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Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber

Written by Sakhal

The B-29 Superfortress can be considered as one of the maximum expressions of the United States war industry, and for its time, almost a science-fiction machine and the largest bomber ever built. The Boeing Airplane Company had been awarded the main contract to build the B-29 thanks to the fame achieved with the B-17 Flying Fortress, a model which had achieved constant successes. When the United States Bomber Command was in disposition of using the new bomber, it was soon clear that the tactics of air bombings would effectuate an important step ahead. The Superfortress was a monster with a wingspan of 43 meters and an overload weight of 61 tonnes, but able to fly at a speed of 570 kilometers/hour at an altitude of 9000 meters. To achieve this the aircraft was projected and built using almost entirely vanguard techniques while making a minimal use of traditional formulas. However, the production was somewhat slow in the beginning, partly because every aircraft costed nearly one million of dollars, a price which seemed prohibitive even for the United States, and which raised many objections. The B-29 started operations the 5th June 1944 in an attack against Bangkok, departing from bases in India. In the mid June 1944 the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) was finally in disposition of organizing the first massive bombing with the new bombers. The target chosen were the steelworks at Yawata, in Kyushu Island. The formation of B-29 that performed the attack the 15th June departed from bases in China. Later, with base in the Marianas, the 20th Air Force carried the atrocious offensive against Japan between November 1944 and August 1945, being used the bombers initially in missions at high altitude and later in carpet bombings, effectuated at low altitude during night with incendiary bombs. The first operation of this type was performed the 9th March 1945 against Tokyo and was the most destructive attack in the war.

The darkest history of the B-29

As the number of B-29 available to the Bomber Command increased, the aerial offensive against Japan grew in intensity. The conquest of the Marianas granted to the Americans the first useful bases to reach directly the skies of the metropolitan Japan. The 25th February 1945, the 21st Bomber Command effectuated an offensive against Tokyo with 172 bombers B-29, loaded as well with napalm and magnesium bombs. The result of this attack was that two square kilometers of the downtown of Tokyo were literally razed to the ground. Still, the high cost of each B-29 was seen as problematic, for each aircraft downed constituted a notable economic loss. Then it was born the infamous tactic known as carpet bombing: an indiscriminate bombing which each bomber would effectuate individually flying at an altitude not superior to 2000 meters. The 9th March 1945, 333 bombers B-29 departed from the bases in Saipan, Guam and Tinian, reaching Tokyo shortly after the midnight of the 10th day. The gigantic bombers descended to the target altitude and dropped their napalm bombs inside the area delimited by some incendiary bombs previously launched. The bombing continued during three hours in three waves, and it was the most frightening one happened during the war. The effects were incredible: 124000 dead and damages by the cost of 200 millions of yens. The 20 percent of the capital (about 26 square kilometers) was completely destroyed.

Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber

Belonging to the 500th Bomber Group of the 73rd Bomber Wing of the 20th Air Force, this B-29 Superfortress named "The Big Stick" operated from the bases in the Marianas. Flying during night and at low altitude, the fleets of Superfortress bombers dropped hundreds of tonnes of incendiary bombs against the Japanese cities, turning them to ashes.

The conquest of Iwo Jima, nearest island to Japan with the exception of Okinawa - which the Americans were then about to attack -, provided the possibility of keeping the bombers a longer time above their targets. The 13th April 1945 another 327 bombers B-29 hovered over Tokyo. The target area was the north-east part of the metropolis, with an extension of 18 square kilometers. Two days later it was massively attacked the already smashed industrial city of Kawasaki, south of the capital, and then came the turn of Yokohama, Kobe and Toyama. The 24th May the damnation returned to Tokyo, attacked by nothing less than 520 bombers, and two days later the incursion repeated over other districts of the capital. A Japanese report stated that in the end of May half of the extension of Tokyo, almost 90 square kilometers, had been razed to the ground. This aerial offensive, even more than the atomic bombs, had contributed decisively to create the psychosis of defeat which characterized the last months of the Japanese resistance. According to the Japanese report, not less than 240000 civilians resulted dead, more than 310000 were injured and almost ten millions lost their homes. Almost two millions and half buildings were destroyed and 110000 were declared as partially destroyed; more than half a million of these buildings had been destroyed by the Japanese themselves in the attempts to contain the fires caused by the napalm bombs. During the bombardment campaign, the B-29 dropped 170000 tonnes of conventional bombs (equivalent to 25 times the total of bombs launched by all the other types of aircraft in the theater of operations of the Pacific). Still, this figure seems to diminish in relevance when considering the aspect that gave more fame to the Superfortress: the launching of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber

