Learning Resource

How did the B-29 Superfortress become the most advanced bomber of the Second World War?

About this resource

This teaching resource explores the history and development of the B-29 Superfortress bomber in the Second World War to look at different aspects of STEM for Key stages 3-4, through asking questions to encourage student enquiry. Accompanying downloadable teacher notes are available providing further information and ideas linking to the National Curriculum for Science, Maths and Design & Technology.

What plane preceded the B-29?

B-17 Flying Fortress

The B-17 was developed by the USAAC (United States Army Air Corps) for strategic bombing in the Second World War against German industrial and military targets. Before the start of the war no-one knew the exact nature of aerial warfare and the conditions in which the B-17 would operate. The initial B-17 designs were based on assumptions of aerial warfare rather than actual experience.

© IWM (FRE 14905)

For full interactivity please use your desktop computer.

What did the B-29 need to do that the B-17 could not?

Throughout the Second World War the nature of warfare was changing. Aviation technology needed to advance to meet these changes.

Why did planes need to fly further?
The B-17 had been designed to fly across Europe with a maximum range of 2,000 miles (return trip), but now planes needed 5-9 to reach Japanese targets. Initially air bases were built in China to try and reduce the ranges required but this brought with it very significant supply problems. Large amounts of fuel was needed to be transported to supply the planes. © IWM (FRE 11933)
Why did planes need to be able to carry more weight?
Carrying more weight meant a better return for each journey, more bombs could be transported for the amount of fuel and aircrew needed. However more fuel was required to travel the greater distances required in the Second World War which added to the weight. The optimum balance between weight and payload was always a critical calculation when planning an operation. © IWM (FRE 11510)
What was the benefit of flying at higher altitudes?
Planes flew at higher altitudes to escape enemy aircraft. 'Japanese planes didn't climb well at high altitudes and were slower because of the lack of oxygen. They could only intercept B-29s if they had enough advance warning to be able to get into place and dive on them. Flying at a higher altitude also meant less air resistance reducing fuel consumption. © IWM (FRE 011913)
The effects of flying at high altitudes on aircrew

Listen to the story of Francis Chinard a US Army Air Forces doctor, who trained pilots and crew in the UK about the effects of flying at high altitudes on the body. 

How was the B-29 designed to fly further, higher and carry more weight?

The B-29 was created to meet the practical requirements of aerial warfare, designed in response to known issues, based on experience.
© IWM (FRE 11935)

For full interactivity please use your desktop computer.

What new problems were faced when developing the B-29?

What problems could result from enemy fire at high altitude?
If the pressurised crew areas were damaged the temperature immediately dropped to minus 30 degrees. If crew were not strapped in, they could be sucked out of any hole in the body of the plane like Sergeant Krantz in this photo. He survived the ordeal, pulled back in by his straps. © IWM (FRE 11954)
What changes were needed to create the lift needed for take-off?
Due to the narrower wing and increased weight, the B-29 needed a longer runway to help generate the lift needed for take-off. Fowler Flaps increased the wing area to create the extra lift required. © IWM (FRE 11926)
How did making the B-29 impact aeroplane production?
New aircraft plants were built to manufacture the B29. In a first for aviation production, component parts were made by subcontractors in different places before being brought together to be assembled. © IWM (HU 037603)
360 film inside the cockpit of a B-29
Explore the inside of the B-29 cockpit by clicking and dragging to look around.

What has been the legacy of the B-29?

Atomic Bomb
The B29 was the only aircraft capable of dropping an atomic bomb from such a height and be able to get away safely. Two B29s carried the atomic bombs which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, killing thousands and leaving long lasting effects of radiation. © IWM (MH 29436)
Pressurised air travel
Developments in aviation technology during the Second World War had a big impact on the possibility of air travel for civilians. Large pressurised cabins have meant that long-distance passenger travel' is possible, keeping passengers safe and warm. © IWM (FRE MH 22884)
Cold War
The end of the Second World War signalled the start of the atomic age. The United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France raced to develop their own nuclear weapons. These countries adopted a policy of nuclear deterrence, using the threat of massive retaliation to prevent nuclear attack by an enemy. © IWM (MH 6809)