"Eddie Allen and the B-29" — An Excerpt from The Global Twentieth, by Bob Robbins
A special supplement to AVweb's profile of Bob Robbins.
The Twentieth Air Force and the B-29s it used to bomb Japan shortened the war by months, perhaps years, and saved, it has been estimated, a million or more U. S. casualties by ending the war before a planned invasion of the heavily defended Japanese homeland was undertaken — an invasion that was scheduled to begin November 1, 1945, less than three months after Japan capitulated. That invasion would undoubtedly have taken place had the B-29 program been delayed or had it and the bombing of Japan not been pushed as fast as humanly possible in spite of the cost in lives and the very difficult odds, choices and problems that were encountered.
Throughout the chronicle that follows, I believe that you will be struck by the number of close calls that the B-29 program itself had — events that could have very easily terminated or mortally compromised the program or the capabilities of the B-29 airplane had it not been for the outstanding courage, foresight and abilities of a relatively few people — both military and civilian. Two of the very tough choices they made were to put the B-29 into production even before the engineering was completed and to commit them to combat before developmental testing could get them more fully debugged.
This story about the early development of the XB-29 and particularly about a very important man to that early development — the famous experimental test pilot and Boeing Director of Flight and Research, Edmund T. Allen, who lost his life trying to make the B-29 combat ready as quickly as possible. Without Eddie Allen the B-29 program might never have succeeded. B-29 (42-24579) THE EDDIE ALLEN, flown by the 40th Bomb Group was named posthumously in honor of Eddie.
The unsurpassed excellence and ability that Eddie Allen applied to helping make the B-29 into the awesome giant that it became can best be appreciated by a look at Eddie's aeronautical career.
Before we entered World War I, Eddie Allen worked for three years after his father died to support his family. He then finished one year at the University of Illinois. In 1917 we entered World War I when he was 21. Eddie enlisted in the Army, learned to fly, became a flight instructor and taught advanced aerobatics. He was sent to the British flight test center in England to learn British aircraft flight testing techniques. Before the armistice in November, 1918 he returned to the Army's flight test center at McCook Field to apply his flight experience and overseas observations. After the armistice he became the first test pilot for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics — forerunner of today's NASA. In 1919 he returned to the University of Illinois for a year, studied aeronautical engineering for two years at M.I.T. and topped that off by entering glider competitions in England and France in a glider he built while at MIT. From 1923 to 1925 he did freelance test piloting and became a civilian test pilot at McCook Field. From July 1925 to mid-1927 Eddie flew rebuilt WW I DeHavilands as an airmail pilot for the Post Office Department over the treacherous Rocky Mountain routes between Cheyenne and Salt Lake City — sometimes under extremely adverse conditions. Starting on September 1, 1927 when the Post Office Department got out of the flying business, Eddie joined Boeing Air Transport flying Boeing 40-As as an airmail pilot on their new Chicago to San Francisco run. Over the next five years Eddie began to do more and more test flying — particularly for Boeing Airplane Co., an affiliate of the Boeing Air Transport which later became United Air Lines.
By 1932 Eddie Allen was a recognized, established, highly respected, independent test pilot and consulting aeronautical engineer. In the years that followed his accomplishments became legendary — from landing a Northrup Beta with jammed aileron controls out of a barrel roll to developing the first ever effective cruise control techniques based on some 200 hours of flight testing on the DC-2 to being a widely published author — mostly on test flying but a hew just plain old good flying stories — but all with a serious message. He worked for most if not all of the major aircraft manufacturers at one time or another and for Eastern Airlines and Pan American Airways.
For at least some insurance companies, Eddie Allen's blessing on a new aircraft was a prerequisite to them insuring it. If Eddie was to make the first flight and do the initial testing on a new design, the insurance premiums would be substantially lower — and the manufacturer could have great confidence that his creation would come back in one piece. Over the years Eddie made initial flights on over 30 different new models of aircraft. These included the Boeing Model 83 in 1928, the forerunner of the famous F4Bs and P-12s; the Douglas DC-2 in 1934; the Sikorsky S43 in 1936; the Boeing XB-15 in 1937; the Boeing B-17B, C, D, E, and F from 1939 to 1942' the Boeing XPBB-1 and XB-29 in 1942; and the Lockheed Model 049 Constellation on January 9, 1943, just 39 days before his death in the number 2 XB-29 crash. That Eddie Allen should be taken by the Air Corps from his vital job at Boeing to make the first flight of the Lockheed Constellation is a further testimonial to the high esteem with which he was regarded.