Eddie Allen, belonging to the 40th Bomber Group, was one of the most famous B-29, whose life came to an abrupt end on the second carpet bombing over Tokyo. Named after the test pilot from Boeing - main manufacturer company of the B-29 - who died in the crash of a B-29 prototype, Eddie Allen had bombed targets in seven countries before meeting its demise.

Typology of the B-29

The construction of the B-29, cuatrimotor of unusually elegant line, was entirely metallic, with exception of the movable parts; the wings were placed at mid height on the fuselage. The landing gear was fully retractable, remaining totally hidden inside the fuselage, not affecting the also unusually aerodynamic profile at all. The disposition of the wheels was also very modern, with the center wheel placed on the fore part; because of this a tail skid was added to prevent undesirable contacts with the terrain during land maneuvers. The fuselage, of cylindrical section, accommodated the crew in two separate rooms - one in the nose and the other in the center -, connected by a passage of about 90 centimeters in width, along which the crew moved, while lying in a trolley, by impulsing themselves by means of a railing running along the ceiling. During flight, both crew compartments were pressurized, and they were also equipped with heating and oxigen supply. The propulsion plant comprised initially four radial engines Wright R-3350-13, which would be soon replaced by slightly more powerful engines of the same family, given the weight of such aircraft. Electronic equipment included radar devices for fire control and bombing. The offensive load was carried in two storages equipped with a device that released the bombs with a regular interval instead of letting them to fall at once. The defensive armament comprised from ten to twelve 12.7-millimeter machine-guns, plus one 20-millimeter cannon - eventually suppressed due to poor performance -, and with exception of the tail guns, everything was organized in remote-controlled turrets; the gunners could see the enemy through windows located at distance from the weapons. It was achieved so a better firing precision because the gunners were not under the pressure of handling the weapons during the firing. This innovative solution had been used before only in one aircraft, the excellent cuatrimotor bomber Piaggio 108 manufactured in Italy in the late 1939. But in some cases, the B-29 were armed only with the tail guns or even totally unarmed, as the Enola Gay depicted in the illustration, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima.

Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber

Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber

Three prototypes XB-29 were built, followed by fourteen preseries models YB-29. The B-29 was the initial series model; of these Boeing built 1570 exemplars, Bell 352 and Martin 536. The B-29A presented a newly designed wing, four machine guns in the fore turret and engines R-3350-57/59; 1119 units were built. The F-13A was a reconnaissance version fitted with photographic cameras. The B-29B had increased capacity for bombs but defensive armament was limited only to the tail turret; 311 units were built by Bell. The variant YB-29J, of which five units were produced, was fitted with injection engines; the FB-29J was the reconnaissance version based on the YB-29J. Total production reached 3905 exemplars.

The abducted B-29

Ironically, the B-29 was also the best help - albeit unintentional - that United States provided to the Soviet Union. Three of these highly valuable machines were captured by the Soviets between July and November 1944, when they had to perform emergency landings in Siberia, unable to reach their bases in China. Trusting in the alliance with the Soviet Union, their crews expected to effectuate repairs and continue their mission, but they faced instead the unfriendly guns of the Soviet fighters, which forced them to land and to follow the equally unfriendly muzzles of the submachine guns of the Red Army soldiers, who immediately interned the Americans as prisoners in Tartarian lands, remaining in such condition during one year. The captured bombers were put at the disposal of the technicians led by the engineers Tupolev and Schvetsov, who after an exceptional effort for the Soviet war industry, would present to Stalin the first "Soviet" strategical superbomber in August 1947. With the arrival of the Tupolev 4, ended the aerial supremacy of the United States and started the Cold War.

