The lost mission: Fairchild's bombers and the FICON project

  • Published
  • By Jim O'Connell
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Historian
More often than not, as the sands of time ebb and flow, and as the people and events of days of the past move further away while we try to cope with the here and now, much is forgotten.

Few realize there were two B-29 Superfortress bombardment groups stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base in the late 1940s; the 92nd and 98th Bombardment Groups were both assigned to the 92nd Bombardment Wing. The 98th BG was reassigned to the Far East Air Force in 1951. Even fewer realize there were two B-36 Peacemaker wings located on this installation. Most are familiar with the 92nd BW, which was assigned to the 57th Air Division, also located at Fairchild. However, there was another wing.  It was the 99th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, which flew the RB-36, the reconnaissance version of the Convair B-36 Peacemaker, performing worldwide photographic, electronic, and visual day and night strategic reconnaissance as its primary mission. The 99th SRW flew the RB-36s out of Fairchild AFB from Jan. 1, 1953, until Sept. 4, 1956, when the unit was transferred to Westover AFB, Massachusetts.

In the years after World War II, when the Cold War with the Soviet Union was just beginning, the Air Force modified heavy bombers to serve as reconnaissance platforms. The nation required an aircraft that could photograph targets deep inside Russia. Modified Boeing B-29s and, later, Convair RB-36s served in that role. The RB-36 version had an additional pressurized compartment for camera equipment in place of the forward bomb bay. It also had electronic gear to capture sources of radar, radio and other signals. When the Air Force first fielded the B-36, the Soviets had a difficult time intercepting the aircraft. The B-36 cruised at altitudes fighters could not reach.

In time, as seen in the rapid advancements in aircraft during the Korean War, the Soviets developed more capable fighter aircraft, so that advantage did not last very long for the bombers. In a quest to keep the massive bomber viable and to provide a means by which a small reconnaissance aircraft could be carried close to Soviet space to conduct reconnaissance missions, the Air Force initiated the Fighter Conveyor, or FICON, Project. In this program, the large B-36 would carry smaller fighter aircraft which would have the speed and maneuverability to execute either a reconnaissance or attack mission. The fighter could be loaded onto the bomber or take off from a separate base and could be picked up enroute to the target area. The RB-36 would then transport the fighter to the edge of enemy airspace and release the fighter to fly its assigned mission, after which the fighter returned to the bomber and was carried home.   

In 1951, the Air Force awarded Convair a contract to modify one RB-36 for the FICON mission. The bomber had to be capable of carrying, launching and retrieving a fighter from its bomb bay. Initial testing was conducted at Eglin AFB, Florida. The first trapeze-style retrieval occurred on April 23, 1952, using a modified Republic F-84E Thunderflash as the parasite fighter. Testing proved successful, so the Air Force awarded another contract to Convair to modify an additional 10 RB-36s into carriers. These were designated GRB-36D. At the same time, the Air Force awarded a contract to Republic Aviation to modify 25 F-84s called RF-84K Parasites. The GRB-36Ds carried an H-shaped cradle (a recover-release trapeze) in the bomb bay which was lowered to launch or recover the fighter. While the fighter was stowed in the bomb bay, RF-84s pilots could exit the fighter and relax in the bomber. The fighter could also be refueled between launches. The GRB-36D could also supply electrical power, preheat air and pressurization air while matted. Further testing was conducted at the Conair facility in Fort Worth, Texas. This testing found that the modified GRB-36Ds could carry a fighter as far out as 2,800 miles, where it could launch the fighter for its designated mission.   

By October 1955, the GRB-36s had been assigned to the 99th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Fairchild AFB. Ironically, because the RB-36s were becoming obsolete, on Oct. 1, the 99th SRW had been re-designated the 99th Bombardment Wing. The 348th Bombardment Squadron was tasked with implementing and conducting operational FICON tests. Meanwhile, the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron of the 71st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, at Larson AFB, Moses Lake, Washington, began receiving the first of their Republic RF-84K Thunderflash fighters in preparation for this FICON Phase II of operational testing and training. 

