Tuesday, 2 October 2018

THE BIGGEST AND THE DEADLIEST OF THEM ALL

In the midst of World War II, it was tagged the global bomber. It was contemplated as far back as spring 1938, before the war even began. Then, once the conflict did commence, and if England had fallen to the Nazis, this rugged, long-range machine was projected to bomb Hitler’s Europe with high-altitude accuracy from bases across the Atlantic in Newfoundland. But England held and American strategy changed. First test-flown September 1942, the Billion Dollar Bomber, as some American politicians in Congress who were providing the money for it had called it, was being considered for the Pacific Theatre of Operations.

It also had the distinction of being the aircraft that put an abrupt end to the Second World War by dropping two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. By then, the bomber had cost American taxpayers over $3 billion (nearly $44 billion in 2018 dollars). This only 14 months after the aircraft’s first bombing mission on June 5, 1944.

What airplane am I referring to? The one, the only…Boeing B-29 Superfortress.

The B-29 was light years ahead of its time. It had five .50-calibre, computer-operated gun turrets controlled by two gunners who could transfer power from one to the other. The tail gunner, one of 11 crew members, had a 20mm cannon at his disposal, besides his two .50-calibres. While other long-range, four-engine bomber aircraft--most notably the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Consolidated B-24 Liberator, and British Avro Lancaster--were forced to provide oxygen masks and fur-lined flight suits for their aircrews, the B-29 sported comfortable, pressurized cabins for their men who flew over enemy territory.

For the pilots, visibility was second to none through the wide Plexiglas nose. One operational pilot said it best: “Flying the B-29 was like flying a three-bedroom house from the front porch.” With a tricycle landing gear and wingspan of 141 feet and length of 99 feet, the Superfortress dwarfed all three other bombers mentioned dimensions by another third. In short, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress was massive. The engines were four 2,200 horsepower Wright Duplex Cyclone 18-cylinder radials with 16-and-a-half-foot propellers, with each engine containing two exhaust-driven turbochargers. Empty, she tipped the scales at 71,000 pounds: at maximum military load, double that.

The B-29 could fly for well over 3,000 miles return, making it the perfect military weapon for the long and grueling missions over open water to Japan from their 8,500-foot-runway Pacific bases in the Mariana Islands (Tinian, Guam and Saipan) where 15-hour trips were the norm. Top speed was 350 miles per hour, cruise speed was 225 miles per hour, and engines could take her to 31,000 feet with ease.

The B-29 had the highly secretive Norden bombsight, nothing new to American bombers. Due to its alleged pin-point accuracy, the Norden was advertised as able to “drop a bomb in a pickle barrel” as far back as the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator and others took to the European skies earlier in the war.

The B-29 was not without problems in her early days of production and first few missions. Fitting for such a project of such advanced design, even the technical flaws were massive, with experimental, still-new aluminum and magnesium engine parts being the culprits.

In the mid-1980’s, I interviewed two Americans who were part of the 40th Bomb Group. This group was well acquainted with the B-29, especially the problems before the crews were stationed on Tinian Island, the same piece of hot real estate eventually used by the 509th Composite for the two A-bomb missions on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Mechanic Red Carmichael was totally frustrated in those initial years. “When we first received it in 1943 for the China-Burma-India Theatre,” he said, “the B-29 was a very poor aircraft. While in India, the Wright engine rep told me that Boeing had made 1800-plus modifications in the engine alone. The allowable engine head temperature on the early B-29s was supposed to be 265 degrees on takeoff. I never saw a temperature under 300 degrees. As a result we were losing engines and aircraft on takeoff. We also had trouble with exhaust stacks and collector rings. These would blow out and you either feathered the engine or risked the danger of a fire in the engine or nacelle.”

“We had a nickname for the engines: ‘Flamethrowers.’ Oftentimes, they catch fire or conk out in the air,” added pilot Ivan Potts. “They’d overheat constantly, cylinder heads blew off and they had frequent oil leaks. But by November 1944, the B-29’s that came to India were of better quality than previous ones.

“No airplane the USAAF made was more challenging or exciting to fly,” Potts continued. “We hated it on occasion, but loved it most of the time. It was completely efficient with no wasted space anywhere. As time progressed, we had more and more respect for the Superfortress. It’s only shortcoming was that it was needed before it was really ready.”

In the last 12 months of the war, most of the more serious problems had been ironed out and Boeing factories in Kansas, Georgia, Nebraska and Washington states were pushing these monsters out and ready for service at an alarming rate.

By early 1945, high-altitude bombing was not working out due to the Jet Stream sending bombs to-and-fro before hitting the ground. So much for the Norden bombsight “dropping a bomb into a pickle barrel.” Twentieth Air Force commander, General Curtis LeMay, had a bold idea by the time his B-29 groups were re-located to the Mariana Islands. He ordered all the B-29’s stripped down to the bare minimum. They would go in low over the targets at night, in a series of single files, between 5,000-9,000 feet and without gunners in order to carry more bombs and incendiaries. Hopefully, the B-29’s would be too low for Japanese anti-aircraft guns to bare down on them.

The strategy worked. One by one, cities like Osaka, Kobe, and Nagoya quickly met the B-29’s wrath. The epitome was the nighttime March 9-10, 1945 raid on Tokyo where 16 square miles of the Japanese capital was wiped, 84,000 were killed and another 100,000 injured. It was the single most devastating bombing mission of the entire war, more destructive than either atomic operation.

Two B-29s of the almost 4,000 that had been manufactured during the war are still flying. One is “Doc,” headquartered in Wichita, Kansas, in the air since 2016. The other is “Fifi,” which has been around since 1971, belonging to the Commemorative Air Force in Ft. Worth, Texas, and flying every year since then, except for a span between 2006-2010, when it was given a $3 million refurbishing, including four new radial engines.

I had the extreme pleasure of seeing “Fifi” at the Canadian Warplane Heritage on a warm, humid September I, 2018 afternoon in Hamilton, Ontario. After witnessing two impressive startups, takeoffs and landings, I got a chance to go aboard, along with a few hundred other World War II aircraft enthusiasts.

I loved every minute of it, of course. I experienced a piece of World War II history without having to pick up a book.

Note: the four pictures show two shots of “Fifi” from the outside, one from inside the bomb bay looking up into the cockpit, and the last one from the cockpit looking through the Plexiglas nose.