Between December 31, 1938 and January 20, 1939 Eddie Allen, still as a freelance test pilot, test flew the Boeing 307 33-passenger Stratoliner. Two months later on March 18, 1939 on its 19th test flight the 307 crashed killing all on board. Boeing Chief Test Pilot Julius Barr was in the pilot's seat. An engineer for a prospective airline customer was in the copilot's seat. That engineer had been pressing Boeing hard to find out what would happen if the airplane were stalled with the #1 and #2 engines throttled and the #3 and #4 engines at takeoff power. Boeing refused to demonstrate such a dangerous, unrealistic condition but did agree to approach the condition cautiously. One can only speculate as to just what went on in the cockpit and what really caused the stall, spin, partial recovery, airplane breakup and crash that occurred. Eddie returned to Seattle to testify at the April 3, 1939 CAA Air Safety Board hearing on the crash. He was there as an expert witness, a highly respected test pilot and the man who had made the first 15 of the test flights prior to the accident.
While in Seattle for the CAA hearings, Eddie had a conversation with Bob Minshall, Boeing Vice President and General Manager. Eddie told Minshall that calling in a test pilot to fly a new design after the airplane was built was no longer a proper approach. Eddie felt that the real need in the aviation community was for exhaustive aeronautical research — both on the ground in laboratories and wind tunnels and in flight with sophisticated instrumentation and equipment and specialized flight crews. Ground and flight research needed to be carefully coordinated to compliment each other. The results should be combined with the expertise of the specialized flight crews and engineering test pilots and be applied during the design of any new airplane. Eddie felt that Boeing was in a unique position to do it. Boeing has the big airplanes needed to carry all the instrumentation, equipment and specialized flight crews. It had the need — its real future was in big airplanes where it already had an enviable background. Minshall liked the concept and so did Claire Egtvedt, Boeing's President.
The grim reality of the recent Stratoliner accident added emphasis to Eddie's ideas. On April 26, 1939 Edmund T. Allen became Boeing's first and only Director of Aerodynamics and Flight Research — a position which he held for almost four critical years. It was a fortunate, far reaching event for Boeing and our country. The timing was fortuitous. His beneficial impact on the B-17, B-29 and even today's jet fleets would ultimately touch the lives of literally millions of people — most of whom never knew his name or realized his contributions. This is no exaggeration when one considers the huge B-17 fleets that bombed Germany and the massive B-29 raids on Japan and the lives that were saved and touched by their parts in bringing WWII to an earlier end. Modern worldwide aerodynamic and flight research which is such a vital part of today's multifaceted aerospace industries, including modern commercial jet transports, have their roots in and evolve from the ideas that Eddie Allen brought to Boeing in April 1939 and implemented shortly thereafter.
Pan Am B-314
In late 1938 Boeing has started thinking about a superbomber — an airplane for which, at that time, there was no established military requirement and no money — also, an airplane which no one knew how to build. The Army's Oliver Echols and Bob Olds talked about an airplane with a 5,000 mile range capable of hitting and enemy aircraft carrier when it was still at least two days offshore. The B-17 could strike a carrier that was only one day out — too close for comfort. The key to a successful superbomber would be to get the drag way down. Many preliminary design studies were run on numerous configurations including such ideas as new flat liquid cooled engines buried in the wing. Some were tempting but none would really make a good airplane — so the studies were continued in an attempt to find an idea the would give the needed breakthrough.
Support for a superbomber spread rapidly. On February 5, 1940 Boeing was one of several aircraft manufacturers to receive from the Army an invitation to bid on a high altitude, high speed bombardment airplane with a requirement for a 5,333 mile range with a 2,000 pound bomb load. A month later Boeing proposed the Model 341 with a gross weight of 85,000 pounds to meet the requirement. Four 2,000 horsepower Pratt and Whitney engines would be used. The wing loading would be a whopping 64 pounds per square foot — double what had previously been considered acceptable by the experts. Eddie Allen had convinced the doubters that with a very big, properly designed wing flap they could get away with it. The fact that Eddie's aerodynamics group would have to develop the flap, that Eddie would fly the airplane and that he was confident of success won the day. In addition, extreme measures would be required to further reduce drag as much as possible. Among the many other things flush rivets and butt joints would be required and that would add to the manufacturing problems. But confidence was high that the 341 would be a good airplane.