The wings made operational history on Dec. 7, 1955, when crews of the 99th SRW and the 71st SRW completed the first operational aerial hook-ups of the lumbering bombers with parasite RF-84K fighters. Capt. Bobby Mitchell took off in his RF-84K parasite from Larson AFB and rendezvoused with Maj. Clyde Perry's crew in the GRB-36D bomber. Despite experiencing radio difficulties, Mitchell maneuvered his Thunderflash into position where Lt. O.C. Rutter, the boom operator, was able to toggle the trapeze and raise the RF-84K into the bomb bay. Mitchell shut off his engines after the hook-up. Once in the stowed position with the bomb bay doors seated against the fighter, Mitchell climbed out of the fighter to greet Rutter. After a cup of coffee in the photographic compartment with the crew, Mitchell climbed back into his fighter, was lowered, restarted his engines and dropped away. A couple of hours later, Lt. Walter Rudd became the second parasite pilot to accomplish a capture and release. Before releasing the second fighter, the GRB-36D made a low pass over Larson AFB to exhibit the wings' handiwork. Maj. Oscar L. Fitzhenry, the 348th BS operations officer, lauded the success of the mission and was quoted in The Spokesman Review stating, "Results proved to be above and beyond our greatest expectations." 

The second scheduled FICON training mission took place on Dec. 12. Mitchell made three more hook-ups but did not make the transfer to the other aircraft. Capt. Frank Robison flew in the second element of fighters and this second round provided much excitement. Approaching the bomber, Robinson experienced a failure of his hydraulic system. Robinson managed to fly the fighter into position for the trapeze operator to hook onto him. If the operator did not capture the fighter, Robinson would have lost control of the fighter and would have had to eject. Despite having only eight inches of ground clearance with the fighter still in its bomb bay, the GRB-36 landed safely at Fairchild AFB and taxied to the ground loading pit.

This was the first time a bomber landed with the parasite and it was the first time the new $55,000 ground loading pit was used. The pit, 142 feet long, 50 feet wide and 12 feet deep - was built to facilitate the ground loading of the fighters. Despite the impromptu landing, the only problem encountered was a slight delay due to the lack of suitable jacks for unloading the parasite fighter. The jacks were unavailable because the first scheduled landing of this type was not scheduled until January 1956. The Fairchild Times reported that the "sky hook-up" saved a $500,000 aircraft and, perhaps, the pilot's life. 

On Friday, Jan. 13, 1956, the 99th BW and the 71st SRW launched the first large-scale training evaluation of the FICON operations. When the day ended, this date lived up to the proverbial Black Friday. Ten fighter aircraft launched from Larson AFB to train five new pilots in the fine art of aerial hook-ups. The weather was clear but the parasite pilots encountered turbulence. 

After 13 successful hook-ups, light turbulence combined with the inexperience of the novice pilots resulted in damage to three fighters and damaged the V-receptacle on the GRB-36D. One fighter returned home with a four-inch hole in its nose.  Lt. Col. Curry, the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron commander, commented on this incident, "Turbulence caused the GRB-36 to yaw, resulting in the trapeze movement causing a near miss and damage to the nose section (of the fighters)." It was found that the lower wing loading of the bomber made it more responsive to wind gusts than the fighter, especially at the low speeds flown during the hook-up. 

Because of the events of Black Friday, on Jan. 18, 1956, 15th Air Force suspended FICON operations indefinitely pending the outcome of an investigation into the incidents of that day. Ultimately, on Feb. 15, the Air Force permanently terminated the operational testing of the FICON Project.

While seemingly simple in theory, implementation of the FICON system proved to be much more complicated. Testing demonstrated that the hook-ups could be achieved, but, ultimately, they were not practical. Hook-ups were difficult enough under ideal flight conditions but nearly impossible in turbulent air. The fighter was chronically fuel-thirsty and required an externally mounted fuel tank.  Finally, the stowed fighter reduced the range of the bomber by nearly 10 percent. 

Additionally, the development of alternate methods to accomplish the mission of the FICON Project aircraft virtually rendered the program obsolete before it could be implemented. Technological advancements in reconnaissance platforms such as Lockheed's U-2 and the development of Boeing's B-52 Stratofortress and the KC-135 Stratotanker, which had the flying boom, eliminated the need for the FICON system. The B-52 was a much more advanced aircraft than the B-36 and could fare much better against Soviet Air Defenses. Air refueling gave the nation "reach" in regard to global power.