Saturday, 5 October 2013

The Global Bomber

FIFI, the only B-29 Superfortress still flying. Taken by the author at the Hamilton Air Show


The long-range Boeing B-29 Superfortress was the most advanced bomber of World War II and a billion dollar project. Although it started out with a ton of difficulties, by war’s end it did the job over enemy territory and then some.  Without a doubt, the B-29 shortened the Pacific War by at least a year.

The American-built, 4-engined B-29 was a monster. It had tricycle landing gear, a 141-foot wingspan, a 99-foot length, separate pressurized cabins, an electronic fire-control system, and remote-controlled .50-caliber machine-gun turrets. It had a range of 6,000 miles and could reach altitudes of 31,000-plus feet, far above any flak shells and most enemy fighters. It could also deliver a payload of 20,000 pounds of bombs. Each Wright Cyclone 18-cylinder radial engine had  16-foot diameter propellers, 2 exhaust-driven turbochargers, and 2,200 horsepower.

On the drawing boards as early as 1938, the US powers-that-be in DC then pushed along the B-29 development once the war started in Europe in 1939. Fearing that England could fall to Nazi occupation, the B-29 was being made ready to possibly bomb Germany from Newfoundland or Greenland. But, alas, Winston Churchill’s England held firm and the Americans turned their attention to the Pacific Front and the Japanese.  The first Superfortress prototype flew September 1942. With it, a new standard was set when production people had to put an extra effort into the huge technical issues before them. Everything was too new and too big. The gross weight, the engine size and strength, the remote systems, and the pressurization system were just too much, too fast. In other words, the B-29 was ahead of its time. Four factories throughout the US were building it, along with thousands of subcontractors contributing their best people. Even by the time the B-29 reached service in the Far East in May 1944, the mechanics were still working the bugs out to keep the bombers in the air, helped along by Boeing and Wright technicians on site. The engines being the biggest problem. 

Back in the early 1980s, when I researched for my first book, Two Wings and a Prayer, I met several members of the 40Th Bomb Group, brave men who flew the B-29 Superfortress.  One of them was Ivan Potts from Shelbyville, Tennessee, a pilot with the 25th Bomb Squadron.


“Because the B-29 was rushed into production,” Potts said, “Many problems became apparent during the first couple years of its existence. The Wright engines were sometimes nicknamed ‘Wrong’ engines or ‘Flamethrowers’. They’d conk out or catch fire in the air. They’d overheat constantly, cylinder heads would blow off and they also acquired far too many oil leaks. In India [the first 40th BG base] the engines even ran too hot on the ground. But by November 1944, the B-29s that came to India for combat against the Japanese were of much better quality than previous ones.”

Potts added, “The first time I saw a B-29 up close, I couldn’t believe something that big could actually get off the ground and fly. No plane that the United States Army Air Force made was more challenging or exciting to fly. We hated it on occasion, but loved it most of the time. It was completely efficient with no wasted space anywhere. The visibility was great, thanks to the Plexiglas nose. One pilot once said that flying a B-29 was like flying a 3-bedroom house from your front porch. As time progressed, we had more and more respect for the Superfortress.  Its only shortcoming was that it was needed before it was ready.”

Red Carmichael, a reliable, well-respected mechanic with the 40Th Bomb Group, also saw problems with the B-29 at first, more so than the pilots. “At the close of the war, it was a very good machine. But when we first received it in the China-Burma-India Theatre, it was a very poor aircraft. I seem to remember that everything on the B-29 was either changed or modified before the end of the war. The Wright engine rep told me, when we were in India, that they made 1,800-plus modifications to the engine alone back in the States. The engines were the prime factors in our operational losses because they were a damn poor design, and we didn’t have the proper people to maintain them.

“When we arrived in India,” Carmichael continued, “the allowable engine head temperature was 265 degrees. I NEVER saw a temperature on the early B-29s that was under 300 degrees on take-off.  As a result, we were losing engines and aircraft before they even got off the ground. It was not uncommon to replace all top cylinders on the engines 4 or 5 times to reach the 400-hour limit on the engines. We also had a tremendous problem with exhaust stacks and collector rings blowing  out and then you either had to feather the engine or risk the danger of a fire in the engine or the nacelle.”

