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Innovative Aircraft: The Boeing B-29 Super Fortress.

Updated on April 11, 2015

Flying in Formation

Painting of the B29 Bombers
Painting of the B29 Bombers | Source

Aircraft Specifications

  • Introduced in Combat - May 1944
  • Maximum Crew - 11
  • Wingspan - 141ft
  • Maximum Payload - 20,000lb, 9,072kg
  • Number of Engines - 4 (Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone)
  • Standard Armaments - Up to 12 remote operated Browning M2/M2 Cannons
  • Maximum Range - 3,250mi, 5,230km
  • Maximum Speed - 357mph, 574km/h
  • Maximum Altitude - 32,000ft, 9,753m

Heavy Bombers of The Second World War

The aircraft was to experience a dramatic series of evolution during the Second World War. Those which were deployed in the late 1930s wielded significantly less in terms of speed, manoeuvrability, armaments and range to those that flew in 1945. The heavy bombers of World War II only gained notoriety during the second half of the conflict as they were practically non-existent during the axis advances of 1940 and 1941. Four engine bombers began wreaking havoc over the skies of Germany and Japan in 1942, at which time sufficient numbers of aircraft (such as the Halifax and the B17-flying fortress) were being produced by the booming armaments industry. In large formations and at high altitudes, the heavy bomber's impact was devastating and caused untold destruction. The Boeing B-29 was perhaps the most deadly aircraft of the entire conflict despite being in active service for little over one year.

Fascinating Firsts

Two of the most stand-out features of this deadly war machine were its remote operated turrets and its pressurized cabin.

Side and rear gunners formed part of the 11 man strong crew and could operated the cannons manually, however the ability to operate them electronically increased accuracy and the safety of the crew. Guns could rotate 360 degrees horizontally, 90 degrees vertically and crew could control any of the fixed armaments from anywhere in the aircraft. This minimised injuries and deaths from sharpshooter enemy fighters.

Pressurisation has been key to civil aviation and its ubiquity in the post war world. Many of the B-29's exemplary features were to be put to use in passenger aircraft during the following decades. The British and American crews who flew raids over Germany in unpressurised compartments risked death from frostbite and general fatigue brought about by exposure to low atmospheric pressure and lack of oxygen. The B-29's flying corps experienced no such harsh exposures, enabling the plane to fly at much higher altitude and keep its occupants in a much more comfortable and physically and mentally sound state.

B-32 Dominator

The B-32 was produced by Boeing's rival manufacturer Consolidated.
The B-32 was produced by Boeing's rival manufacturer Consolidated. | Source

Early Conceptions and Experiments

Before the US entry into World War II in December 1941, the country had been undertaking a large scale rearmaments program, a program which would ultimately create a military superpower by the mid-1940s. Aircraft companies were numerous and very venturesome at the time (as they were in the UK) and all attempted to contribute to the American armaments industry whenever government or private funds came their way. Boeing was one of the largest and most respected firms, having already manufactured both civilian and military aircraft and was readily involved in government backed research and development during the pre-war years.

Under the directive of Franklin Roosevelt (a pacifist character who was also mindful of the dangers posed by foreign elements), the US was providing enormous quantities of military aid to the UK, China and later the Soviet Union and with the ever increasing importance of air power in conflict, the country's leaders requested the successful production of a long range, high-altitude, four engine, pressurized, heavy bomber. Boeing began work on what was to become the B-29 in 1940 and constructed a few airworthy prototypes in the months that followed. Accidents were common and in their endeavour, many lives were lost. The principle developments came in engine manufacture and on-board electronics due to demands that range and technological advances were to be this bomber's distinctive features. Orders for the new aircraft began arriving at Boeing in mid-1941, in anticipation that the war would soon come to America....and it did.

American Aircraft Assembly

The B-29 being assembled in Wichita, Kansas in 1944.
The B-29 being assembled in Wichita, Kansas in 1944. | Source

Logistical and Geographic Drawbacks

The maiden flight of the first Boeing B-29 was in September 1942 and further successful designs were tested and flown throughout 1943. Pressure soon began mounting on the war department, Boeing and millions of low skilled factory workers to mass produce the aircraft for combat missions. Its complicated and innovative features were constructed at specialised facilities across the country and the aircraft was assembled at four major plants in Washington, Nebraska, Kansas and Georgia.

