The Boeing B-29 Superfortress: Ultimate Bomber WWII Aircraft


Boeing B-29 Superfortress

The B-29 Superfortress

If you assumed that the Atomic Bomb Project (Manhattan Project) cost of 1.9 billion dollars was the most expensive defense project in World War II, you would be wrong. That distinction belongs to the Boeing Aircraft Company’s B-29 Superfortress Project that came in at a cost of 3 billion dollars.

By the end of World War I, air forces around the world were convinced that the future of airpower rested the development of the multi-engine bombers that that could fly higher and faster than fighter planes of the day. The sentiment at that time was that the “bomber will always get through.” The mission was simple: carry a large bomb load at a great distance. The birth of multi-engine bombers can be traced back to legendary Russian aircraft designer, Igor Sikorsky’s LLya Muromets in 1914, which began as an airliner, then transitioned to a four-engine bomber. The IIya was well armed with nine machine guns, a fleet of twenty operated on the Eastern Front in World War I. The British unveiled the Handley Page 0/100. A later variant, the 0/400 with its twin Rolls-Royce Eagle engines was capable of hitting target in Germany. The Imperial German Air Service operated the Gotha bomber. The Gotha G.IV operated from occupied Belgium from the Spring of 1917. They conducted numerous attacks on London.

When the U.S. declared war against German in World War I it had very little in the way of military aircraft. In its 19-month engagement the U.S. produced some outstanding young pilots, but they flew aircraft built by the British and French. The U.S. produced training aircraft but no fighters or bombers. During the interwar years is when the U.S. aircraft industry began to take-off. The first United States Army Air Corps bomber was the Keystone B-3A bomber. A single-engine bi-plane of the World War era. The next leap forward in U. S. bomber development was the Martin B-10 twin-engine, all metal bomber that entered service in 1934. Marin built 348 aircraft, featuring several different variants. With its all-metal monoplane airframe, it also had a closed cockpit, rotating gun turrets, and retractable landing gear, internal bomb bay, and full engine cowlings. The B-10 would later win the Collier trophy. The B-10 would later see its first combat in 1937 when several were sold to the Chinese in the defense of their homeland in the Second Sino-Japanese War.


Martin B-10 Twin Engine Bomber

The Search For A Modern Bomber

In the competition for the USAAC bomber contract, another manufacturer submitted a similar design; the Boeing Company’s Model 215. Although they did not win the competition, several years later they would submit the design that would become the iconic B-17 Flying Fortress. In the late 1930’s the U.S. rightly concluded that war in Europe and Asia was inevitable. In the 1934 the USAAC issued a proposal for multi-engine bomber to replace the Martin B-10. The USAAC concluded that if war occurred in Europe and the Pacific, they would need a bomber with the range to cross the Atlantic and cover great distances in the vast Pacific. The requirements were: an adequate bombload, at 10,000 feet for 10 hours, and a top speed of at least 200 mph. Boeing was in a competition with the Douglas DB-1(B-18 Bolo), and Martin Model-146. The fly-off took place at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio. The Boeing B-17 prototype was designated the Model 299, and in an unusual move built by Boeing at their own expense. It was designed by the team led by E. Gifford Emery and Edward Wells.

During the Model 299 first test flight in 1935, it was Richard Williams, a Seattle Time reporter who coined the term “Flying Fortress” when he noticed the numerous machine guns on the impressive bomber. The Army brass were very impressed with the four-engine Model 299 versus the twin-engine Douglas and Martin bombers. They were willing to purchase 65 of the Model 299s prior to the flyoff on August 20, 1935. A later flyoff was scheduled to judge the rate of climb and service ceiling when disaster struck. Major Ployer Peter Hill was at the controls on October 30, 1935. Tragically, the plane stalled and spun into the ground soon after takeoff, bursting into flames. Though initially surviving the impact, Hill died within a few hours. It was determined the control surface gust lock had not been released. As a result of this catastrophic accident, the modern-day check-list was instituted.


Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress


Major Ployer Peter Hill, Test Pilot

The Model 229 was disqualified from the competition as a result of the accident. However, Army brass’s enthusiasm for the aircraft did not wain. While they liked the performance, the cost would be a cause of concern. Douglas Aircraft quoted a price of $58,000 for its submission. Boeing price came in at $98,000. On January 17, 1936, the Army Air Corps ordered 13 YB-17’s. The YB-17’s included several upgrades, including the significantly more powerful Wright R-1820-39 Cyclone engine. Twelve planes were delivered to the 2nd Bombardment Group at Langley Field in Virginia for unit evaluation, and one to Wright Field. The public’s first became aware of the B-17 when a contingent of 3 bombers were assigned the task of intercepting and photographing the Italian ocean liner, Rex crossing the Atlantic. The lead navigator on the flight was Lieutenant Curtis LeMay who would make his mark in World War II. In World War II the Boeing B-17 and Consolidated B-24 Liberator would be the preeminent American bombers of the war.

