For not always clear reasons, bomber pilots and fighter pilots don’t appear to mix. It’s as if bomber pilots regard fighter pilots as hat-backward, spotty youths who’ve stolen dad’s keys while he was out of town. In return, fighter pilots regard bomber pilots as octogenarian Sunday drivers that should be kept off the road and well clear of their souped-up Ferraris. Not then, a good mix, but in the 1950s, the octogenarians got to have fun with the hat-backward, spotty youths, even if they were re-hashing an idea that went all the way back to WW1.
One of the problems with a fighter aircraft is that it’s small. That’s a benefit for maneuverability, but as far as carrying large amounts of fuel goes, it’s a definite drawback. So, in the 1950s, the octogenarians dreamed up the idea of carrying a fighter on a bomber to extend its range, they called it the fighter conveyor (FICON).
The idea was to attach an RF-84K reconnaissance-fighter to a B-36 bomber … in flight. The bomber would do the long haul leg and release the fighter near the target. Once the fighter had finished its mission, it would re-attach itself to the B-36 for the journey home. It was Star Wars stuff done with mechanical levers and seat of the pants flying.
There were two ways this process was mechanized. The first was for the fighter to approach and attach itself to a mechanical arm under the belly of the B-36. The arm would then be raised and the fighter brought half-way into the B-36, much as the X-planes were launched. The pilot could exit the fighter and rest in the bomber until the drop zone was reached, where his aircraft would be lowered back out into the slipstream and released. The first airborne test of the system was done in April 1952, and worked so well that eventually a dozen B-36s were adapted for this purpose. I don’t believe they were ever used in anger, though.
Not content with this heart stopping stroke of genius, the B-36 guys came up with another idea (actually I suspect it was an engineer in a cubicle whose location is only known by a 10 digit map reference, but I digress). The second idea was called Tom-Tom and didn’t require any elaborate mechanical structure under the aircraft. Do you see the picture below? See how the fighter is on the far side of the B-36?
Yep, the idea was that the fighter was literally ON the far side of the bomber’s wings, attached to it, wing tip to wing tip. Here’s an example of two fighters attached to a B-29’s wing tips.
It seems shocking at first, but it’s actually quite sensible. Even when the fighter shuts down its engine, it’s still flying, its wings are still generating lift, and it’s not a dead weight on the wingtip trying to roll the bomber over. All the B-36 had to do was push the fighter along.
The whole Tom-Tom arrangement was very efficient, but it did have a couple of drawbacks.
- The fighter pilot would have to spend 15 to 20 hours in his coach class size seat even before he got to his mission. I guess the octogenarians kept that bit quiet when they were selling the idea.
- In one test the fighter rocked violently and tore the wing tip from the B-36. Thankfully, it was only the wing tip, and the B-36 had no shortage of wing to depend on to make a successful landing.
As you might have guessed, that last problem resulted in the cancelation of the project.
To me these two projects show an amazing amount of creativity. They weren’t in any way a case of bigger, faster, more; they were a quantum step in thinking to solve what fifty years later is still one of the great bugbears of fighter aviation: range.
What do you think? Mad as hatters? A great missed opportunity? Or little more than a target drone for enemy air defenses?