By the end of 1943, plans had been drawn up to dispatch the first fleet of approximately 200 bombers to Eastern India and Central China, where they could target Kyushu, Shikoku and Southern Honshu. The first combat B-29 bombers did indeed take off from airstrips in South Asia and managed to raid Japanese industrial bases in the Summer of 1944, however their effectiveness was severely limited by the monsoon rains, the hostile landscape of the Himalayas, fuel shortages and the ability to only strike the Southern most portion of the Japanese Islands. The Asian Axis power had surrounded itself with a formidable defensive perimeter, conquering large swaths of the Asian mainland, and Islands as far North as the Aleutian archipelago and as far South as the Solomon Islands. The B-29 was the only aircraft capable of fracturing the capital and resources that maintained the Japanese Empire at its source.

Japanese Empire; 1942

The height of Japan's conquest of the Asia-Pacific region.
The height of Japan's conquest of the Asia-Pacific region. | Source

Early Operational Inefficiencies

In October of 1944, Aachen became the first German town to be liberated from the Nazis as the allies on the Western Front pressed for final victory in Europe before the onslaught of winter. At the same time, the island of Saipan in the Central Pacific, less than 1500 miles from Japan was receiving its first B-29 bomber. The first raids on Japan from these islands did not have the devastating impact which was to characterise later missions, the heavy aircraft were just within range of most Japanese cities and had to strike during daylight hours, at high altitude without a fighter escort and a lighter payload to offset the huge quantity of fuel needed for the return journey.

Initially, the American military called for strategic bombing of industrial facilities which directly provided the Japanese with their war machines. Bombings at high altitude in a relatively new aircraft were often a few miles off target. Pilots also encountered the jet stream at such high altitude, the fast flowing winds bored great responsibility for inaccuracy during high altitude bombing raids. Japanese fighters and ground based anti-aircraft weapons took a heavy toll if the B29's ever fell within their range. Finally, engine failure was common due to the heavy burden demanded from them by their crew. Those lost in the vast expanse of the Pacific were seldom rescued.

Operation Meetinghouse.

The first act which would cement the notorious, destructive reputation of the super-fortress was the bombing raid on Tokyo in early March 1945. This was and still is the single deadliest air raid in history. General Curtis LeMay was instated as the USAAF's chief commander in the Pacific theatre only a few months prior. Under his directive, the American strategy of strategic bombing was abandoned in favour of large scale urban area bombing, a tactic which had been put into practice against Germany by the RAF following the Blitz in Britain. Ancient cities like Dresden were obliterated under the ever increasing weight of the heavy bombers and mostly civilians were killed.

Tokyo had been attacked previously by the B-29s, but the raids were smaller scale and targeted industrial and military resources. The USAAF commissioned 334 B29s for Operation Meetinghouse, which were to be stripped of their guns and instructed to fly at night and at low altitude; the payload capacity increased substantially as a result. Deadlier bombing tactics also included deadlier bombs. Napalm had been developed and tested during the early forties, it was first put to use during the Second World War and yielded a greater degree of devastation than the phosphorus used in Dresden.

In total, 334 B29 Super-fortresses dropped over 1,600 tonnes of incendiary bombs on night of March 9th 1945. Between 80,000-100,000 were killed and 1 Million where made homeless.

Enola Gay

Replica of the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Museum
Replica of the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Museum | Source

Bombing of Hiroshima

Picture taken over the skies of Hiroshima minutes after detonation.
Picture taken over the skies of Hiroshima minutes after detonation. | Source

Little Boy and Fat Man

Both the atomic bombs were delivered to the designated targets Hiroshima and Nagasaki by modified B29 bombers.

Although information about the 'Manhattan Project' had been withheld from all but a few high ranking military, political and scientific personnel, the unique specifications of the B29 were vital to the success of both missions. Some modifications to the often troublesome engine and the bomb storage compartment had to be made prior to the mission, but only the B-29 with its unprecedented range and altitude could have made the return journey.

As soon as the bomb bay doors had swung open and the devices were released, the aircraft lifted upwards suddenly and its pilots had to turn away from the city below rapidly to avoid being caught in a radioactive shock wave. On both occasions, the American air force crew took photographs and brief video recordings of the mushroom cloud as it rose and expanded beneath them.