Several agonizing weeks passed with no word on the superbomber competition. The Air Corps announced that none of the proposals were acceptable. The requirements had changed as a result of lessons being learned in Europe. The superbomber must have more armament, powered gun turrets, armor plate, self sealing fuel tanks, higher cabin pressures, a 16,000 pound bomb load capability for shorter flights — and no decrease in performance! A revised proposal was required in 30 days. Back to the drawing board!
The Boeing Model 341 became the Model 345. The gross weight went from 85,000 pounds to 112,000 pounds (and later to a maximum overload design gross weight of 120,000 pounds). The wing span increased from 124 feet to 141 feet. More power was required and the new 2,200 horsepower Wright R-3350 engines would have to be used instead of the 2,000 horsepower Pratt and Whitney. The 2,200 horsepower Wright was an undeveloped engine and there were serious reservations about whether it would be a good engine. Boeing was very uncomfortable about the Model 345 — about being pushed too far into unexplored areas. To make things even worse, there was now serious talk about ordering large production quantities before an experimental prototype could be built. The risks were becoming very high. Boeing came very close to proposing a smaller airplane with which they would be more comfortable but which would not be what the Air Corps said was required. On the other hand, the war was spreading rapidly in Europe and threatened to spread much further. The expanded superbomber requirements of the Air Corps might very well prove necessary even thought the technological risks were very high. After careful soul searching with the war in mind, Boeing uncharacteristically decided to submit the Model 345 configuration with a string determination to do everything possible to make it successful. The Model 345 proposal was submitted on May 11, 1940. Within weeks the Air Corps told Boeing they were issuing a contract for engineering, wind tunnel and a mock-up of the Model 345 which would be the B-29. Furthermore, production contracts for perhaps 200 B-29s would be let long before an experimental prototype could be flown. Clearly the Air Corps has joined Boeing in a desperate gamble on the success of the Model 345 design. After Paris fell in June 14, 1940 Congress was asked for money for 990 B-29s. The ante had just been raised!
On September 6, 1940 a formal contract for two XB-29s was released. Engineering studies which had started with only a few people in late 1938 had now grown into a full scale production design effort which would require 1,433,026 engineering manhours before the first XB-29 would fly. Eddie Allen and George Shairer were kept busy with literally hundreds of wind tunnel and flight research investigations to everlastingly reduce drag and to geed the design project the necessary aerodynamic and flight test data to permit the design to move forward as rapidly as possible. A PT-19 experimental wing flight test program and three specially configured B-17s conducted flight tests of many different configurations of developmental items for the B-29 such as propellers, cowling, turbo superchargers, empennage, rudder, elevators, ailerons and flaps. These tests helped to find the best configurations and to optimize such things as control forces and control balance and to reduce the technical risks.
Additional growth during the B-29 design phase increased the design maximum overload gross weight to 120,000 pounds and the corresponding wing loading to 69 pounds per square foot.
There were to be two more serious "wing loading crises" long before the XB-29 ever got off the ground. The first was when a new Air Corps "Plane X" with only a 53 pound per square foot wing loading was a "dog" to fly and in addition would not get above 28,000 feet. The Air Corps intently questioned Boeing about the wing loading on the B-29. The second and even more serious crisis was when a respected aircraft manufacturer's engineers reviewed Boeing data and told the Air Corps that Boeing was very wrong in its predicted B-29 performance. They said that the B-29 would be 40 mph slower, would have a 5,000 foot lower ceiling and would have 1,000 miles less range that Boeing had predicted. In the face of such criticism, it took real courage and confidence on the part of Boeing and Air Corps principals involved not to increase the B-29 wing area to substantially reduce the wing loading from the planned 69 pounds per square foot — a step which Boeing firmly maintained would be catastrophic for performance and, by then, to production schedules. Again it was Eddie Allen's and George Shairer's work that was being challenged and who needed to defend their positions of the really had confidence in the predictions. The price for being wrong either way would have been catastrophic to the B-29 successes of the Twentieth Air Force. They had the courage of their convictions and commanded sufficient respect to convince their inquisitors that they were right and to continue the rapidly expanding B-29 program without change. Again a catastrophe was averted. It is interesting to note that in combat the B-29s were frequently successfully flown at 140,000 pounds per square foot!
