On this day in 1942, at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, a large, funny-looking airplane took to the skies for the first time as part of an operational test conducted by the Boeing aircraft company. The plane was a long-range heavy bomber, similar to the B-17 but pressurized and capable of a much longer reach. This aircraft became known as the B-29, the “Superfortress,” and has every right to be called the single most fearsome weapon ever designed in the history of warfare.
I know that’s a bold statement. I mean, how do you define the “fearsomeness” of a weapon? Surely the Kalashnikov AK-47, the most popular firearm in the world, has killed many more people than this lumbering thing. But it’s not that the B-29 doesn’t have a substantial body count of its own. A fleet of these aircraft incinerated Tokyo in March 1945, killing more than 100,000 people, and just two B-29s were responsible, on two fateful mornings in August 1945, for wiping out over 120,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I believe it would have to be both the inexorability and the deadly beauty of the B-29 that gives it its truly sinister, but fascinating, appeal. As planes go it’s pretty good-looking, very sleek, trim and symmetrical, so long as you’re on the side that’s using it. To the people of Japan in 1944 and 1945 (B-29s were never used in the European theater), they must have been utterly terrifying. Imagine what it would have been like to be going about your business one day, and you look up and see not one, or two, but a whole fleet of these giant, unstoppable planes headed toward you, with no real hope of stopping them in any great numbers, and essentially no defense against the fire they had come to rain down upon you. To say this would have ruined your day is an understatement.
The cockpit of the B-29 is very distinctive with its “spider web” window strut design.
Although developed for long-range bombing of Japan, B-29s were used in other contexts as well. A limited number of the aircraft found their way into the British and Australian air forces after World War II. B-29s were used in the Korean War, 1950-53, though more for reconnaissance than bombing–North Korea had few “hard” targets. Eventually they were replaced by the heavier, jet-propelled B-36, and eventually the B-52, which is still in use today.
Despite its reputation as a weapon, B-29s have also been used for peaceful purposes. Extensive airlifts of food and medical supplies were done with B-29s at the end of World War II and in other places. It was a B-29 that launched the Bell X-1, the rocket-propelled experimental plane piloted by Chuck Yaeger that broke the sound barrier in October 1947.
Sadly, only a handful of these magnificent planes have survived into the modern era. Almost all are in museums, most having been restored, or in the lengthy and expensive process of being restored. Shockingly, there is only one–yes, one–B-29 in the entire world that is capable of flying. It’s called Fifi and owned by the Commemorative Air Force. When Fifi is permanently grounded, as surely she must someday be, the characteristic terrifying drone of the engines of the B-29 will never again be heard on Earth.