The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was the biggest, most expensive gamble undertaken by the United States during World War II, exceeding even the fabled Manhattan (atomic bomb) Project in both of these categories.
Never before had so many new ideas been put together so rapidly in a single aircraft. The advances were startling and included the following: a huge new airframe that was a total departure from previous Boeing practice; new engines that had to go through a long and costly development process before they became even remotely reliable; new propellers that gave almost as much difficulty as the engines; a new pressurization system, larger than any previously attempted; a new high-lift, high-wing loading-wing design that promised range but at the cost of high landing speeds and tricky handling; a new and totally untried central fire control system; and many other less critical, but still untried, items.
Further, the press of the war effort required that this amazing new airplane be built in a brand-new factory, staffed largely by untrained personnel, many of whom had never touched an airplane before.
The aircraft was also intended to be deployed from remote fields in China and from tiny Pacific islands, where fuel, supplies, and maintenance would be difficult to assemble. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's pledge that the aircraft would go into action from Chinese bases by April 1944 placed an almost intolerable deadline on the program.
Finally, all of the money, intellectual effort, and priorities invested to create a nuclear weapon in the Manhattan Project would have been utterly wasted had the Boeing B-29 Superfortress failed, for it was the only aircraft capable of carrying and delivering the atomic bomb.
Read more about the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, and find specifications for this classic airplane, in the next section.
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Boeing B-29 Superfortress Specifications
Boeing and the USAAF succeeded in jointly creating the first aircraft capable of carrying out the dreams of all the prophets of airpower, an aircraft capable of winning a war by utterly destroying the enemy's homeland. The relentless Boeing B-29 attacks over Japan in the spring of 1945 brought true airpower into existence. That August, the B-29 made ultimate airpower real by dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The B-29's road to ultimate airpower was long and difficult, and derived in part from Boeing's experience with the XB-15 and a series of follow-on designs. The Boeing B-29 Superfortress had its official beginning on February 5, 1940, when the Air Corps called for a "Hemisphere Defense Weapon," a super-bomber with a speed of 400 miles per hour, the ability to carry a ton of bombs for 5,333 miles, and a maximum bomb capacity of 16,000 pounds.
Boeing's top personnel, including Claire Egtvedt, Phil Johnson, Wellwood Beale, George Schairer, Noah Showalter, and Edward Wells were tasked with the project. An able Army Air Forces Captain, Donald Putt, was assigned to be project officer.
More than 1,000 Boeing B-29 Superfortresses would be ordered before the first flight of the prototype on September 21, 1942, with the talented Eddie Allen at the controls. A massive production effort was combined with an immense training program, and B-29s began rolling out of brand-new factories, first in Wichita, Kansas, and subsequently in Marietta, Georgia.
Ironically, the Boeing B-29 Superfortresses were ineffective in their first combat efforts, for precision bombing from high altitudes was far different over Japan than over Europe. Operation from Chinese bases was difficult, and results were totally unsatisfactory. The Allied seizure of bases in the Marianas gave the B-29s another chance, as did the appointment of Major General Curtis E. LeMay to command the operation. LeMay made a decision to send the B-29s in low, at night, and loaded with incendiaries. His tactics worked, and Japan's cities were burned to the ground.
When the Japanese refused to surrender, despite their desperate situation on land, sea, and in the air, two atomic bombs were dropped to avoid the necessity of an Allied invasion of the home islands. The gamble with the B-29 had paid off, saving hundreds of thousands -- possibly millions -- of American and Japanese lives, and bringing World War II to a close.