Larkspur, California resident, Jim O’Keefe, flew as a bombardier with the 40th Bomb Group, the same 25th Bomb Squadron as Potts. “The bombardier had a great station in the B-29. You were not   isolated from the pilot as you were in the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator. Even if the intercom failed you had instant communication with the pilot, and always knew what was going on up on the flight deck. I liked the firepower at our station because the bombardier also acted as nose-gunner. We had control of four .50-calibre machine guns in the upper turret and two 50s in the lower turret. So, the firepower against head-on attacks was formidable. We had problems in the beginning with general maintenance and performance. Our 40th Group was one of 4 groups which formed the 58th Wing. The 58th took the first B-29s into combat and the problems with the new, untried plane were severe.”

American ingenuity soon took over, though, and the  B-29 problems were sorted out by early 1945, mostly by trial and error. About this same time, American Marines invaded and subsequently seized the key Japanese-held Mariana Islands of Guam, Saipan, and Tinian, which were then turned into strategic air bases  for B-29 strikes on the  Japanese homeland 1,500 miles away, well within the B-29’s range.  By then, General Curtis Lemay, in charge of XX Bomber Command in the Pacific realized that high-altitude bombing wasn’t working. So he ordered all Superfortresses to be stripped of all their guns except for the tail, thus allowing for more fuel and more bombs, incendiaries in particular. The Americans quickly ignited a hell on earth on Japan with low-level bombing at scary altitudes (for the crews) of 5,000-9,000 feet. On one such Tokyo mission on 9 March 1945, a massive raid of B-29s burnt out more than 15 square miles of the city, killing over 80,000 and severely injuring another 100,000.

Ivan Potts, whose 40th Bomb Group  was sent to the island of Tinian, remembered  one specific Tokyo night mission on May 26 to show how rugged the B-29 Superfortress really was. “Our altitude was only about 10,000 and when we went over Tokyo, the searchlights were everywhere. We went in single file and we could look out over the yellow-flamed sky and could see the other B-29s stretched out on our right and left. Every now and then we would see a B-29 picked up in the cone of searchlights and after that would catch hell from the anti-aircraft below. On this night we were one of the last going through and we were caught in the middle of the firestorm. When our plane moved into the smoke clouds that were created by the incendiary bombs, we were blown from 10,000 feet to 15,000 feet in a matter of seconds! We ended up on our side and every red light on the aircraft came on! Then we went into a dive where we approached speeds of nearly 500 miles per hour. We finally leveled it out with very little altitude to spare. We just couldn’t believe the power of the firestorm. We were tossed around like a leaf in the wind.”


On a lighter note, Potts, Jim O’Keefe, and the other 40th Bomb Group fliers remembered a strange incident on Tinian. Their base at West Field on the island posed a problem at first for the B-29 airmen flying night missions. Pilots complained that when they were taking off, the height of the hill near the east end of the runway was difficult to judge in the dark. So, floodlights were installed to illuminate the hill. At the beginning of the next mission, the first plane thundered down the runway just as the lights were switched on. To the shock of the American crew aboard, about a dozen or so uncaptured Japanese soldiers (who had been hiding out since the island had been invaded months before) were sitting on the hill watching the show.

The most famous B-29 of all has to be the Enola Gay, commanded by Colonel Paul Tibbets of the 509th Composite Group, who named the aircraft after his mother. At 2:45 AM on 6 August 1945, Tibbets and his crew based at North Field on Tinian Island took off in this specially-modified B-29. Six hours later, they dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, thus ushering in the nuclear era. Up to that time the Japanese and the Germans had their own atomic program, but the Americans had obviously beat their enemies to splitting the atom. On 9 August, another B-29 from the 509th, this one known as Bockscar  and flown by Major Charles Sweeney, dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. The Japanese government surrendered a few days later, thus saving millions of American and Japanese lives had an all-out invasion been ordered by US forces.

Out of the nearly 4,000 B-29s that had come off the 4 assembly lines throughout the United States, only one is still flying, and it goes by the name of Fifi. Owned by the Commemorative Air Force in Texas, she is one honey of an aircraft. You can catch it at air shows around North America. She’s well worth the admission to see this piece of history. Believe me. I saw  Fifi up close on static display at the Hamilton Air Show back in the 1990s, when cloud cover was too low for flying that day.  I even got a chance to step into the cockpit and look out through all that Plexiglas in the nose. I wanted to see for myself what that unknown pilot meant when he said that flying a B-29 was like flying a 3-bedroom house from your front porch.

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