aviation in World War 2

bomber tactics
the Blitz
bombing of Coventry
bombing in the Bristol area
Combined Bomber (CBO)
Bomber Command
the Dambusters
bombing of Hamburg
1000 bomber raids
bombing of Dresden
bombing of Nuremberg
the Schweinfurt raids
German Night Fighters
the Pathfinders
Soviet bombing raids
Pearl Harbour
the Doolittle raid
the B-17 and B-29
fire bombing raids on Japan
Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima

the B-17 and B-29

Boeing B29

Throughout the 1930s, new bomber aircraft emerged in all countries. However, these older models were inadequate to carry out the theories of strategic bombing--they could neither travel far enough nor carry a heavy enough bomb load. Eventually, two American planes were designed that embodied the qualities of the perfect bomber--the Boeing B-17 and B-29. Both planes helped the Allies win the war and define the reality of air power.

In April 1934, the U.S. Army Air Corps requested bids for a multiengine bomber that could carry a bomb load of 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms) for at least 1,020 miles (1,642 kilometres) at a speed of 200 miles per hour (322 kilometres per hour). Boeing proposed the four-engine Model 299, with its all-metal construction and a bomb bay that could hold 4,800 pounds (2,177 kilograms) of bombs. It was heavily armed with a gun turret in the nose and three rounded windows (blisters) for gunners on the sides and bottom of the plane. When it rolled out on July 28, 1935, a Seattle Times reporter nicknamed it the "Flying Fortress" because of its heavy armament.

Crew of the Boeing B-17 Memphis Belle at an airbase in England during World War II.

After three weeks of testing, the Flying Fortress flew non-stop from the Boeing factory in Seattle to Wright Field, Ohio, overshadowing the Douglas Aircraft entry, the twin-engine B-18. But tragedy struck on the Fortressís second air corps test, when the plane crashed due to pilot error, killing two. The Flying Fortress seemed to have no future as the air corps placed orders for the Douglas B-18.

Over the next winter, Boeing received only a few orders for the Flying Fortress, then designated the YB-17. Twelve planes were delivered to the 2nd Bomb Group in December 1936, where they were used to make historic flights, including record-breaking goodwill tours to South America. Despite their excellent safety record, however, Congress opposed spending so much money on a large bomber.

Then Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and President Franklin Roosevelt mobilized the country for war. Boeing received a contract for 38 B-17Cs (the blisters were replaced with flat glass and self-sealing fuel tanks were added). Over the next six years, Boeing built more than 12,000 B-17s for the USAAF. Production demands meant that the government needed Douglas and Lockheed to build B-17s as well.

As the United States went to war, crews were equipped with B-17Es and B-17Fs. (The B-17E added a Sperry ball turret in the front and a remote turret in the belly; and redesigned the tail assembly to include a tail gunner position; the B-17F made 300 further small changes, including adding a one-piece, clear moulded-plastic nose.) These planes arrived in North Africa, the Pacific, and England, where they formed the nucleus of the 8th Air Force.  The B-17s proved essential to success in Europe, delivering half of all bombs dropped in that theatre.

The men who flew the Flying Fortress loved their plane and felt it was good to them. The solid plane endured a lot of punishment, often limping back to base when a lesser bomber would have crashed. And for the military, it was an important symbol. General Henry "Hap" Arnold called it "Air Power that you could put your hand on" and predicted that it was only the first of many great American bombers.

That next great bomber was already being built. In 1939, Arnold formed a special board, named the Kilner Board, to produce a five-year plan for research and development in the Air Corps. Among its findings was the need for a long-range bomber with twice the range of the B-17. As the war in Europe began, the possibility that all air operations on the continent would need to originate in the United States began to seem real. Captain Donald Putt, a test pilot, was asked to write the requirements for such a plane. He stipulated a four-engine airplane with a range of 5,333 miles (8,583 kilometres) and a speed of 400 miles per hour (644 kilometres per hour) carrying a one-ton bomb load.

By the time Boeing received these requirements, it had already developed the plane. Because of the companyís close relationship with the Air Corps, it had predicted that such a plane would be required and had already been developing the Model 345 before Congress had even approved the appropriation. Boeing won the contract to build 250 B-29s on May 4, 1941, with the first plane scheduled for completion by August 1942. When the United States declared war, that order was expanded to 500.

The plane that Boeing built, eventually nicknamed the "Superfortress," incorporated all the technological advances of the previous decade. A special wing, the 117, was developed to reduce drag, increase high-speed manoeuvrability, and allow low-speed takeoffs and landings. It was the first bomber to be pressurized, with the front cabin connected to the one in the rear by a pressurized tunnel that went over the bomb bays. There was a remote-controlled gunnery system designed by General Electric that controlled four turrets, and the tail turret was manned separately. Its air-cooled Wright engines generated 2,200 horsepower (1,641 kilowatts), and it could fly at 360 to 380 miles per hour (579 to 612 kilometres per hour) with a range of approximately 5,725 miles (9,213 kilometres). 

On September 21, 1942, the XB-29 made its first flight. For the first two test flights, the plane flew satisfactorily, and Donald Putt claimed it was easier to fly than the B-17. Problems soon arose, however. Parts malfunctioned. Engines began to catch fire. Yet adjustments were made and testing continued.

Then disaster hit. During a test flight on February 18, 1943, an engine fire spread into the wings, forcing the plane to crash into a meat packing plant, killing the crew of eleven and 20 on the ground. Many, including President Roosevelt, wanted to end the B-29 program right then. But Hap Arnold, for whom the B-29 had become a pet project, held an investigation and found that the problem was with the manufacture of the engines. The B-29 program was labelled a "special project," which gave the USAAF full control over all facets of the development--from flight tests, production, and modifications to the training of crews. Based at the Boeing plant in Kansas, the project was devoted to getting the plane ready for action with the 20th Air Force in China by January 1944. The deadline was met, and the first B-29 mission was flown from India on June 5, 1944, against Japanese-held Bangkok. When the Marianas Islands were recaptured in October, the 20th Air Force was relocated there. They were given as many B-29s as possible, since Japan was within flying range of the plane.

The Boeing B-29 "Super Fortress" of World War II.

Under the leadership of its commander, General Curtis LeMay, the 20th Air Force used B-29s in an intensive bombing campaign against Japan that included traditional and incendiary bombs. As many as 300 bombers were used for each mission, a number that doubled the following summer. As the threat from enemy fighters decreased, the armament was stripped from the planes to allow more weight for bombs. The firestorms created by the incendiary bombs became so intense that the silver planes returned to base black with soot. And on August 6, 1945, the B-29 Enola Gay dropped the first nuclear bomb on the city of Hiroshima, followed three days later by a second bomb dropped by the B-29 Bockís Car on Nagasaki. The Japanese surrendered a week later.

Although many credited the nuclear bomb with ending the war, the bomb never could have been dropped without the range and carrying capacity of the B-29. When the earlier B-17s returned from the war, they ended up in bone-yards in the desert, whereas the number of B-29s in service did not decrease. While Japan signed the surrender on the USS Missouri, 500 Superfortresses flew overhead as a show of force. In the weeks after the war, it flew "Missions of Mercy"--searching for and dropping supplies on prisoner of war camps.

In 1946, the plane was mobilized to participate in nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll. And on June 25, 1950, the day the Korean War began, four B-29s from Guam were sent to drop bombs on the invading North Koreans. But by then, they were already obsolete--no match against jets--and they were used mainly for reconnaissance. The plane that had delivered the first nuclear bomb and had formed the backbone of the United States nuclear weapons delivery command was retired less than a decade after its dramatic debut.