Military-Grade Awesome, Technostalgia

Nuclear-Powered Freedom

The dual-propulsion Convair B-36 is already an awesome bomber, and a true hybrid. How, then, do you make it more awesomer? Well, if it’s 1946 you add a nuclear power plant and go commie hunting.

First, a bit about the B-36. Mostly because I’m nursing a chubby for it. Powered by six Pratt & Whitney R-4360-53 “Wasp Major” radials making 3,800 hp each driving pusher propellers PLUS four General Electric J47 turbojets producing 5,200 lbf of thrust each the B-36 adds new (and more awesome) meaning to the term “hybrid”. It was designed as a strategic bomber and entered service in 1949. It could carry up to 86,000 lb. of bombs, including the massive Mk-17 Hydrogen Bomb and the massive, 43,600 lb. T-12 “Cloudmaker” bomb. Once the turrets were removed in the early ’50s, they could cruse over 50,000 ft. at over 430 mph with a range of almost 4,000 miles.

From 1946 to 1961 the US had a secret program to design nuclear-powered bombers. Why? Why not. They were designing nuclear-powered submarines and nuclear-powered ships, so why not a nuclear-powered bomber carrying nukes. How very meta. The idea was to keep these bombers up and flying as long as possible, so in the event the Soviets nuked the US we could respond quickly and the lemurs could take over.

The first — and only — US testbed for this idea was the NB-36H, a Convair B-36H that had been damaged by a tornado in Texas. Rather than just scrap a $4 million bomber, the Air Force had Convair rebuild it for their Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft (NEPA) project.

Lemurs tried to trick us by calling this plane the "Peacemaker"

The original plan was to develop two aircraft – the Nuclear Test Aircraft and the X-6. The NTA was the only one built. It flew 47 times for a total of 215 hours to test the feasibility of carrying a nuclear reactor in the belly of a bomber. The pilots reported no ill effects, thanks to 12 tons of lead and rubber shielding in the nose of the aircraft. They did, however, develop an odd fondness for lemurs and an irrational fear of hawks.

Like the Tupolev Tu-119 that Alex Kierstein wrote about, the NB-36 was to be powered by “dirty cycle” engines. The General Electric X-39 engines would replace the four Pratt & Whitney turbojets, and would use heat from the 3-megawatt P-1 Aircraft Shield Test Reactor rather than burning fossil fuels. In a way, these were some of the first “green” jets in existence. Like its commie counterpart, it never flew under nuclear power, but two GE X-39 engines (based on the venerable J47) were built and tested along with reactors in Idaho. You can still see Heat Transfer Reactor Experiment-1 (HTRE-1) and HTRE-3 at the Idaho National Laboratory.

I need a small version of this for my car.

One of the major technical challenges of the NB-36 was the reactors were air cooled. In order to prevent them from going Chernobyl, water was pumped through the reactor and then to water-to-air heat exchangers. Of course, technical challenges were to make sure the plane never crashed and to find a way of masking the greenish glow so some Russkie with a ZSU-57 couldn’t get a lucky shot off. Of course, he would just be bringing nuclear-powered death onto himself and his comrades if he did get that lucky shot off.

This program ended before the reactors were tied to the jet engines in the X-6. ICBMs were becoming more reliable, and the Minuteman I was being deployed in 1962. Therefore, SAC’s need to keep bombers equipped with nukes flying 24 hours a day in a constellation that could ensure the maximum infliction of damage on Soviet Russia was diminished. Furthermore, the range, speed and capacity of newer aircraft, like the B-52, were proving to be much more economical than a nuclear-powered behemoth. Much to the lemur’s chagrin.

  • One of our future overlords…

    • I, for one, welcome our new lemur overlords.

  • Han_Solex

    So tough, when hit by a tornado, it came back into action with a nuclear reactor.

    Built Convair Tough.™

  • I worked at the Idaho National Lab (at the time called the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory) from '91 to '94. The coolest thing about going to see the old jet motors is that they are a nuclear two'fer, being located in the parking lot of EBR-1, the "birthplace of nuclear power" and a National Historic Landmark. If you ever find yourself anywhere close to the middle of nowhere (aka Southeast Idaho), it is definitely worth a detour. Where else can you go and stand on top of a nuclear containment vessel?

