Growing Up With the B-36

By Craig Marckwardt, EAA 1158352

It seems that nearly every aviation enthusiast can point to the seminal moment in his or her life when the bug bit and the itch set in. For me, it was sometime in the spring of 1951, about the time I was turning 4 years old. That was the year my father was recalled to the United States Air Force and assigned to the newly formed organization at Carswell Air Force Base, Fort Worth, Texas — the Strategic Air Command.

Trained as a B-17 observer near the end of World War II, my dad never saw overseas combat. Prior to his enlistment he was a draftsman for Douglas Aircraft Company in Southern California. Like many U.S. Army Air Forces enlistees, he spent time in San Antonio, Del Rio, and Amarillo, Texas. He received flight training and was eventually assigned to a unit ferrying and delivering bombers. At war’s end, he returned to civilian life and college, leaving the engineering track for degrees in counseling and psychology. As the Cold War ramped up, however, Uncle Sam and General Curtis LeMay had other ideas. Now, if this sounds like a scene from the classic film Strategic Air Command, it gets even better.

At Carswell, my father was assigned as an aircraft performance specialist (flight engineer) on the enormous Convair B-36 heavy bomber. Initially, the story goes, having been trained on the B-36B with six huge Pratt & Whitney 28-cylinder radial engines (arranged in four banks of seven cylinders), his unit returned these airplanes one at a time to Convair in Southern California for the fitment of four additional General Electric J-47 engines carried in pods — two under each outer wing — and the airplanes were redesignated as B-36D models.

During the first year of my father’s assignment, our family lived first in base officers’ housing on Carswell, then moved to a little two-bedroom house on Marks Place in Fort Worth. The street, which is still there, runs pretty much north and south. In fact, if one were to draw a line from the south end through the north end of Marks, it would extend to the end of Carswell Runway 18/36.

If you’ve never heard a B-36 flying over with “six turning and four burning,” all at full throttle, I don’t think I can drive home the amazing sound it made. Over the years, living back in Southern California, I could spot and identify a B-36, even well up in the flight levels, by the sound alone. The visual confirmation was the eight distinct rows of contrail as these monsters cruised along 8 or 9 miles up.

Prevailing winds in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are generally north and south, the wind from the south being most common. Therefore, departures from Carswell (now Fort Worth Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base), tended to be mostly southbound. We lived less than 2 miles from the end of the runway. Imagine the brilliant scene in Strategic Air Command as Col. “Dutch” and Mrs. Holland (James Stewart and June Allyson) ride out the seismic event as a B-36H climbs from Carswell, at that point likely less than 1,000 feet AGL. For mom, my baby sister, and me, this was a daily occurrence. You can imagine she wasn’t thrilled with the lack of peace and quiet. As a 5-year-old boy, however, I was in heaven.

While all of this stoked my interest in airplanes, however, I can trace the real infection to one airplane. In 1951, the 11th Bombardment Wing received the new B-36H model, designed to carry the Mark 17 thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb. My father was assigned as chief flight engineer in B-36H-10-CF tail number 51-5702. Even at the height of the Cold War, apparently a 5-year-old was not seen as a threat, and I accompanied my dad to and into the airplane on a number of occasions. In one instance, I was allowed to be in cockpit while the crew did ground engine run-ups and checks.

Now, some 66-plus years later, I have vivid images of that day, along with riding out to the airplane in the back of a blue pickup truck with one of those huge “Follow Me” signs behind the cab. I remember the how big the main wheels and tires were from my low vantage point. I can remember climbing the ladder past the nose gear and up the stairs to flight deck. And I recall the crew’s baseball-style flying caps split in the group’s blue and gold colors.

How am I so sure of the tail number all these years later? In 1955, with Dad back in civilian life and the family back in the San Fernando Valley, we went to the drive-in theater  to see Strategic Air Command. Movie buffs will be quick to note that the star airplane in the movie was the B-36H-35-CF 51-5734. All of the live flying scenes and the ground scenes when Col. Holland has his first encounter with this “super bomber” involve that airplane, resplendent in red-and-white jet intake stripes, but missing the squadron’s grey geese nose art shield and missing the triangle and U on the vertical tail. As the movie progresses, Col. Holland gets his own aircraft to command, which is revealed when the LeMay character, Gen. Hawkes (Frank Lovejoy), and the group commander, Lt. Col. Samford (Barry Sullivan) inspect the underside of the wings looking for fuel leaks and discuss whether modifications have fixed a problem with fuel tank leaks at low temperatures (a real-life issue with the airplane). As the camera pans, the aircraft number on the fuselage is revealed as 5702, and my dad shouted, “Look! That’s my airplane!”

In the movie, (spoiler alert) sadly, the fuel leak was not cured, the left wing catches fire, and Col. Holland makes a dramatic, sliding crash landing somewhere above the Arctic Circle. He survives, and goes on to fly the new, modern, and beautiful Boeing B-47. As in real life, the B-36 just fades out.

The real demise of 51-5702 is much less dramatic. Having survived the Carswell tornado of September 1952, it went on to fly its Cold War deterrence missions until it was sent to the Davis-Monthan AFB boneyard in October 1957 and scrapped. But for its turn on the camera, 5702 still displayed the Strategic Air Command shield on its portside nose, and the blue and gold 11th Bombardment Group grey geese shield on the starboard, just as I remembered it all those years ago.

Now retired from a career as a corporate educator, I finally scratched my flying itch and received my sport pilot certificate in October 2015. I am a docent and education volunteer at Frontiers of Flight at Dallas Love Field (KDAL) but have some time on my hands. To commemorate my lifelong obsession with things aviation, I returned to my boyhood avocation of building replicas of those things I most value. So, while B-36H 51-5702 no longer exists in fact, I can immortalize it miniature, and with it, honor those who flew it and its sister ships, and the lasting impact it had on my life.

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