While the many B-29 problems were being addressed, Eddie Allen had had another extremely important task to accomplish. That was to build the kind of flight research operation that he had outlined to Bob Minshall in his office in early April 1939. At that time no one realized how crucial it would be to the all out war effort that was to come.
In the following years Eddie built a sophisticated Boeing flight research capability that was second to none. His basic purpose was to safely, economically and quickly obtain and disseminate accurate, quantitative flight test data. This would help find, develop and prove the best possible configurations from the perhaps hundreds of candidates. The data would be used to determine the safety of the article being tested, the degree to which it met its guarantees and requirements, its adequacy for the purpose intended, areas needing improvement, ways of improving the existing article or making the next design as good as possible, and finally, the best way of operating the equipment in service. To accomplish these goals he hired the best people he could get with as close to the qualifications he wanted and trained and developed them into the skillfully expert team that was required to accomplish his vision. Most of the flight crew members and a high percent of the flight test department ground personnel were engineers. Each had weeks of formal, structured classroom training tailored to specific assignments. There was "hands on" training in the altitude chamber and in the appropriate airplanes with test and safety equipment. There was periodic recurring training as necessary to maintain the highest possible skill level to minimize personnel risks and to obtain high quality data.
[It should be noted here in passing that there were three completely separate flight test groups at Boeing with entirely difference people reporting through different organizational lines. One was Production Flight Test which was responsible for flying every new production airplane to make sure there were no manufacturing or quality control problems and to make any necessary adjustments before turning the airplane over to the customer for acceptance. Another was the customer flight acceptance group. In the case of B-17s and B-29s they were Air Corps officers who flew and accepted the airplanes for the Army. The third was the Research Flight Test Department which was Eddie Allen's creation and is referred throughout this discussion. It conducted engineering, experimental and research flight testing. In the purest sense those were really three different kinds of flight testing what were all conducted in Eddie Allen's department. For the most part all three were done by the same people using the same methods although it was recognized that certain tests in any of the categories might potentially require specialized or exceptional skills and this warrant selective picking of specific flight crew members. First flights on new models of airplanes fell in this category. Because of the similarities in methods and crews and the fact that some flights might involve engineering, experimental and research testing, the three terms are often used interchangeable with something less than precise regard for the differences.]
Eddie Allen's Flight research Department was under Al Reed, Chief of Flight Test and Chief Test Pilot. It was organized into functional groups such as: pilots and copilots; the other specialized flight crew members, for the most part flight test engineers; the instrumentation group who was responsible for obtaining or designing and making, calibrating, installing, servicing and maintaining the vast amounts of standard and specialized instrumentation and photographic equipment required to measure and record the many variables that needed to be measured; the analysis group who transcribed, corrected with calibration data, plotted or tabulated the corrected data, analyzed the results and prepared the final reports for distribution; the liaison group who worked with the mechanics and shops to make sure that the airplane configuration and instrumentation were in accordance with requirements established by the Project Flight Test Engineer in charge of each test airplane' a flight equipment group to service, store and maintain items such as parachutes, oxygen masks, bailout and walk-around oxygen bottles, etc.: and an administrative support group.
Prior to each flight the airplane was prepared to conform with the very specific written test and configuration requirements. A very detailed, specific Plan of Test setting forth each test condition was prepared for each test flight, given to each of some 10 flight crew members and then gone over in detail in the pre-flight conference so everyone knew exactly what to expect and what was expected of him in flight.
