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?
Yikes! That wingtip connection gives me fits. At first glance, I thought having only one fighter attached would create a tricky asymmetry in lift/drag for the bomber, but I guess the fighter is pretty tiny by comparison.
What an exercise in precision flying, though! I don’t think I’d want to be in either aircraft. Maybe the bomber didn’t miss its wingtip much, but I suspect the fighter would be fairly exciting to pilot if it was missing a chunk of wing.
Thanks for another cool piece of flying history.
Yes, the fighter isn’t much drag on one side compared to the bomber. It also has much stronger wings, hence why the bomber lost part of its wing. Funnily enough I read another article this week and found out the pilot of the fighter involved was Beryl Erickson – the irony being that he was the chief test pilot for the very B-36 bomber that lost it’s wing tip. What comes around, goes around, so to speak.
Anyone who grew up in Fort Worth in the 1940s and 1950s remembers the B-36 well. Although to my knowledge it was never actually used in a war, I always thought it was a fantastic airplane.
It was also fantastically noisy. The take-off/landing pattern for the runway shared by Carswell AFB and General Dynamics (now Lockheed) was near my elementary and junior high schools. The windows in the schools would shake, and the teachers would have to stop when one took off or landed.
Takeoffs, of course, were the worst, since they used full power. And although some of todays jets can be pretty loud, the B-36 moved so much slower it seemed like it took forever for the noise to die down.
I should have thought to ask you about this plane, being as you lived right by it! I’ve got maybe another article or two to do on it. The thing with the B-36 wasn’t just the volume, it was the frequency. It generated beat frequencies between the propellors that were down below 20Hz, causing lots of things to shake. You are very right about the noise going on and on. I grew up by RAF Brize Norton with transport aircraft droning in and out all day. They go on for ages.
Thanks for the comment.
Bearing in mind this is me who’s just read this….. most of it went over the top of my head – probably in one of those planes.
However, my hubby will love to read this. He is in Denver at the moment but I will show him when he gets back.
Thanks Nig. Why not do a post on Fast and Furious cars, with lots of pictures of Paul Walker. Even a video 🙂
Over your head? Very droll 🙂
Lots of pictures of Paul Walker, huh? Preferably video (with his shirt off, I’m guessing). Sounds like the Fast and the Furious! I promise nothing, but you never know 😉
Great article Nigel. I think the concept will come full circle and we will see long range bombers launching drones.
And…bvecause I know you wanted more work to do please add to your “to do” list an article about the Navy’s air ships that launched and recovered fighters.
Yes, I’m sure we’ll more combined manned and unmanned operations in the future. They’re happening now, of course, but I’m sure there’s lots more integration to go.
You say “the Navy’s air ships that launched and recovered fighters.” I knew the RAF toyed with the idea, but I’ll have to investigate the US Navy angle. My to do list now requires me to invent an anti-aging drug to get to the end of it!
Nigel, I think Donna’s got you confused with Jill. I’m sure she’s got pictures of this guy with his shirt off.
So what you’re telling me, Nigel, is that I need to get off my creative keister and finish my current manuscript.
Message received. Thanks for the kick.
LOL! Would I kick you? Mind you, “less keister and more manuscript” would be a good sign to hang over my desk 🙂
Thanks for the link. I’ve never seen the Sea Dart videos before. It was a amazing design, to be able to run a jet engine with so much spray.
I’d comment on your website, but the longing box doesn’t seem to allow me to login … ?