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FORT WORTH -- Walt Douglas grew up in a tiny oil town in Pennsylvania dreaming about airplanes and adventure.
"My brother and I, we used to go out on the ledge near our house on the rocks and watch the air show," Douglas said. "And we both said, 'We're going to fly.'"
The boys were airbound before they hit today's legal drinking age of 21.
By age 25, Walt Douglas, now 93, had flown more than two dozen combat missions over Nazi Germany as an aircraft commander on a B-17 bomber.
About eight years later, Douglas, the perennial thrill-seeker, landed at Carswell Air Force Base to fly the technological marvel of his era -- the B-36, the world's first intercontinental nuclear bomber, under development in Fort Worth. The world's largest piston-powered bomber could carry up to 72,000 pounds of ammo with no need to refuel for three days.
This summer marks the 67th anniversary of the bird's first flight in North Texas.
"At the time, we were the only ones with nuclear weapons, and we could deliver a nuclear bomb anywhere in Russia," said Buster Cleveland, a retired aviation worker who lives in Fort Worth.
"A lot of people were not aware that we had aircraft around here carrying nuclear weapons."
The Air Force bomber did not fly until after World War II. The U.S. government almost shut down production because it could not meet its design requirements. But the government pressed on when the Cold War started, and it used the plane to intimidate the Soviets.
Of almost 384 aircraft built in Fort Worth, only four are left on display at aviation museums across the nation.
In 1990, a local team of more than 100 aerospace connoisseurs -- retired pilots, servicemen and aviation workers -- restored the last local remnant of the giant aircraft, the final B-36 off the production line. The group spent three years rebuilding a torn cockpit and fuselage.
But the Air Force moved the aircraft to a museum in Arizona after concerns that Fort Worth had no indoor facility large enough to store it.
So tires and a massive propeller -- the only local mementos of the gigantic bomber -- are all that can be viewed at the Peacemaker Museum in Fort Worth near Meacham Airport.
Douglas is the last in the area to have piloted the B-36, Cleveland said. He flew missions all over the world.
"We were sent to Africa and Casablanca," Douglas said. "We'd spend six months over there and fly around and go to Saudi Arabia and different places to keep the Russians on edge."
Of his kind, he said, "there aren't that many of us left. I'm the last of the flyboys."
The B-36 was a challenge for just about anyone who came into contact with it.
The B-36 carried a crew of up to 15, including the pilot, co-pilot, bombardiers, navigators, flight engineers, gunners and observers.
Flying the plane required the coordination of the entire crew, Douglas said.
"It was not an easy plane to fly," he said.
On an airfield, it sat as high as a four-story building and weighed 410,000 pounds, with a wingspan of 230 feet. It was so large that it required workers on scooters to navigate the wingtips before a pilot could take off, Douglas said.
"You couldn't tell from the cockpit what you were going to hit out there," Douglas said.
On every takeoff, the crew had to operate on a standard procedure. First, it had to lock the brakes, so that two engineers could start its six engines, he said. Once power was OK, the B-36 would begin to "jump up and down," he said.
An unloaded bomber could take off at a brisk pace of 125 mph once the brakes were released.
The mammoth plane also took a while to respond to a pilot turning the wheel, Douglas said.
Joe Simpson, 92, an electrician on the B-36 flight line, said it was a feat just to get the plane ready for takeoff. It required 36,000 gallons of fuel. Each of its engines took 50 gallons of oil, he said.
"It took 24 hours to get one ready for preflight," he said. "My biggest job was to pressurize. ... The airspace system had to be so tight and have no leaks in it. It was a lot of work."
"It was a fantastic airplane," Simpson said. "You could walk inside and you would think you were in a room of your house."
The plane made cameo appearances all over the globe to ward off aggression. Hence its nickname: B-36 Peacemaker.
"It was keeping the peace by being strong," Cleveland said.
|Air Force Aircraft|