The Secret Race To Build A Nuclear Powered Bomber

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Our deep dive into nuclear bombers actually starts on the other side of the iron curtin, as the USSR was the only country in the world to build a true nuclear powered aircraft.

Or did they?

On the 1st of december, 1958, aviation week ran an article talking about how there were rumors of a new soviet nuclear powered bomber jet, that had done several tests across the bloc. Its mission was to provide an early dectection system as well as hold nuclear weapons as a deterrent.

But the thing is, this wasn't real. It turns out that it was just a prototype conventional bomber, the M-50 bounder. It was considered a failure and only the prototype saw any on normal petrol chemicals.

But this scare fueled several different avenes of research in the United states, including resuming funding of nuclear power engines form the 1940s.

To begin, they would need a protoype. The US would build a nuclear reachtor inside of Convair B-36 as a protoype, called the NB-36. This is what it would be like.

The original crew and avionics cabin was replaced by a massive lead- and rubber-lined 11 ton crew section for a pilot, copilot, flight engineer and two nuclear engineers. Even the small windows had 25–30 centimetres (10–12 in) thick lead glass The aircraft was fitted with a 1-megawatt air-cooled reactor, with a weight of 35,000 pounds (16,000 kg).

The plan was to develop a production model of this bomber, looking like the B-60 but nuclear powered - dubbed the Convair X-6 Crusador.

The nuclear powered B-36 aircraft could record 215 hours of flights, with 89 having an operation reactor. It tested the sheilding for the cockpit, finding it adequate for protection for the flight crew. But it never actually use the nuclear reactor to power the engines.

The WS-125 was an American super long-range strategic bomber project during the cold War to develop a nuclear-powered aircraft, which was scheduled to be designated the B-72.

Our first concept actually begins from our good old friend northrop - who envisioned a special version of his flying wing to be nuclear powered.

Other contenders included Pratt & Whitney with Lockheed in competitive engine/airframe development to address the requirement. It was a radical depature from other aircraft, and had supersonic in mind.

These concepts were scrapped around the same time as the X-6, but interestingly, Two General Electric J87 turbofan engines were successfully powered to nearly full thrust using two shielded reactors.

But this wasn't all, there were several other desings outside of this speciic program to develop a nuclear program - and boy some of them were wacky!

The US navy was also interested in a nuclear bomber aircraft, and thought that it's Martin 331 would be a good cadinate for nuclear engine conversion. This plane deserves its own video, but imagine a nuclear version would be something else. It would also have its own special boats to service the reactor at sea.

Speaking of sea planes, there was also a desing from Curtiss-Wright of a atomic seaplane with retractable skis, as seen here.

There was also a plan to make the XC-99 a nuclear aircraft. It would mean that the six engines would be removed from the aircraft, and replaced with two nuclear powered engines. This would have been a radical improvement to the design, but as we know the xc-99 was never picked up so its nuclear powered derivatie never happened.

This whole time, the USSR were not sitting idley by. The soviets had made some progress themselves with a physical creation, attaching a nuclear reactor into a tupoluv 95, but it never flew on its own nuclear power. The engineers were ready to build the never version, called the Tu-119, and then eventually the Tu-135, wbut the experienmental project was cancelled.

We know now all about their grand plans had the experiment gone ahead. First was the project dubbed the M-60, that would do away with the flaws of the M-50 - such as not being nuclear powered.

But all of these projects, from both USA and Russia, ended up coming to a halt. Why?

Well for the military, the primary use case of a nuclear engine was in a bomber aircraft, to allow it to fly constantly and not be discoverable - as part of a nuclear derrence fleet. Butby the mid-1960s, nuclear submarines had filled that role, had several advantages and could launch missiles reaching deep inland - beating the technology of planes.

Because no large aircraft were being built with nuclear engines, the technology had little access to civil markets. Plus with the inherent risks with nuclear engines back then, civil airlines were very reluctant to use the technology in their own fleets. Imagine if a plane had a leak and iiradiatied most of the mid-west - yikes.

Thus all we have is this video.
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