During normal flight the basic flight crew performed their duties in the conventional manner. During the flight test phases the Project Flight Test Engineer would be slightly aft of and between the pilot and copilot to provide the best possible communication and awareness between those three people and, in the case of the B-29, the flight engineer as well. A normal flight test crew on B-17s and B-29s consisted of about 10 people. The additional people manned the special instrumentation and equipment involved in the test. All had interphone contact. A typical instrumentation load might include two photorecorders with 40 or 50 instruments and a camera in each; two or three manometer boards to record 40 or 50 pressures; one or two potentiometers to record 50 to 100 temperatures; a Brown recorder that could be selectively set for continuous recording of any one of many different potentially critical temperatures; and perhaps an oscillograph to record strain gage or vibration data on structural demonstration or flutter flight tests. Large bundles of wires or tubing connected each instrument with the appropriate transmitters on propellers, engines, nacelles, wings, control surfaces, etc. Manual and photographic recording of the data was routine. Frequency of recording depended upon the requirements of the test condition that was set up. For instance, automatic recording once a second for perhaps three minutes during a stabilized performance condition was common — and produced a lot of performance and cooling data to be analyzed. The Project Flight Test Engineer coordinated the activities of the entire crew, kept a master log of events and set the appropriate recording frequency of all cameras from his master control. At every recording station there was a coordination light and a coordination counter that clicked over once a second that provided precise coordination of all manual and photographic data from before takeoff to after landing. Typically one pilot would concentrate entirely on flying the airplane to precisely stabilize and maintain the planned flight condition. The other pilot would set up the engine power, set cowl or wing flap positions, maybe operate special equipment such as an engine water injection system and monitor everything going on inside and outside the airplane to be able to anticipate and react immediately to cope with any emergency. In the XB-29 the flight engineer helped with particularly the powerplant related tasks.
Immediately after every flight there was a highly structured but pretty informal post-flight conference that was recorded verbatim in its entirety by a court type stenotypist. The conference was attended by the entire flight crew and any key ground personnel who had a direct interest in the flight. These could include: design project and staff engineers who had requested specific test conditions and who might have to design the corrections or request additional tests based on problems encountered and the data obtained; technical and management representatives from outside suppliers whose components were being tested such as engines, propellers, carburetors, accessories, brakes, armament; flight test instrumentation engineers who wanted to know how their instrumentation worked and what they needed to do before the next flight; the data analysis supervisor whose people would have to take the vast amounts of manual and recorded data and sort out what should be processed' the shop foreman and quality control supervisor who wanted to know of any airplane problems and any special actions needed from them for the next flight; customer representatives, usually at least an Air Corps quality control supervisor; and for particularly important flights perhaps high level company and customer management. A post-flight conference might have as few as a dozen or as many as 40 or more people. It might last for only five minutes or as long as a couple of hours. The Project flight Test Engineer or perhaps the Project Test Pilot was chairman. The short items were usually disposed of first so most of the people could leave and get back to their work. The test conditions that were run were each reviewed using the Plan of Test as the agenda. Any unusual evens were noted. Any clarifying questions were asked and answered while circumstances were still clearly remembered. Plans for the next flight were tentatively made before the conference adjourned.
Before their day was over the stenotypists would have transcribed their verbatim recording of the post-flight conference so that it could be distributed the next morning to all those with a need to know. The Project Flight Test Engineer would make every effort to complete and distribute his "Report of Test" also on the following day. It was a written summary of the test flight conditions run along with his log sheet. The system was not allowed to get bogged down. Flight test data promptly got to those who needed it.
Eddie Allen said "Flight Testing is a Sound Business" and wrote a paper proving it. It is also an expensive business usually involving heavily instrumented airplanes that would he hard, expensive, and time consuming to replace. Sometimes they are one of a kind. With the highly organized, structured approach that Eddie developed, risks, costs, and time were minimized while results and accuracy were maximized.
Eddie's drive to make airplanes as safe as possible extended to the special needs of military aircraft. He and Boeing worked particularly hard to design and build combat damage tolerant aircraft. It allowed many B-17 and B-29 crews to get to safety in spite of extreme combat damage.
When Pearl Harbor hit on December 7, 1941, Eddie Allen had his organization set up as described. It was operating smoothly and he was in the process of expanding it. Including Eddie, there were only four pilots at that time doing engineering flight testing at Boeing. In early January 1942 I started working for Eddie along with six other new copilots and twice that many new flight engineers. We were moved quickly through school and the formal training program and acquired B-17 experience with the production acceptance crews. Most of our engineering flight test efforts in 1942 were spent trying to find out how to make crews safer and allow them to operate more efficiently while unpressurized at altitudes to and a little above 35,000 feet. Between April and the end of 1942 I flew a number of times with Eddie as his copilot on the B-17 and XPBB-1 twin engine flying boat.
When I first met Eddie in January 1942 I was surprised. Although I had no preconceived ideas, I did not expect the world renowned test pilot to be of so slight a build and so unassuming. He weighed about 145 pounds and was about 5'8" tall. In those moments he fit better my image of a naturally friendly, soft spoken, mild mannered midwestern farmer. It was hard then to visualize him skillfully controlling the sometimes huge, sometimes balky airplanes he had tested.