Boeing B-29

With the B-17 in place, the Army Air Force began a search for a new bomber that could outpace the B-17 in several capacities. Specifications were issued December 1939 for a bomber to carry a 20,000 lbs, bomb load, 2,600 miles, and an unheard-of speed of 400 mph. Boeing, along with Consolidated, Lockheed and Douglas submitted proposals. In May 1940 Boeing’s submission was the model 345, a four-engine heavy bomber, that would be far different from anything we had ever seen. Douglas and Lockheed soon withdrew their proposals. Boeing was selected to submit two prototypes, designated XB-29. In May 1941 Boeing received an order for 14 test aircraft, and a production run of 250, that was later increased to 500 after America’s entry into the war.

The manufacturing of the B-29 would be one of the most complexed and expensive in history. The bomber would feature several groundbreaking innovations; cabin pressurization, stepless cockpit design, remote control gun firing system. The need for the B-29 was apparent in the war in the pacific with the vastness of the region. The need to strike at the heart of the rampaging Japanese was paramount. The Army Air Corp realized it would take many hard months of fighting to secure land bases from which to attack the Japanese home-islands from the air. To bring the B-29 to life would take four main assembly plants in the states of Washington, Nebraska, Georgia and Kansas, in addition to thousands of sub-contractors.

The time from concept to production in the complexed aircraft industry normally takes years. With the necessity of war, the B-29 would bypass several important testing steps along the way. The first prototype took flight September 1942 from Boeing Field. A second test flight occurred on December 30, after the installation of the Sperry armament system, however, the flight was terminated because of an engine fire. On February 18, 1943, a second prototype took to the skies at Boeing Field, at the controls was test pilot Edmund T. Allen and a ten-man evaluation team. The B-29 experienced an engine fire and crashed, killing all on board, along with 20 employees at the Frye Meat Packing Plant, and a firefighter. Once again demonstrating that advances in technology sometimes come at the expense in human lives.


Edmund T. Allen, Test Pilot

Despite the temporary setbacks, the Air Corp were sold on the B-29’s future promise. Production of the complexed aircraft was spread amongst 2 Boeing plants in Washington and Kansas, a Bell plant in Georgia and a Martin Plant in Nebraska. In addition, thousands of sub-contractors would eventually be enlisted. By early 1944 B-29’s completed at the factories were sent directly to “modification centers” for the latest updates. The problem was so acute that of the original 100 delivered, only 15 were air worthy. This forced a direct intervention of the by process by General Hap Arnold himself to address the problems and make the necessary changes in processes. As a result of his actions, 150 were ready between March 10 and April 15, 1944.


General Henry "Hap" Arnold

Throughout the entire process, issues with the Herculean engines continued to persist. The early Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone radial engines were beset with over-heating problems that continued throughout the war. In late 1941, the Army Air Corps plans for its future bomber was to utilize it in the fight against Germany. However, the B-29 was not fully operational until 1944. By this time , the Allies were well on their way to smashing Germany into dust with the remarkable B-17, B-24, and British Avrol Lancaster, where the Americans attacked by day and the British by night. There would be no need for the B-29. The Allies concerned with keeping China in the fight decided to use the now-ready B-29 to the India-Burma-China theater. The B-29’s that were stationed in India was like no other bomber in the war. Though not the first pressurized plane (the first plane with a pressurized cockpit occurred in 1921) it would be the first in World War II. The system was developed by Garrett AIResearch. The first thought was to pressurize the entire plane, including the Bombay. They opted to pressurize the crew sections in the forward and tail-gunner sections connected by a long tunnel from the crew could travel. Equipped with a nose wheel this was also a departure. The real eye-catcher was the General Electric Central Fire Control system. The system directed 4 remotely controlled turrets.

The B-29 Goes To War

Operation Matterhorn was the plan to deploy the B-29’s in bases in India and Southern China. The XX Bomber Command consisted of four groups; they were initially scheduled to be two combat wings of groups of four, however, not enough planes were available. There first mission occurred on June 5, 1944, when 98 B-29’s flew a mission to attack targets in Thailand. The results were mixed, but no planes were lost to enemy action. The first mission against the Japanese home-islands occurred on June 15, when B-29’s attacked the Imperial Iron Works at Yawata, Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan. This was the first attack on the Japanese home islands since the Doolittle raid in in April 1942. While able to now reach Japan, nonetheless, the long missions were grueling, and still fraught with problems; the jet stream over Japan (which could reach speeds up to 250 mph) and problems with engine overheating. A better solution was needed.

