It may be something more than a coincidence that the Army's secrecy, which has endured for several years, was almost simultaneously broken on the Boeing B-29 Superfortress and the Northrop P-61 Black Widow during the month of June, most fateful of all months during this war. More than one observer has agreed that these two vastly different planes will swing the one-two haymaker which will knock out the Axis in the months ahead.
In one way, at least, the Boeing B-29 may be considered as the answer to every warplane designer's prayer. Ever since the first bomber took off over France some thirty years ago, engineers from all nations have sought the key which would combine speed, range, bomb load, firepower, crew comfort, and operation versatility in a single airframe. To this observer the outside Superfortress appears to have all of these attributes plus a few new ones peculiar to itself. Certainly this plane, which has been three years aborning, will more than meet the Army's original specifications even if against a different foe than Boeing executives originally expected.
That the Boeing B-29 is truly a Super-fortress is apparent in a comparison between dimensions of this plane and its once-tremendous progenitor, the B-17 Flying Fortress. For example, the B-29 has a wing span of 141' 3", while the latest B-17 carries a wing measuring 103' 10" from tip to tip. The Superfortress measures 98' 2" from its bluntly rounded nose to the neatly faired tail turret, while the Flying Fortress is 74' 9" above the runway and 8' 8" above the tail of the B-17. The B-29 is powered by four Wright Cyclone radials developing total output of 8,800 hp, in contrast to the 4,800 hp of the B-17.
There are, of course, many secrets of B-29 greatness which the enemy will learn the hard way. These cannot, and should not, be revealed at this time. But there are a few structural features which contribute to the plane's phenomenal speed, altitude, and range from which the enemy can draw no usable patterns for defense. For example, the wing which supports the B-29 has a higher loading, greater aspect ratio than that of any large plane in the skies. Known to engineers as the "Boeing 117 Section" this unique airfoil combines the best features of several newly developed wings in a pattern so clean and efficient that it can almost be compared with a standard racing plane foil. In takeoff and landing, when wing area must be greatest, the B-29 depends on the largest flaps ever installed on any warplane. Mounted almost shoulder high on the cigar-shaped fuselage, this spectacular wing holds the four extremely clean nacelles which, in turn, carry the dual wheels of the main landing gear. These wheels, like the dual nose wheel, used for the first time in Boeing's Superfortress, are fully retractable and in this feature alone stands at least, twenty per cent of the B-29's spectacular speed and climb.
Internally, the B-29 carries the marks of lessons learned by B-17 crews during the first thirty months of war. Originally, it was expected to require a crew somewhat larger than that of the B-17. But simplification of controls and turret operation has combined with realignment of crew duties to make a ten-man crew adequate for this thirty per cent bigger warplane. At a special table, the flight engineer watches all engine instruments and operates all engine switches. On the copilot's panel, landing gear indicators and similar gauges which he alone can handle are mounted quite simply. And the pilot has an instrument panel sans the engine accessories which have been turned over to the engineer. In this way, duplicity of controls and instruments have been eliminated with consequent economy of both crew confusion and gross weight. Otherwise, the crew is arranged in the manner of a B-17 Flying Fortress battle layout, with bombardier in the nose forward of the pilots, navigator and radio operators at tables aft of the pilots, waist gunners in the usual position, top and tail gunners in different but similar spots. What guns they fire, and how many, cannot be revealed but it is a fact that concentration of their firepower would have an explosive weight equal to the bomb load of some pre-war bombers.
That the Boeing Superfortress represents an entirely new approach to aerial warfare in keeping with its unequaled performance, is apparent in the fact that it will operate globally, with the recently activated Twentieth Air Force directing its operations not from one present or potential war zone but from headquarters in Washington, DC. In this manner, every one of the eleven Air Force commanders will have this superb weapon available when and where it can most effectively blast the enemy. This world-wide assignment for the Superfortress is a far cry from the time, three years ago, when it first took shape on the drawing board as the one plane which could fly from Mitchel Field to Tempelhof with a load of bombs, or shuttle back and forth between our coasts to defend America after the fall of Britain. But Britain did not fall and the plane which might have been a defensive fort has become a global artillery piece.
American bombers of the future will, without doubt, outclass the B-29 Superfortress which now stands as the ultimate in a Boeing line which began in World War I. But for the time being, the B-29 must be rated as the first plane in the world and the first plane ever to combine the speed of a fighter, the load-carrying capacity of a flying boat, the fire power of an attack plane, and the range of a patrol plane.
Some readers may feel that the Northrop P-61 and Boeing B-29 are so far apart in size, in assignments, and in design that they can hardly be described in the same article. And it is true that the P-61 has been designed for a specific purpose, while versatility has been the goal in the B-29. But in all other aspects the two planes recently released have a great deal in common. Both were made possible, first of all, by development of radial engines yielding more than 2,000 hp. Neither would have been possible with the engines available to American plane manufacturers when this war began. They are, at the same time both distinguished by phenomenal concentration and flexibility of firepower, using turrets which differ in size and intent but not in principle. And the Black Widow and Superfortress are offensive weapons, the tools of liberation which will fight hand-in-glove during the last round of this global war.
In external design, they also bear some points for comparison. Both ships are fitted with single, shoulder-height wings, have tricycle landing gear, oversize empennage surfaces for unusual stability in all kinds of weather. There the similarities stop. The Black Widow carries a crew of three, with pilot, radio operator and gunner all housed in the long center nacelles which approximate the lines of the B-29 fuselage. A pair of Pratt & Whitney radials developing 2,000 hp or more, are contained in the forward section of the unusually thick booms extending to the twin tail. Like the B-29, the Widow from Hawthorne, California, is a gargantua in its class.
Information on Black Widow performance cannot be published at this time, but it has a wide range of speeds.
This article was originally published in the August, 1944, issue of Air News magazine, vol 7, no 2, pp 18-20.
The original article has a page of 6 photos of the B-29, 1 photo of the P-61, and drawings of each plane.
Photos credited to Boeing, AAF, Acme; drawings by Air News.