As I got to know Eddie better of the subsequent 14 months, I came to have very great respect, admiration and affections for him. I have never heard anyone say an unkind word about Eddie Allen. On the contrary, there have been many very complimentary words used to describe Eddie. The include: calm, competent, skillful, precise, earnest, ingenious, courageous, intensely curious, dedicated, sincere, pleasant, congenial, gentlemanly, retiring, friendly, unassuming, generous — and the list goes on — and I'll bet there is at least one story or act of Eddie's to fit each word. No wonder his people were so dedicated to him. In spite of his great personal ability, he let me, his copilot, do most of the flying when I was with him. He was a kind but precise teacher. I learned a lot from him in flight and on the ground. He made me feel that he had great faith in me. I believe he was the same with most of us. It made one determined to do everything possible to justify that faith and confidence. Although he ran a tight ship with highly structured procedures, I don't ever remember feeling resentment or rebellion against the discipline — perhaps because it seemed so right, so logical, so proper. He was a great team leader and a tremendous inspiration to us.
Eddie was a conservative test pilot — not prone to take chances. He understood his limitations and those of the equipment he was testing. He did not like the then common Hollywood depiction of a test pilot as a brash, wild, flamboyant daredevil. He felt keenly responsible for protecting the huge investment that an experimental airplane and its crew represented. He said that he was afraid to take risks! He felt that fear is healthy, whereas panic is debilitating. He stayed cool under pressure.
This, then was the man and the organization he had built which was to begin testing of the first XB-29 in September 1942.
There had been many tough decisions made and significant risks taken in the short three years since the Model 341 concept had sparked real hope for a superbomber. It was only two very compressed years since the contract for two XB-29s had been signed. Now, after investing more than 1,400,000 engineering manhours in the XB-29, flight testing was bout to begin: flight testing which would prove whether Eddie Allen and George Shairer had been right in their many decisions including defending a 69 pound per square foot wing loading; whether the Air Corps had been right in building two new plants, in starting B-29 production by Boeing, Bell, and Martin in four plants in Wichita, Renton , Marietta, and Omaha, and in already ordering 764 B-29s before the first XB-29 ever flew; and whether the thousands of other decisions that had been made were right.
Everyone had been under tremendous pressures and time had now allowed as much pre-flight development testing as most would have liked. For instance, the engines which Eddie was about to fly with had been cleared for only 35 hours! The need for flight test answers was enormous.
The pressure was really on Eddie Allen and still he "kept his cool" in spite of it all. Eddie estimated that with an all out effort it should take five months and 200 flying hours to do a reasonable job of shaking down the XB-29, determining its capabilities and getting the minimum performance and operating the data the Air Corps needed to start training and place the forthcoming production airplanes in service.
Taxi tests and a couple of very short hops were made by Eddie on the relatively short 5,200 foot runway at Boeing Field in Seattle in the first part of September 1942. Although there were some system problems, Eddie felt that meaningful testing in flight could be conducted while solutions to the indentified problems were being worked on.
On September 21, 1942 the first XB-29 flew for the first time, and Al Reed as Eddie's copilot. Eddie climbed to 6,000 feet and checked lateral, directional and longitudinal stability and control. He checked controlability and general performance with the #1 engine throttled. Power off stalls were checked. Control response, forces and effectiveness were noted. Everything that should be checked on a first flight was satisfactorily accomplished in the 1:15 flight. It was a pretty uneventful flight and first indications were certainly favorable. But Eddie and the others knew there was a great deal of work ahead.
There were to be very few additional uneventful flights. The troubles started adding up. By December 28 Eddie had been able to make only 23 flights in 27 hours of flying. There had been 16 engine changes, 22 carburetor changes and 19 exhaust system revisions in those three months. In addition there were propeller governing and feathering difficulties, runaway engines that oversped to 3,600 RPM and a host of lesser problems. The longest flight was 2:19 The average flight was only 1:10 long. It was almost impossible to get much meaningful quantitative data when flights were that short — particularly when much of the time was spent fighting the problems and getting back to the field. One of the few bright spots was that the aerodynamics of the airplane seemed to be just what Eddie and George had worked so hard to achieve. Later testing would confirm that early assessment. Performance and handling qualities were excellent. No significant aerodynamic changes were ever made except for research work on the rudder which resulted in being able to simplify and improve the airplane by eliminating the rudder boost. Eddie and George were vindicated.
