The scientific tourist #305 — Legal Eagle II

Here’s Legal Eagle II, a B-29 “Superfortress” bomber on display at the South Dakota Air and Space Museum in Box Elder, South Dakota:

Boeing B-29 "Superfortress"

The B-29 was one of the largest aircraft of the second world war — with a wingspan of more than 141 feet, and gross weight of 105,000 pounds (the heaviest production aircraft in the world at the time).  It’s tail was (as the manufacturer liked to remind people) as tall as a three-story house.

But while the B-29 saw most of its action late in the war, it’s history traces back to 1938.  As WWII was just starting to flare up in Europe, the U.S. Army Air Forces grew concerned about the potential need for a heavy bomber with much greater capabilities than the B-17 Flying Fortress could provide.  Starting as a derivative of the B-17, the B-29 soon became a very different beast entirely, and a major departure from typical bomber designs of the time.  

To help give it extra range, the B-29 would fly high — high enough to require pressurized crew compartments (at the front and rear of the craft, connected by a long tunnel).  Since the gun turrets could not be pressurized, they were remotely controlled from periscope-equipped crew stations.  Analog computers were used to increase the guns’ accuracy, accounting for airspeed, gravity, temperature, and humidity.  The B-29’s fuel tanks were self-sealing to increase the craft’s durability in the event of damage.

Given the aircraft’s advanced systems, and the pressure put on production of the type, it’s no surprise that the aircraft had “teething” problems in its early days.  Changes to the design came so frequently that special modification depots were set up to update B-29s as soon as they came off the production lines.  Some problems (namely, engine durability and safety) were not solved until after the end of WWII.

Although originally desired for combat in Europe, the B-29 was primarily used in the Pacific theater during World War II.  Nearly 4,000 were built between 1943 and 1946 — and some bombing raids on Tokyo used as many as 1,000 B-29s at a time.  Two B-29s in particular — Enola Gay and Bockscar — were adapted to carry early atomic bombs and dropped the only two such devices yet used in war.  After World War II, the B-29 saw military service again in Korea between 1950 and 1953, but it was no match for even the early jet fighters, and so was soon retired from front line service.  The last B-29 in active duty was retired in 1960.

The Legal Eagle II, above, is a late variant B-29.  It was rescued from use as a bombing target in the 1980s and restored in the 1990s.

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