The morning of August 6, 1945, is a red letter day in history. Though most will likely not know the actual date or time, it is universally agreed that the page of history was turned then, and thereafter the politics, power structure, and military tactics the world over were forever changed. A little after eight o'clock, a lone U.S. Army Air Force bomber appeared over Japan. The presence of such an airplane was not an event of any great note – American aircraft frequented the skies alone on a regular basis for reconnaissance work, and ground spotters reported accordingly. There were in, fact, two other aircraft accompanying the first, but even so a force of three was far too small to be perceived as an attack.
The trio of aircraft were the new Boeing B-29A, dubbed the 'Superfortress'. In and of itself, the Superfort was a technological marvel, albeit plagued by severe teething problems upon entrance into service. Today, however, the mechanical wonder on wings would be far surpassed by the mission itself. At seventeen seconds after 8:15, the lead Superfort banked , turned violently as the pilot took direct control. In only a few minutes, the reasoning would become clear. Flying south with the throttles full open, the interior of the Superfort glowed a brilliant, blinding white. Several shockwaves buffeted the airframe, and behind, under a rising mushroom cloud, almost five square miles of the city of Hiroshima lay in smoking ruin. A few days later, a different plane and crew would introduce Nagasaki to the same fate.
Many know about the circumstances leading up to the dropping of
the first (and only) atomic devices ever used in war. The Manhattan
Project is a subject most will know in passing, or failing that, at
least recognize. The names Enola Gay and Bockscar will forever be
linked to the start of the nuclear age. Debates have and continue to
rage on whether the dropping of the bombs was a legitimate act of
war or a gross war crime.
While invoked in the argument, for good or ill, the aircraft is seldom given the same attention. Many are content to leave the bombers – the former at the Smithsonian, the latter displayed at the U.S. Air Force museum in Dayton, Ohio – as mere symbols in the dawn of an age of uncertainty and brinkmanship that would follow. To do so is a great disservice to the workers who built them, the crews who flew them, and the aircraft that made prior conventional attacks on Japan possible.
The story of the Superfortress began on a rainy day in February of 1940, with a U.S. Army order calling for a new type of heavy bomber to supersede the Boeing B-17s and Consolidated B-24s then in service. The new design would require longer range and greater carrying capacity. Boeing began construction soon after, adding numerous features lacking on most prewar aircraft. Self-sealing fuel tanks, championed by the British, were a must. In addition the new model, tentatively marked as the Boeing Model 341would feature the first airborne remote controlled gunnery system. Later test versions would also be pressurized, a feature carried into the production. Improvements resulted in the Boeing 345, and the project was met with official Army approval.
The initial test flight came on September 21, 1942. The XB-29, as it was now known, rose for a successful trial. It was a behemoth of an aircraft, wholly unlike anything seen before. Basically an aluminum tube with wings, tail, and rounded glass nose, the plane that would become the Superfort cast a massive shadow. Almost a hundred feet long from tip to tail, the wings stretched to 141 feet, and the top of the fuselage sat thirty feet above the runway. The wings, built from scratch, offered 1736 square feet of lifting area. A single propeller blade was sixteen feet long.
Being a bold move into experimental territory, the XB-29 was not without teething problems. The engines needed to move such a massive machine were finicky and needed careful attention and required disproportionate hours of maintenance. The pressurization system was prone to blowing out perspex windows. The radar only worked intermittently, and the remote controls for the defensive weaponry didn't always function as needed. Quite simply, design exceeded technology.
Despite the setbacks and growing pains, XB-29 No. 1 taxied out to the runway at Boeing's Seattle, Washington, production facility. Eddie Allen, the company's chief test pilot, was at the controls, and before the employees who had built her, the first Superfort took smoothly to the air. Afterwards, Allen would comment that the B-29, despite its gargantuan size and plethora of hiccups, handled better than expected – even eclipsing the performance of its smaller cousin, the B-29. Despite his approval, Allen and his crew would be killed February 18, 1943 when an engine on the second test model caught fire. The flames soon ate through the wing, destroying the main spar, and the XB-29 tumbled from the sky into a nearby meat-packing plant. Testing continued, and by mid 1943 the worst of the issues were considered either solved or well under control. Several thousand airframes were already on order at this time.