The flight on December 28 was intended to check the service ceiling and set performance data. The #1 engine failed at 6,800 feet and the flight was terminated after 26 minutes. Ground inspection of the #2 engine showed metal chips in the sump — it, too, was about to fail. That was the last time Eddie Allen or Al Reed would fly the #1 XB-29. Subsequent events kept the airplane grounded for more than seven months — until August.
There is an interesting personal sidelight to that December 28th flight. Six days before on December 22 I flew with Eddie as his copilot on the 62,000 pound XPBB-1 twin engine flying boat. It turned out to be the last time Eddie flew the XPBB-1 and also the last time I ever flew with Eddie. The purpose of the flight was to complete a few tests prior to flying final demonstration for the Navy in a few days. Eddie let me fly the airplane including the required power off landing which called for cutting the ignition on both engines at 1,000 feet. The high drag boat came down like a brick! It was the first time I had ever done that! Eddie just sat there and watched. Fortunately it was a good landing in spite of the extremely steep glide path. I had no inkling that that would be my checkout flight (and I doubt that Eddie did) until the morning of December 28th, when Eddie came to my desk and very casually asked me to fly final demonstration for the Navy that day on the XPbb-1 because he and Al Reed needed to fly the XB-29. I managed, in my amazement, to stammer something like "I'd be glad to." The demonstration went well and I have always been extremely grateful to Eddie for giving me that opportunity and for placing that much trust and confidence in me. Incidentally, he let me have the fun of making the delivery flight to the San Point Naval Air Station two weeks later.
On December 30th the #2 XB-29 (AAF41-003) was ready for this initial flight. It too had engines that were cleared for only 35 hours in positions 1, 3 and 4. It was to be a thorough functional check of the airplane and its extensive instrumentation The weather was marginal. The functional check proceeded normally until the #4 propeller would not feather and governing was erratic. Eddie elected to discontinue the flight and immediately headed hack to Boeing Field at which time he was advised that the weather was deteriorating rapidly. About 6 minutes out, the #4 engine caught on fire, the propeller oversped to 3,500 RPM, the propeller would not feather and smoke, sparks and flame were coming from the exhausts. Shutting off the fuel and the use of fire extinguishers were ineffective. The fire continued to get worse. About 2 minutes out the fire was burning fiercely in the accessory compartment. Flames were pouring from the nacelle access door and from the intercooler exit area. Heavy smoke and long fingers of flame were trailing off the wing. In the meantime heavy smoke was pouring from the bomb bay into the cabin making it increasingly difficult to see or breathe. Eddie landed downwind, choking, partially blinded, on the 5,200 foot long, 200 foot wide runway. The intense fire was put out by fire equipment on the ground. Eddie later received the Air Medal for his skill and bravery during that harrowing 32 minute flight. Ground inspection showed more trouble. A fire had just started in engine #1 and engine #3 was close to failure, too. Those three 35-hour engines each had less than three hours total ground and flight time. Because of engine shortages, two of the three engines had to be replaced with engines cannibalized from the XB-29 which was laid up for some modifications. In addition the fire in #4 had been so severe that the #4 nacelle had to be replaced with the #4 nacelle also cannibalized from the #1 XB-29. At least the #2 XB-29 now had 4 so-called "unlimited" engines.
Unfortunately, engine/nacelle fires similar to the #4 fire continued to occasionally haunt production B-29s and caused at least 19 serious B-29 accidents between February 1943 and September 1944. While Boeing and Wright tried hard to find and correct the cause or causes, there was a natural tendency for each to blame the other. It was 15 months before there was positive proof that the R-3350 was susceptible to induction system fires which could very rapidly get out of hand and become uncontrollable magnesium fires which then destroyed evidence of the fire's origin. That proof came on March 24, 1944 when I had an induction system fire on the #4 engine during a routine test flight on the #1 XB-29. I was fortunate enough to get the engine feathered and the fire out before it broke out of the blower section or the intake pipes and became an external fire. The partially burned magnesium impeller and interior of the blower case were irrefutable evidence. In the face of that evidence Wright developed the fuel injection system to eliminate the potential for induction system fires.