The two atomic bombs killed over 120,000 people instantly. Many thousands more would died in the following months due to radioactive fallout. The overall death toll from these two attacks surpasses 250,000.

Korean War

Several squadrons of B-29 bombers were deployed over the skies of Korea during the early 1950s, however the aerial combat environment had changed significantly with the mass introduction of the jet fighters. The Soviet built MiG 15 was the most formidable adversary and would easily intercept and shoot down piston engine planes. B-29s in Korea were fortunate enough to fly alongside jet fighter escorts during bombing raids and during the night when the threats were lower. Nevertheless, losses began mounting over the course of the three year conflict and by the latter half of the 1950s, the once highly advanced bomber had essentially become obsolete, during a single decade.

Despite the falling prestige of the aircraft, it was a reliable force in the fight against the spread of communist ideology in the Korean Peninsula. The aircraft flew for the full period of hostility (1950-1953), it delivered a greater overall payload than during its services in the War against Japan (although the B-29 only served for little over a year during WWII) and it was the US air force's principle atomic bomb delivery system for the first several years of the atomic age. The aircraft was eventually retired in 1960 but its many engineering feats were adopted for use in civilian aircraft.

Nose Art 1 - The WolfPack


Nose Art 2 - Thumper


Interesting Facts

  • During the B29's service history, the aircraft were often customized aesthetically by their crew, who gave them a nose art makeover with the paint brush and a name or character that was often moderately humorous. The most famous of these is 'Enola Gay', the B29 which dropped the Hiroshima bomb.
  • Boeing's Everett Factory in Washington state is the largest building in the world in terms of volume at 3,300,000 cubic meters. Boeing uses this primarily for the assembly of its large, modern fleet of commercial air planes.

FIFI - The Last Airworthy B-29


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    • Daniel Bassilios profile imageAUTHOR

      Daniel Bassilios 

      3 years ago from Newcastle Upon Tyne

      Lovely to have some very comprehensive comments here.

      It was known for its regular engine failure so I suppose FIFI still operates to the standard of the 1940s. Would have been an amazing ride over California though

      Although they flew at high altitude, they were often under a great deal of strain at 30,000 ft +and that partly explains the malfunctioning engines. And being the first pressurized plane, there was nothing for manufactures to emulate and the plane came in so late in the war because due to the incredibly complex nature of the project. But it also helped that America was defended by two large oceans that bombers couldn't negotiate at the time. (That said the B-29 could make it across the Atlantic at its narrower points in the North.)

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 

      3 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi Daniel. Having read your profile you are far from boring as I'm sure you know. This hub is excellent. Well presented and paced your photographs, video, and original painting are first class. You touch many bases and you research shines through. Well done.

      voted up and all and following.


    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 years ago

      Interesting article. It covers a lot of ground in the B-29's history.

    • stereomike83 profile image


      3 years ago from UK

      Fascinating hub! If I think of WW2 bombers I will always think of those that undertook raids in Europe but the B-29 shows the rapid changes seen in aircraft design.

    • Dressage Husband profile image

      Stephen J Parkin 

      3 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

      This was extremely well written and explained why these bombers could fly in above the fighter defense shield I never realized that they were pressurized before. I had thought that had not been perfected until jet aircraft arrived! My father was a radar technician for the RAF and worked mainly on Mitchells and Halifax bombers. I am surprised he never told me about the B29's as I used to make models of all the WWII planes as a kid.

    • peoplepower73 profile image

      Mike Russo 

      3 years ago from Placentia California

      Daniel: A wonderful article and very well written. In the late 1950s, I was stationed on a remote radar site on the island of Kyushu Japan. I remember the Japanese Air Self Defense guys telling us when they were children living in the hills, they would watch the B-29's fly over them at night to bomb the city of Fukuoka. They said they were beautiful and what a sight it was to watch the fire bombings from afar. Of course they were children and didn't understand the gravity of war.

      Just recently we went to an air show in Lancaster California. They had many of the war birds there including the P-38 Lightning. The day before Fifi was there giving rides, but alas on our day she wasn't there. They said she had engine problems.

      Voting up, Awesome, and sharing.


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