I remember living in the Floyd Bennett Field flight path during the Cold War
It was the biggest thing I ever saw. Today, kids would call it ginormous. To me it was a behemoth. I’m sure I would have thought, as its shadow reached me, that it was an escapee from Jurassic Park, had the movie been made yet. It was the Convair B-36 “Peacemaker” bomber (sort of a contradiction of terms…) and I saw it because our house was in the flight path of one of Floyd Bennett Field’s runways.
Before the shadow came the noise. The bomber had six engines. They were mounted on the back of the wings. The B-36 was the first bomber designed to carry both an atomic bomb and a hydrogen bomb with no alterations necessary.
Because of those engines it would never sneak up on anyone, so it flew at 40,000 thousand feet. The wings, the longest of any combat aircraft ever built, were 230 feet and carried enough fuel so that it could fly intercontinentally and return home. Because of its length and wing spread, it cast a giant shadow. Even when I looked up to see its successor, the B-52, taking us into strategic bombing jet flight, the sight of that big bird never left my mind.
The B-36 packed a wallop. It carried 87,300 lbs. (43 tons) of bombs. Loaded, it weighed 410,000 lbs. And here was part of its demise. Instead of a running back, it was a lineman. It cruised at around 250 mph and at attack speed it could ramp itself up to 300 mph. No offense, B, but a sprinter you were not. The B-52 could ramp itself up to well over 500 mph. It could get things where they needed to go faster than the ’36, higher than the ’36, and at a further range than the ’36. It was the Cold War jet and unbelievably remained a key element in our Air Force. But it never flew over my house.
The B-36 was a bear to take care of. It drank lubricating oil like Kool-Aid and carried a 100-gallon drum just for that. It had 56 spark plugs per each of its six engines. They had to be changed after every flight. You do the math. And it didn’t endear itself to its maintenance crews because there wasn’t a hangar into which it could fit. If you were based in Alaska, that was not fun.
While it had six retractable gun turrets, each with two 20 mm machine guns that carried 600 bullets apiece, and a fixed turret in the tail, the B-36 was a lot of aircraft to protect, so it traveled with company. It had to. Its defender was the F-86 Sabre Jet, also a neighborhood favorite. With its swept-back wings and its jet engine with the big exhaust hole at the end of the fuselage, the F-86 was sexy.
Sometimes came one, sometimes came a squadron. You could hear those engines from miles away. That was good for us kids because compared to the B-36, which moved so slow and flew so low as it struggled for altitude on takeoff, the F-86 was Flash Gordon. You knew you had to look up because its silver shape came and went in a hurry. There was no shadow. The sound stayed around a lot longer than the jet.
There was another favorite: the DC-3. Short, squat, built to get places for delivery that the big boys wouldn’t fit. It was built to last. The DC-3 still flies from Miami to the Bahamas and is a staple of internal South American travel.
There was yet another that made the blood flow. It was the anti-submarine plane. It had things sticking out of it that no other plane had. It was a flying radar tower equipped to find Soviet submarines, some of which were found scarily close to the coast of Coney Island.
To think of Floyd Bennett Field as a multi-use park and shopping center is a rueful thought. I’m currently reading one of my favorite authors, Zane Grey. His West is gone. When I was plane watching I was also a nut for cowboy movies. When I think of FBF, I think of The Statler Brothers, that iconic county quartet who sang sadly, but in beautiful harmony, “Whatever happened to Randolph Scott, Johnny Mack Brown, and Rocky Lane, to Roy, and Rex …” I want my cowboys back. I can’t have them, nor can I have Floyd Bennett Field and the thrills it provided. What I can have are the memories.
Bill Gralnick is the author of “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales from Brooklyn.” His writings can be found at https://www.williamgralnickauthor.com/.
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Floyd Bennett Field had 7000 foot runways at their longest. No B-36 ever took off from or landed on a 7000 foot runway. The planes in and out of JFK were the real noisemakers. And JFK has 14500 foot runway for big planes.
My father was a mechanical engineer at a Long Island airplane company. In the fifties, we’d drive over to the then treeless verge at Floyd Bennett, park, and watch the planes come in. I could distinguish Super Sabers from Cougar jets when they were specks in the sky; or maybe they were lucky guesses. Now whenever I drive to the Marine Park Bridge, which is pretty often, for a moment the trees disappear from Flatbush Avenue and I see an old vanilla-colored Chevy containing a World War Two vet and his kid calling out names of planes.