    • tonyola

      I got to stand (actually work) inside of some abandoned nuclear missile silos outside of Baltimore in the 1980s when I worked for a major nationwide enviro firm. We were doing groundwater studies on behalf of the military. These silos were the type with doors where the missiles and their gantries would tilt out of the ground before firing. All the hardware except for the doors was gone, but it was still a little on the creepy side.

      • Atlas D. Have one nearby Lawrence.

        • tonyola

          Lawrence, Kansas? Didn't that get nuked once already?

    • It had a partial meltdown at some point too, correct? So visitors can say they've been at the site of a Nuclear Meltdown!

      The glove-boxes and two-foot-thick layers of glass were a highlight for me.

    • B72

      I stopped at EBR-1 once on a cross country drive. They were closed, but I was able to see the experimental airplane engines and read the placards. They also had some kind of nuclear shielded locomotive.

      Nobody there but me, radiation signs all over, placards in small print that require to get up close, and no noise except the wind and the flapping of loose sheet metal on one of the experimental engines. It was definitely creepy, but worth the stop.

      Anybody else get an Atomic Burger in Arco?

  • Deartháir

    I can't even tell you how much I'm loving all this cold-war nuclear tech awesomeness. You guys are finding some seriously cool stuff. Now I feel like you're upping the ante, and I need to hunt for more stuff out there.

    • P161911

      Maybe I should take a trip up the road to Dawson Forrest to get some pictures of the remains of the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory. The former sight of a basically open air nuclear reactor. I'll have to wait until after deer season though. It is a really popular place to hunt since it is open to the public. Just don't eat the deer that glow or have tumors.

      • Deartháir

        I believe it was you that inspired all this awesomeness. So yes. Go get me photos, dammit!

        Or… you know… I could just go find some on my own from the interwebs. But the personal touch is so much better.

      • Oooh…yeah. Get some photos and one of use minions will run them.

        Dearthair, I think it's time we renegotiate my contract. I want a 200% raise.

  • I am going to start a hip-hop house group to play my nuclear nightclub, C. We will go by the name, Lemur's Chagrin, and everyone will love us.

  • Number_Six

    I've visited three nuclear bomb sites: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Fire Mountains in the Chinese Gobi Desert. I am so glad that I had to really go out of my way to visit them, rather than having one fall onto my house during an airshow or whatever other hazardous dickery might have happened had this utterly insane plan worked out.

    I dig how silly and dated the B-50 looks next to the fearsome Convair. It's like what'll happen in the future when lemurs fight raccoons. Silly raccoons will be fighting jets with piston engines.

  • hglaber

    Ah, the Peacemaker. One time, in 9th grade, an English teacher made us read some short story. In the story, the author mentioned "shutting down engine #8" on an aircraft. The teacher (probably correctly) said this was proof the author was portraying a fantasy on the part of the narrator, since no airplane had 8 engines.

    Of course I went straight to the library and came back with a pic of the Peacemaker. It didn't take long since I already knew exactly which book had a good pic.

    I was a real pain in the butt in junior high (and grade school, and high school, and… at work on Wednesday). It never ceases to amaze me that I never got flunked/fired. It might have taught me a lesson if it had been done before I got too old to change.

  • dukeisduke

    It was only after awhile (the D model) that the four jet engines were added – "six turning and four burning". I got to crawl around inside the very last B-36 ("The City of Fort Worth") back in the '70s when it was still at the old Great Southwest Airport in Ft Worth (it's now at the Pima Air & Space Museum in AZ, after the USAF took it away from Ft Worth). This was during the first attempt at restoration. Although I still think they're totally awesome, in service they were a PITA, plagued by fuel leaks, and engine fires in the Wasp Majors (because of the pusher configuration).

    For lots of great B-36 action, check out "Strategic Air Command" from 1955, starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson. A lot of it was filmed at Carswell AFB in Fort Worth, next door to the Convair (now Lockheed Martin) plant where the B-3s were built. Also check out the B-36 Peacemaker Museum Web site:

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