The plane was a last resort because enough shielding would be too heavy, so the crew knew they would not survive the mission. I'm thinking the plane might have been a "flying wing" shape

  • The plane was American, the war was WWIII. It's been a very long time since I read it, but I seem to recall the advantages were "unlimited" range and maybe max payload weight. – John Hascall Nov 30 '18 at 6:37
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    I remember reading this one. I'll let you know if memory pops. The story probably dates from the era when the US Air Force was experimenting with this concept. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aircraft_Nuclear_Propulsion – Dosco Jones Nov 30 '18 at 18:46

Is it possible you're thinking of the novel Steam Bird by Hilbert Shenck? This from 1988 not the 1950s, but you did put a question mark after the date and this does appear the sort of pulp book that would be at home in the 50s.

This is a hard book to get information on - I suspect it is enjoying well deserved obscurity. I found a reference to it in an anthology The Orbit Science Fiction Yearbook 2 from 1989. In the end notes the anthology mentions:

It is a grown person’s guide; and Steam Bird (Tor) is a grown person’s cap in the air. Highly silly—a steam-driven nuclear bomber takes off from Maine and circles the world for locomotive hobbyists and democracy—and remarkably affectionate, “Steam Bird,” the novel-length tale which takes up most of the volume, glows with an innocence only available to real folk on holiday.

I've tried Googling for the book but found little more than that it is indeed about a steam powered bomber and that it nearly triggers WWIII so there is apparently a reference to world war three.

Later: user14111 points out that the story was serialised in the April and May 1984 issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and these are available online here and here.

  • Thank you, but I don't think that's it -- it's too new (I was already graduated from college by then) and I don't recall a thing about model railroads. I'll still go read it :) – John Hascall Nov 30 '18 at 13:27

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