The B-29 in the Korean War

The B-29 was one of several veteran aircraft from the Second World War that served during the Korean War, resulting very vulnerable to the attacks from the Soviet turbojet fighters MiG-15. The 8th November 1950 70 bombers B-29 dropped 580 tonnes of incendiary bombs over Sinuiju. The 6th April 1951, the B-29 from the 98th and 307th Bomber Groups were sent to attack the railway bridges in Sinuiju and a road bridge in Uiju. A severe encounter against 30 fighters MiG-15 which attacked the B-29 when they were bombing their targets was repelled, but one of the B-29 was shoot down. The 12th April it was worse, when the B-29 from the 19th, 98th and 307th Bomber Groups were sent again to attack the bridges in Sinuiju, which had not been completely destroyed despite the punishment received. The bomber formation was attacked by about 40 aircraft MiG-15, whose pilots descended at high speed across the escorting fighters to perform attacks against the eight bombers from the 19th Bomber Group. One B-29 was shot down and another five were damaged. Barely finished this attack, another 20 aircraft MiG-15 arrived, attacking the twelve bombers from the 307th Bomber Group, downing one of them and severely damaging another one, which would result destroyed later when crashing in an emergency landing in Suwon. The gunners of the B-29 claimed the downing of 10 aircraft MiG-15, but in the confusion there existed much exaggeration; Russian sources admitted no losses from the gunners aboard the B-29. The 23rd October 1951, known as the "Black Tuesday", eight B-29 from the 307th Bomber Wing sent in a mission against the airfield at Namsi were attacked by about a hundred of MiG-15. About half of the attackers circumvented the escort and attacked the B-29 in several passades. Two B-29 fell downed shortly after launching their bombs; a third one, set ablaze, performed a vacillating flight towards the coast, where the crew parachuted, with the exception of the pilot, Captain Thomas L. Shield, who sacrificed his life to keep the damaged bomber in flight until the rest of the crew could be safe. It was claimed the downing of three MiG-15 by the machine guns of the B-29. Of the surviving bombers, all but one suffered damages, having to perform emergency landings in Korea and Japan, with dead and wounded aboard. That had been the darkest day of the Bomber Command since the beginning of the war. In a sole week, the United States Air Force (USAF) had lost five B-29 and another eight were severely damaged. Thereafter, the B-29 were limited to night missions and escorted by sophisticated night fighters.

Type: Long-range heavy bomber

First flight: 21 September 1942

Wingspan: 43.05 meters

Wing area: 161.27 square meters

Length: 30.18 meters

Height: 9.01 meters

Weight (empty): 31820 kilograms

Weight (full load): 56250 kilograms

Payload: 24430 kilograms

Crew: 10-11

Engines: Four Wright R-3350-23 Cyclone 18-cylinder radial engines with supercharger, of 2200 horsepower each one

Time to reach 6100 meters of altitude: 38 minutes

Service ceiling: 10000 meters

Maximum speed at 7600 meters of altitude: 575 kilometers/hour

Cruising speed: 370 kilometers/hour

Operational range: 5230 kilometers

Defensive armament: Two 12.7-millimeter machine-guns in each of the remote-controlled turrets; three 12.7-millimeter machine-guns or two 12.7-millimeter machine-guns and one 20 millimeters cannon in the tail turret

Bombs load: 9072 kilograms (20000 pounds)

Article updated: 2015-07-05

Categories: Aircraft - World War Two - 20th Century - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2014-10-27

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