Early in 1944, the first operable B-29s arrived in the Pacific Theater. First blood came in June, when Superforts operating out of India flew strikes again occupied Thailand, specifically Bangkok. The mission results were not impressive: a full twenty twenty percent were unable to reach the target due to poor navigation, and the damage inflicted on the Japanese was only light to moderate. It was an inauspicious beginning to the aircraft's service life. On the positive side, not a single bomber was lost in the effort.
On June 15, 1944, the strategic bombing of mainland Japan would begin. It was here that the B-29s and their crews would truly leave their mark. Planes took off from newly constructed airfields in China. This time the navigation was somewhat improved, but the results were found to be lacking. It wasn't until a few months later, when moved to recently-captured islands in the Pacific, that the pounding of Japan began in earnest. Hundreds launched from hard-won airfields in the Marianas to strike at enemy industry. Yet again, results were disappointing.
In March of 1944, General Curtis LeMay had arrived in the theater. Fresh from leading heavy bomber raids over Europe and ripping out the underpinnings of the Nazi war machine, Le May saw the state of strategic air operations in the Pacific. He was not amused by any stretch of the imagination, and began at once working to correct what he found lacking. Chief among his concerns, he noted that while Superforts were releasing their payload at high altitude (usually 20,000 feet or higher) the strong winds over the target swept the ordnance far off target. Also at issue was were the bombs themselves – whereas the average loadout consisted of iron bombs, LeMay concluded that incendiaries would be more effective. To capitalize on the lack of suitable nightfighter interceptors available to the Japanese, he switched the bombers from high-altitude daylight raids to low-level nighttime strikes.
The methods were found unconventional and disagreeable by many. The Superfortress was, after all, a high-altitude machine that could operate safely out of range of enemy fighters and flak guns, and LeMay's new orders flew in that face of that design. The aircraft were reconfigured, anyway. All extra weight was sacrificed, mostly the pressurization gear that had previously given the B-29 its major advantage, all to make room for additional ordnance. In addition, all gunner positions were removed, leaving no defensive armament. The orders did not sit well with the remaining flight crew, who were uniformly certain that they would be massacred enroute and over the target once the Japanese learned of the changes.
Their concerns were proven wrong in short order. More planes reached the target, mechanical problems decreased, and bombing efficiency increased noticeably. Coupled with the change from conventional bombing to firebombing, the nightly appearance of the Superfort became an object of dread with the Japanese who saw their homeland not only attacked, but hit time after time with devastating effect. Often, efforts to intercept the bombers proved fruitless, a situation brought on just as much by the lack of fighter aircraft, an almost nonexistent ability to counter in the darkness, and dwindling numbers of airmen.
With LeMay in charge, the United States Army Air Force ruled the skies almost unopposed. Specially outfitted F-13s (the photographic reconnaissance version of the B-29) swept overhead by day, finding targets, and it night the fire rained again. The Superfortress was the omnipresent reminder of a war that was suddenly going very badly for the Japanese, most of whom had been convinced that the Japanese military was wildly victorious throughout the Pacific. By the time the atom bomb fell, a good portion of the island lay in ruin. Far more were killed by iron and incendiary than by the blasts and fallout from Little Boy and Fat Man.
Following V-J day, the B-29 continued on in Army Air Force service, staying on not only as bombers, but configured for photo reconnaissance, transport, aerial refueling, and radar picket duty against Russian incursions. In 1947, a modified B-29 served as the mother ship for the Bell X-1 used in supersonic flight testing. The Superfort flew again in Korea, operating – somewhat ironically – from bases in the cities it had once helped obliterate. An upgraded version, the B-50, also came into service around this time, though it never reached the fame of its predecessor. The B-36 Peacemaker, the largest operable bomber ever built, was a direct descendant.
What ultimately ended the B-29's illustrious career was technology. As soon as the early 1950s, it was plain to the powers in the U.S. Air Force that jet propulsion was the way of the future, and the age of the Superfortress reached its end in 1955, when the earliest models of Boeing's successor design, the B-52 Stratofortress, became operational.