemaker to Maintain the Engines in Flight

The tunnel

He couldn’t use the cigarettes, either, since smoking with gas sloshing around and fumes permeating the air was strictly prohibited. Neal had been a heavy smoker since his teen years, and the nicotine withdrawal he experienced each time he flew was debilitating.

The first day aloft without smokes made him feel anxious, restless, dizzy, and irritable and gave him severe headaches. The second day resulted in insomnia, trouble concentrating, and a drop in blood sugar, creating sudden hunger and cravings for sweets and carbohydrates. Unfortunately, the pitiful Air Force snacks did not quite satisfy him. By the third day, the symptoms of withdrawal were at their peak. Just when he could not stand it a second longer, he would hungrily grab a saved cigarette from his pocket and inhale deeply—after landing and purging.

On these flights, Neal started at the front of the plane for a briefing with the bombardier responsible for aiming aerial bombs. He then spoke with the navigator, who guided the airplane using radar, charts, and maps. Next, he headed to the aft area accessed via a pressurized tunnel called the “train.” The tunnel, measuring about thirty inches in diameter and eighty-seven feet long, ran along the fuselage and through the bomb bay. Neal would move his parachute to his chest, then lie on his back on a flat sled attached to a monorail. After grasping an overhead cable, he would laboriously pull himself hand-over-hand through the tunnel, no easy feat while wearing all his bulky gear.

B-36 mechanic critical job: keeping the engines cool and the carburetors warm

Sometimes, the pilots had a little fun with the aft crew—slightly pointing the plane’s nose down made the men groan and work even harder to maneuver through the tunnel. If they tilted the nose up, the shrieks of the crewmen as they hurtled down it backward at breakneck speed were good for a laugh.

Neal’s first task was to crawl into the plane’s wings to work on the engines while in flight. The enormous wings were over seven feet thick at their root (where they attached to the fuselage) and tapered to the tips. While securely tethered, Neal could check the fuel tanks and landing gear, observe the engines with an analyzer, check the intercooler settings and gear movements, and reset blown circuit breakers on the electrical panel.

The unnerving mission of a B-36 mechanic: hours spent waiting in the wings of a Peacemaker to Maintain the Engines in Flight

A critical job was keeping the engines cool and the carburetors warm. The stainless steel firewalls surrounding the engines occasionally cracked, overheating the cylinders and causing fires. The plane’s body was made of a highly flammable metal, magnesium, creating a dangerous combination. Three B-36s were lost to in-flight fires—one even carried an atomic bomb that, thankfully, had not yet been enabled.

The least of a B-36 mechanic worries

The engines leaked oil that must be constantly mopped up and replenished. On occasion, an engine’s supply of 150 gallons was insufficient, so it would need to be shut down. Neal also completed the dreaded task of changing hundreds of spark plugs in the engine block. Each of the six engines had 56 spark plugs, and all 336 required frequent replacement because the leaded avgas continually fouled them while the plane was at cruising speed.

Besides breathing in the ever-present, toxic vapors, Neal often had direct contact with the fuel as leaks in the injection lines squirted him. Also, after having flexed for several hours, the fuel tanks in the wings dislodged the joint sealants allowing purple fuel to drip all over Neal. Moreover, when the plane made a “shotgun” bank, turning quickly and sharply by 60 degrees, the gas would spurt out, showering Neal with more poisonous liquid. During repeated trips, Neal likely received more than his share of the lead and other chemicals. Such exposure would prove to be the least of his worries, however.

Waiting in the Wings

Lee Burtman was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota (USA) and lives in a north suburb with her husband, Greg, and son, Kyle. They also enjoy three other adult children, their spouses, and eight grandchildren.

Lee is a retired educator with a passion for telling the stories no one else does–the true experiences of little-known, everyday soldiers and airmen who put their lives on the line to ensure our freedom.

“Waiting in the Wings: Arming the Bomb in a World Gone M.A.D.” is her third book and highlights her father Neal’s work in the B-36 “Peacemaker.” It is available through the author by writing [email protected] or Amazon–Waiting in the Wings by Lee Burtman.

Waiting in the Wings: Arming the Bomb in a World Gone M.A.D.
Waiting in the Wings: Arming the Bomb in a World Gone M.A.D.  is available to order here.

Photo credit: Lt. Col Frank F. Kleinwechter / U.S. Air Force