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Designed in 1940 as an eventual replacement for the B-17 and B-24, the first B-29 Superfortress made its maiden flight on Sep. 21, 1942. In December 1943 US Army Air Forces leadership committed the Superfortress to Asia, where its great range made it particularly suited for the long over-water flights against the Japanese homeland from bases in China.
B-29 Superffortress bombers carried up to 20,000 pounds of bombs and eight .50-cal. machine guns in remote controlled turrets, two .50-cal. machine guns and one 20mm cannon in a tail turret.
How effective were the remote turrets on the B-29 Superfortress compared to the manned turrets of older bombers in protecting the aircraft from enemy fighters?
“There were scores of defects (with the B-29) – either readily apparent – or worse- appearing when an aircraft was actually at work and at altitude.”
‘Because of disappointing results garnered from high-altitude B-29 bombing using high-explosive ordnance, LeMay decided to switch to low-altitude incendiary missions…
‘In reality its remote turrets, although Way! Cool! were a terrible system, too complicated and easily damaged/thrown out of balance, that simply didn’t work. It was so complex, so crammed full of so many advanced systems, all at the cutting edge of technology and all at the same time, that very few things in it ever worked perfectly….and it was so complex that it needed to work perfectly. It was brought to production and then combat way too fast and even Curtis Le May called it: “technological immaturity.”
‘B-29 Superfortress controlled turrets were amazing, “Star Wars”, incredible futuristic technology…but it was lot of myth, just like the Norden Bombsight that could “Drop a bomb down a pickle barrel from 40,000 Feet!” All American folks read from 1943 till recently about the B-29 is happy, cheerful, positive things: “Greatest Plane that Ever Flew…and Ain’t She Pretty!”…and that’s because as far back as early 1943, the Air Force *knew* the B-29 was going to be a lemon and started an official PR campaign to push and promote this aircraft, as it was THE most expensive project of the entire war, costing $1 Billion MORE than the Manhattan Project, as the greatest thing since Sliced Bread…because if it wasn’t…
‘It often failed to keep Japanese fighters at bay and was absolutely plagued with mechanical and technical glitches and problems the often poorly trained crew members simply couldn’t fix.
‘Ultimately almost the entire complex defensive system was so unsatisfactory, so full of bugs and problems that it was removed from ALL B-29s by February 1945 (bar the tail turret’s .50’s), six months BEFORE the end if the war, and the subsequent B-29B was built WITHOUT any gun turrets at all.
‘The gun system was incredibly overelaborate and heavily maintenance-reliant, a poor system for day-to-day combat, that demands simplicity or at least well-thought out, well-developed systems, not intricate machines whipped up out of some designer’s butt way too quickly.
‘And the fact that the gunsight was developed separately in Four-Different-Noncommunicating-Company’s workshops and then cobbled together into one machine didn’t give crews much confidence.
‘Very cool, very expensive, very intricate and very accurate…when it worked. Most often it didn’t. As it turned out the Air Force, realizing it had a lemon on its hands and not wanting to cause either a panic or a scandal, started getting rid of the B-29′s gun turrets gradually and started by simply removing the four-gun top turret, officially “for extra speed and fuel savings.” Very likely…and because it never worked.
‘A big part of the problem was the maintenance crews…they had never even heard of the advanced computers ’n gyros ’n stuff in this gun system let alone seen them, and even though trained to fix them, like every other aspect of the B-29, it was rushed.
‘These young 19-year-old, gum-chewin’, ball cap wearin’ mechanics had major trouble synchronizing the guns, which they constantly needed. Just training the flight crews to fly this monster was a huge undertaking and headache, and in that aspect alone the B-29 fell way behind in schedule for combat readiness: the training just the pilots and crews had to be held back for many months by Le May.’
‘The four frontal guns – doubled from 2 to 4 to prevent frontal attacks -had very poor ballistics as a compromise for streamlining, leaving a 4-gun turret where it was ballistically impossible to hit a target with more than two guns…with a large blind spot to head on attack. They were often quickly removed “for less weight and drag.”
‘The 200lb CFC computers suffered from terrible build quality and rarely ever worked as advertised – a common glitch was for the turret to slew 20 degrees and then wildly spray out its entire ammunition, all 1,000 rds, in that direction.
‘This fault – caused by bad wiring design and occasionally bad wiring harnesses, – was only tracked down and fixed in Jan. 1945…when the B-29 had been in action for seven freakin’ months.
‘A late-but Way! Cool! B-29 gun-upgrade enabled the gunners to set the turrets to track “motion” – Way Cool, huh? In theory…until in raids over Japan, fighting for their lives, when they tried it out, 17 B-29s had their bomb-bays absolutely shredded with armor-piercing .50 caliber bullets during the bomb run – the “motion” of opening their bomb doors had triggered other bombers in their formation’s automatic turret fire.
‘The B-29’s gun turrets, amazing as they were over the other bomber’s plain old .50s were impossible to access in flight in the sealed and pressurized fuselage of the B-29– so any malfunction at all to the intricate computer, set off by even the slightest jar on the way-too-sensitive system (and Browning M2 .50 caliber machine guns tend to jar just a bit in firing,) to jam the guns and could NOT be repaired/reset in the air like the gunners on a B-17 or B-24 could.
‘The impressive tail turret – fitted with an additional impressive with 20mm cannon – was hampered by a not-impressive ballistic design so the two .50 machine guns and the 20mm cannon could NOT hit the same target, and the incredible radar guiding the tail 20mm cannon was also incredibly intricate…and never really functioned well in combat.
‘(Eventually, like the four-gun top turret, the tail cannon & radar were completely removed, and only the twin .50 cals, like other US bombers, was remained.)’
‘It’s “analog fire control computer” was too advanced, with too many brand new technological advances, too many new systems, hurried into production along too quickly, with too little training for the maintenance crews, too little training for the gunners, and too many ways it could go wrong…it was so bug-riddled that the Air Force, seeing they simply didn’t work, simply took them off the aircraft and “saved face” (not to mention a Congressional Investigation,) by claiming, “Hey! We took ’em off for Less Drag and More Speed!”
‘It was used for a relatively few short months, was sneakily removed, bit by bit, from the B-29s…and then the entire expensive gun sighting system was unceremoniously and ignominiously junked, never to be used ever again.
‘Curtis Le May was right: “technological immaturity,” and he also said the B-29 “was the buggiest damn airplane that ever came down the pike.”’
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
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