Personal Histories

Bob Wills History

Home to Fortuna - Again

In April 1951, during the Korean War; I became a retread (reservist recalled to active duty) and reported to Travis Air Force Base at Fairfield, California. Arriving on base, I received assignment to the 31st Reconnaissance Squadron of the Strategic Air Command (SAC).

B36I was with a group of Staff Sergeants; skilled weathermen who were assigned to test the feasibility of including weather observers in RB36 (Reconnaissance Bomber) flight crews. With eight engines, six turning and four burning, (6 pusher propellers and 4 jets) they were the largest war planes ever built. It was an awesome airplane that was huge and had a most distinctive reverberation. To hear and see one in the air was truly breathtaking, but to see and hear more than one was nothing less than the thrill of a lifetime. (Download a .wav file of a B36 flyover.) They were designed, during the early 1940's, to fly roundtrip from the United States and bomb targets in Germany.

The 31st was flying B29's while waiting to be outfitted with the new RB36's. Its veteran crews had seen combat in World War 2. It was totally a new environment for me. I found it easy to set, and only listen, when among professionals. Their existence was absolute dedication and precision without deviation, and in that order. A part of our training included missions to a gunnery range near Tonopah, Nevada. On some missions, fighter aircraft practiced camera strafing runs on the 29's, and we retaliated by shooting cameras back at them. That was entertaining even though the cameras didn't make rat-a-tat-tat noises, but it's for certain it was safer than using live ammo.

Waiting for the 36's seemed a lot like anticipating the delivery of a new car, however there wasn't any choice of colors or accessories. I was the new kid on board; so I received items of personal equipment the others already possessed. One item in particular was a necessity, but only in combat. I was issued flak gear consisting of a helmet, trousers and coat. The garments were made from a canvas type material and contained pockets for metal inserts. With the added steel weight, it seemed as if I weighed a ton.

The stories about (SAC) and the 29's were endless. Not everybody in (SAC) appreciated being there. It was easy to count those who were in favor of flying through a flak pattern. It was said the only way out was to get discharged or die.

A crewmember of another aircraft told of a trip around the world. His plane had been in a group of three. The last overnight stop, prior to crossing the Atlantic Ocean Westbound to the United States, was an island off the west coast of Europe. The next morning his plane was the first to take off.5th Recon / Bomb Wing, Travis AFB, CA The second plane exploded while taking off. The third plane exploded while taking off. His plane continued its journey home with little chitchat from the crewmembers. Orders are orders; you don't abort a mission only because two planes are lost. The 29's had a history of exploding during take off; so there probably wasn't any mystery as to why those two went down. During World War 2 they had been dubbed flying coffins. They didn't play any favoritism as to whom they killed. In 1950, the Commanding General of the base, Robert Travis, was killed in an explosion while taking off in a B29. Subsequently the base was named Travis Air Force Base in his honor.

It was a relief to fly in the 36's and not have a chomping at the stomach feeling while taking off. In Combat, my duty station would have been in the nose operating a 20 millimeter cannon. Fortunately there wasn't any combat, but on take offs and landings my attention was affixed to the nose wheel as the plane raced down the runway. My voice was the first on the intercom when the plane left the ground and prior to its landing. I would advise the Aircraft Commander that the nose wheel was up and locked or down and locked.

RB36 Reconnaissance Bomber

RB-36, RB-29 & RB-50. Photo by John F Hampton, Brockport New York USA

Of course, flying wasn't all that glamorous since it also had its bad days. The work was long and time consuming. The crew had three hours of briefing on the day prior to a mission. On the day of a mission there were three hours of preflight and at the end of a mission there were three hours of debriefing. I observed a lot of country from the air, and most at altitudes where objects on the ground were only objects. The Air Force told us where to go, how to go and how fast to go. However, I am not complaining I received free box lunches. On every mission, I had a choice of chicken or chicken which was available cold or colder. The flights, no matter what duration or direction, were always from Travis to Travis. The 36's had a farther cruising range than the 29's and didn't require refueling stops.

My flying ended in December, 1951, when the Korean War was winding down and it was obvious the RB36's would not be assigned to a combat theater. And, too, the Air Force had ended its dependency on reserve personnel. I never learned if the experiment to assign weather observers to flight crews was a success.

The RB36's were phased out in the late fifties and replaced by the all jet B52's. The 52's are legendary for having won the Cold War. The crewmen are Commissioned Officers. That apparently ended the flying careers for enlisted personnel in bomber and reconnaissance aircraft.

I am not envious of anybody who has a career in the military. I do however; admire their efforts because somebody has to do it. Even though I took my knocks, I am proud that I had the opportunity to serve, but I did savor my contentment when I exited the Travis Main Gate for the last time. That contentment magnified to even greater merriment when I observed it in the rearview mirror. I was a civilian in route home to Fortuna - again.


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The B-36 was the largest American bomber every produced. It was slow and could not refuel in the air, but could fly missions to targets 3,400 miles (5,500 km) away and stay aloft as long as 50 hours. Moreover, the B-36 was believed to have an ace up its sleeve: a high cruising altitude, made possible by its huge wing area, that put it out of reach of all piston fighters and early jet interceptors.

Development of the huge plane began in 1941 when it appear that Great Britain would soon fall to Nazi Germany. The Army Air Force wanted a bomber that could fly from the United States to Europe, drop bombs, then return (combat radius) The prototype first flew on August 8, 1946. The first operational models were delivered to the Strategic Air Command 1948. There were many problems with them and the fleet was not fully operational until 1951.

First flight video, Aug 1946

The Peacemaker achieved its design objective. Its combat radius with a 10,000-pound payload (one small nuclear bomb) was 3,740 nautical miles. With its maximum of bomb load of 86,000 pounds, (conventional bombs), its combat radius decreased to 1,757 nautical miles.

Each B-36 cost $3.6 million. A total of 388 aircraft were produced. The last one was built in August of 1954. All of the B-36s were delivered as or converted to "J" models, which had two jet engines added to each wing. (This was essentially the inboard engine nacelle from the B-47). On 29 June 1955 the first B-52 was delivered to SAC. The all-jet bomber soon took over the Peacemaker's duties. The last B-36 was retired in 1959.