Posted by Vi Hughes on Nov 08, 2022
This past week we were treated to a fascinating true story with many pictures from Norman Leach, a Canadian military historian and author who is also a member of our club. The story took place in 1950 at the start of the cold war. It involved a trial run of the new top secret hi tech (for the times) B36 bomber, a legendary American General, Curtis Lemay, and a ‘Fat Man’ nuclear bomb that belonged to the Atomic Energy Commission.
Th B36 was an amazing piece of machinery for the times. It was three times larger than the next largest airplane, the B29. It was called a ten by ten by ten because it was designed to fly ten thousand kilometers at ten thousand feet altitude and carry ten thousand pounds of ammunition. They originally intended it to be able to fly from Labrador to drop bombs on Germany. It was ordered from Carswell Industries of Fort Worth Texas in 1940 but was not ready until 1948. The plane had several features that made it unique but also created major maintenance headaches and flying hazards. It had six pusher engines in place of puller engines. This gave it more thrust but also meant that it did not do well flying in cold air as the air went straight into the engines without being warmed first. It also had a very thin skin made of aluminum and magnesium which was very light but was also fragile and panels would shake loose on every flight, requiring them to be reattached after every flight. The aircrew also had to be able to make panel repairs as they flew. The cockpit at the front and the aircrew bunks at the back were pressurized, but the remainder of the plane was not. There was a pressurized tube connecting the bunks to the cockpit which the aircrew would use to pull themselves through by cable. The cockpit was designed such that the pilot could control the yoke but not the throttles. He would radio an engineer with instructions to throttle up or down.
The crew for this plane flew out of Carswell Air Force Base in Texas. The airplane required a crew of nine and the Air Force required that each crew member could fly at least three of the nine positions. The crew that flew these missions had to maintain strict secrecy about what they were doing and where they were doing it. One family was ordered to keep getting milk delivered for the airman, even though he was not home to drink it.
General Curtis Lemay was a legendary Second World War General who had come up with many kinds of winning strategies throughout the war. He could fly all nine positions on this plane. He was in charge of the training for the crew of this plane. Part of their training involved making secret training bombing runs over San Francisco, as the street layout somewhat resembled Moscow.  He then decided that this crew needed to have experience handling a nuclear bomb.  The only problem was the air force did not own any nuclear bombs, they were all the property of the Atomic Energy Commission, and there were only thirteen in existence. The bomb was comprised of a fat ball of Uranium surrounded by a casing, with a small hole in the center of the Uranium ball, into which a small plutonium core could be inserted. The outside of the casing had attachments for thirty-two small explosive charges which when detonated would set off an explosion of the plutonium core, if it was present, and then the Uranium would detonate resulting in a nuclear explosion. General Lemay, who was a very resourceful man somehow convinced the Atomic Energy Commission to loan him a bomb, minus the plutonium core. His crew could now practice handling and loading the bomb. The first flight they made, with a crew of fifteen, they planned to fly to New Mexico to pick up the bomb and then to Anchorage Alaska, land and then fly over San Francisco on their way back to Texas. Flying both north and south they would be over Canada, but of course the Canadians were not notified. Their problems began when they were approaching Alaska. Their radio had died, their radar was not working any more and they had lost one engine due to the cold. They hoped to be able to repair things once they landed in Anchorage, but the base commander there refused to let them stay. He gave them a portable radio and radar unit and they left Anchorage with only five engines working.  After a few more hours two more engines had died and the airplane was no longer air worthy, they were over Canada and they had to make a plan to get the crew out, ditch the bomb and the plane. They considered ditching both in the ocean, but they knew there were Soviet ships nearby that would be quick to recover it, and they could not risk having the Soviets find the bomb. They decided to attach the outer charges to the bomb and drop and shatter it in the air over the ocean. It had no Plutonium core so there would be no nuclear explosion. The bomb was dropped and exploded over Queen Charlotte Sound. The air crew then began to abandon the plane. The first four men to parachute out were never found. All but one remaining crew member left the plane and were rescued near Princes Island. One man, Ted Shryer insisted on staying with the plane. The plane was set on a course over the ocean, but somehow he managed to turn the plane around by himself and aim it toward land and head back towards Alaska. Rescue forces were sent out to look for the plane over the ocean but they could find no trace.
One year later the plane was found intact by a fisherman, crashed on a mountainside near Smithers, British Columbia. It had missed landing in the valley by only seventy-five feet. It was only at this point that the Canadian government found out some of what had happened. The location of the crash is now a National Historic Site.
We would like to thank Norman for this amazing story with a glimpse into American and Canadian military history. Norman has also published a book on this story which was published by Red Deer Press. Anyone interested in obtaining a copy can contact him at