December 11, 1953
On December 11th, 1953 a United States Air Force B-36D “Peacemaker” Strategic Bomber took off from Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas bound for Biggs Army Airfield at Fort Bliss, Texas. Three hours and twenty-two minutes later it crashed into the western side of the Franklin Mountains in El Paso when the plane encountered poor weather conditions, to include snow and dust, as it attempted to land. On the anniversary of the crash and in honor of the brave crew that lost their lives that day I would like to tell a little bit of their story and describe the memorial that still exists on the side of the Franklin Mountains to this day.
The B-36 “Peacemaker” was the largest mass-produced piston engine aircraft ever built, its place in history resides during one of the most dangerous times our world has ever known, the Cold War. With the threat of nuclear war hanging over the globe in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) protected the United States day and night with its fleet of strategic bombers. Led by the legendary General, Curtis LeMay, SAC served as a nuclear deterrent to the Soviet Union, who had just detonated their first atomic bomb in 1949, plunging the world into the Atomic Age. SAC protected the United States and its allies throughout the Cold War, activated in 1946, it was not deactivated until 1992, the year after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
The Cold War
The B-36, along with SAC’s first bomber, the B-29 (the Enola Gay, which is the only airplane to have ever dropped an atomic bomb was a B-29), the B-50 Superfortress, and later the B-52 Stratofortress among others, were the backbone of the SAC. First conceived in 1941, at the height of WWII, the B-36’s first flight was in 1946 with the first aircraft deliveries to the Air Force in 1948. It was a remarkable plane with a wingspan of 230’, a length of 162’, and a height of 46”9’ designed for long-range tactical missions, it’s combat radius was 3,740 nautical miles with a 10,000-pound payload (one small nuclear bomb), which made it a very credible deterrent. The B-36’s maximum payload of conventional weapons was 86,000 pounds but this load decreased the combat radius to only 1,757 nautical miles (a nautical mile is equal to 1.15 regular miles). Powered by six propellers and later an additional four jet engines which coined the term, “six turning, four burning” the B-36 was incredibly powerful. In service throughout the 1950’s, the B-36 never dropped a bomb in combat but later variations did serve as high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. The true strength of the B-36 was its ceiling, it could fly at well over 40,000 feet making it very difficult for fighter aircraft to engage. The B-36 was eventually replaced with jet powered aircraft such as the B-52 but for the 1950’s the B-36 ruled the skies.
To put the strategic importance of the B-36 into perspective it might be helpful to look at the historical context and the geopolitical landscape of the era. The first B-36 was delivered to the Air Force in 1948, immediately before an important focal point in the Cold War, the year 1949. In 1949, NATO was founded, the Soviet Union detonated its first Atomic Bomb, and Mao Zedong’s Communist forces took control of China. World War II has just ended in 1945 and as the world struggled to pick up the pieces new existential threats began to emerge with alarming regularity. The fear of nuclear Armageddon was an everyday fact of life in the 1950’s and 1960’s leading many people to build fallout shelters in their homes and many government buildings to have fallout shelters in their basements. This is where the Strategic Air Command came in. To provide an effective nuclear deterrent from Cold War enemies SAC provided an immediate response force to reassure the United States and its allies against the fear of nuclear war. The fact that the Cold War did not escalate into WWIII during SAC’s watch should serve as a testament to their effectiveness as a credible deterrent. In the 1950’s, the B-36 was a big part of that deterrent.
Today, a relic of the Cold War can be found on the western side of the Franklin Mountains. Large pieces of wreckage, including engine, landing gear, and part of a tail fin can still be found on the mountain from the B-36D crash in 1953. The best way to visit the crash site is to hike up the side of the mountain directly to the site (the other way that is listed on internet sites is to take the Wyler Aerial Tram but it is currently closed due to safety concerns). To begin the hike, drive to the Thousand Steps Trailhead at the end of Kenyon Joyce Lane, just off of North Stanton Street, parking is easy, and the trail begins just off the street. A historical marker at the beginning will give you an overview of the crash site and the airmen that lost their lives in the crash. From there, follow the trail and after about a mile or so you arrive at a large boulder on the right side of the trail, this is the marker to turn left into a draw. Follow the draw, there really is not a trail for very far, it’s just hiking over very rough terrain. Make no mistake, it is a difficult half mile hike but well worth it. As you make the ascent, you will begin to notice debris, please be respectful and do not disturb anything and do not take any souvenirs, it is very important to leave the site just as you found it (the site is protected as a Texas State Archeological Site).
Once you arrive at the site you will see pieces of the landing gear, a jet engine and propellers. There is also a small memorial to the airmen that perished that day, it’s mounted on the backside of a rock outcropping at the site. Pay your respects, enjoy the view of El Paso, and remember the sacrifice made by these brave men in protecting freedom and the American way of life.
I highly recommend hiking to the crash site and viewing the memorial in person but if you can’t make it, I suggest you let YouTube be your tour guide to Discovering El Paso and paying homage to those who gave their lives in the name of freedom!