The fortunes for America would soon change when they successfully climbed their way up the Marshall Island chains in some very tough island fighting – taking the islands of Guam, Tinian and Saipan. The 1471 miles to Japan was much closer, and there was little chance the Japanese could seriously threaten the new bases as they retreated to home turf. Even before the fighting was completed repair and construction of 5 bases was begun. By late 1944 the Japanese were about see what the Americans could do in attacking the home islands. The first raid on Tokyo occurred on November 24, 1944, when 111 B-29’s attacked the city. While able to reach Japan, there was still several impediments. High level precision bombing was proving to be very difficult (just as it was in Europe). And there was still the danger of fighter interception, on the way to and from targets, even though the B-29’s were flying at extreme altitudes. The seizure of the island Iwo Jima now provided a base to launch escort fighter aircraft, and an emergency base which damaged B-29’s could land.

IN December 1944 Major General Curtis LeMay relieved General Haywood Hansell in order to achieve better results. LeMay, had previously led the 305th and 3rd Air Division in Europe, where he developed the “Combat Box” formation for defensive purposes to fend-off attacks from German fighters. LeMay deduced that a change in strategy was in order. LeMay made the switch to low-level night bombing with incendiary bombs would garner better results. The U.S. had calculated that attacking the largest six cities would cause dramatic damage to the Japanese war industry. The first fire-bomb raid against the city of Kobe occurred on February 4, 1945, which caused significant damage to the city and its factories.


General Curtis LeMay

The month of March seemed like hell to the Japanese people when the firebombing of Japanese cities intensified. On the night of March 9/10 Tokyo was violently struck by a force of 279 bombers which dropped 1665 tons of ordinance, resulting in between 80 to 100 thousand killed, many more wounded and 1 million left homeless. This was just the beginning. The cities of Nagoya, Osaka, Kawasaki, and Ōshima would suffer the same deadly fate. By the time LeMay was done, he had checked-off nearly every target city on his list. Despite these and other loses, the Japanese were determined to fight on. After the taking of Okinawa, plans were drawn-up for the invasion of Japan itself. Based on the casualties of the fighting the previous year, the anticipated loses for the Americans would be in the thousands. For the Japanese, in the millions.


Tokyo After Firebombing

Unbeknownst to many, at this time, the Allies had a new weapon that would soon change the course of world history. In secret, they had stood-up and developed a nuclear weapon more powerful than anything ever seen. Once the U.S. made the decision to use this weapon, the only question left was what city they would attack. During the fire-bombing and mass raids, several key cities were deliberately left off the list to determine the full effect of the device. The cities of Hiroshima, Kokura, Yokohama, Kyoto were left virtually untouched. At the behest of Secretary Stimson, Kyoto was removed from the list, due in part to his personal fondness of the city in which he honeymooned in decades ago. The replacement for Kyoto was the city, Nagasaki, a decision that changed the fate of thousands of people.

While the Nuclear project was in development, specially trained aircrews were in training to fly modified B-29’s named “Silver Plate” to carry the devices. They comprised the 509 Composite Bomb Group, led by Colonel Paul Tibbets a veteran of the war in Europe. A distinguished pilot, Tibbetts was chosen to work on testing the troublesome B-29 in 1943. After some of the most secretive training in history, the group deployed to the Marianas Islands in stages in mid-1945. In July 1945 the U.S. conducted the first Atomic Bomb test in New Mexico. When the Japanese did not respond to the Allies demand for “unconditional surrender” issued at the Potsdam Conference, the dye was cast. On August 6, 1945, 3 B-29’s departed North Field, Tinian Island for the city of Hiroshima. The contingent consisted of 2 instrument planes, and the plane carrying the atom bomb named Little Boy” piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets. Tibbets named his plane after his mother, Enola Gay. At 8:15 a.m. on a bright sunny morning the Enola Gay stepped into history and dropped the first atomic bomb in war. The world would never be the same.


Colonel Paul Tibbets And Crew Of Enola Gay

An estimated 80 to 120 thousand people were killed in an instant. Many more thousands were left with ghastly injuries that would linger a lifetime. The city in the blast vicinity was no longer recognizable. Despite the terrible loss, the Japanese government held fast and continued on. The U.S. ordered a second nuclear strike on August 9. Major Charles Sweeney was at the controls of the B-29 named Bockcars, carrying the bomb “Fat Boy”. They were destined for the city, Kokura. However, clouds and drifting smoke from a previous day firebombing of the city, Yahata obscured the view over Kokura prevented its bombing. Sweeney proceeded to secondary target city, Nagasaki. Nagasaki would be the last opportunity for Sweeney because of fuel pump issue. At 11:01 a.m. Bockscar dropped the bomb, 47 seconds later it violently exploded. An estimated 35 to 40 thousand people were killed, with another 60,000 were injured.


B-29 Bockscar And Crew

Hit with 2 nuclear weapons, and the threat of more, and entry of the Russian into the war, the Japanese had no other choice but surrender. On August 15, Japanese emperor Hirohito signaled to the world Japan’s surrender. His action brought to an end the deadliest war in human. There were many important reason that led to the Allies monumental victory. It is clear that the Boeing B-29 played an important part in taking the fight to the Japanese homeland, and ending the war while ushering in the atomic age.

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