It was almost a month before the #2 XB-29 flew again on January 29, 1943. In the next three weeks emphasis was on engine, propeller, governing, and airplane performance testing. Catastrophic engine failures eased up but that was about all. During descent for landing on February 2 there was a strong odor of gasoline emanating from the bomb bay into the cabin. A thorough inspection uncovered nothing conclusive. On a flight on February 17th there was a bad fuel leak over the wing from the #4 fuel filler cap. The leaking cap was fixed.
By February 17, 1943 the #2 XB-29 had made eight flights totalling 7:27 hours — an average of only 56 minutes per flight. In the five months since the first XB-29 flight on September 21, there had been only 31 flights totalling 34:27 — a long way from what Eddie had estimated in September could be done. And with and overall average flight time of only 1:07 the amount of meaningful test data was pretty sparse from that meager 34:27. As hard as everyone was working to solve the problems the answers were coming painfully slowly. As Eddie and is Project Flight Test Engineer left the airplane that afternoon and walked across the ramp to the post-flight conference, Eddie expressed to him the grave reservations he had about continuing flight testing until at least the more serious of the XB-29 problems could be fixed. Unfortunately, the fastest, and maybe the only way to fix some of them was to try out the various fixes in flight — the "try, try, try again" approach that had been so successfully used by Eddie and George Schairer over the years. But now Eddie faced a real dilemma. The B-29 was potentially a fine airplane. It was urgently needed in the Pacific. It was committed to production — 1,600 B-29s were now on order at four separate plants. Flight test was way behind its expected schedule and the data was badly needed to: prove the airplane; quickly find and correct the problems; minimize production disruptions' develop training and operating procedures and manuals. But it was currently a dangerous airplane. Major improvements were badly needed. Temporary grounding would be normal, prudent thing to do. But they were not normal times. The sooner the B-29 could be used in combat, the sooner the was would end and the sooner the casualties and carnage would stop. Eddie concluded that he must continue flight testing as rapidly as possible. His entire crew had also to know the risks — to a man they stayed with him.
The primary objectives of the February 18, 1943 flight were to measure climb and level flight performance and get engine cooling data with 4 and 2 engines operating. Maximum altitude would be limited to 25,000 feet because of the excessive trouble that had been encountered with low engine nose oil pressures above that altitude. The effectiveness of fixes for some of the past problems would also be evaluated. Takeoff would be at the normal design gross weight of 105,000 pounds with full fuel tanks — 5,410 gallons of gasoline.
Eight minutes after that 12:09 PM takeoff to the south, while climbing through 5,000 feet with rated power, a fire was reported in the #1 engine. Mixture and fuel to #1 were cut off, propeller was feathered, cowl flaps were closed, a CO2 fire extinguisher bottle was discharged and a descent and return to Boeing Field was initiated. Since the fire appeared to have been put out and everything seemed under control, Eddie elected to make a normal landing pattern and land form the north on runway 13 (128 magnetic) to the SSE into the 5 MPH wind rather than making a downwind laning on the 5,200 foot runway with a heavy airplane. At 12:24 PM the radio operator routinely reported altitude at 1,500 feet at a point 4 miles NE of the field. They were on the downwind leg, headed NNW and starting a left turn onto base leg. No one suspected the drastic change that would take place in the next 2 minutes. At 12:25 they had just completed turning onto base leg, had just crossed the heavily populated west shore of Lake Washington about 5 miles NNE of the field, were at about 1,200 feet altitude and were heading SW approaching the commercial and industrial south side of downtown Seattle. At that point ground witnesses heard an explosion that sounded like a loud backfire and a piece of metal fell from the airplane. About that time the radio operator, who could see into the forward bomb bay and the wing center section front spar, was overheard by the Boeing tower on an open microphone to say "Allen, better get this thing down in a hurry. The wing spar is burning badly." He told Boeing Radio on a different frequency "Have fire equipment ready. Am coming in with a wing on fire." About a mile down the flight part from the explosion, burned parts of a deicer valve, hose clamps, and instrumentation tubing were later found. The had come from an area normally inside the wing leading edge, ahead of the front spar, and just outboard of the #2 nacelle near the #2 fuel tank filler neck which was rubber like the self sealing fuel cell. The airplane now turned south on an oblique final approach in a desperate effort to reach Boeing Field just 4 miles away. Eddie was about 250 feet high and ground witnesses later reported that part of the wing leading edge between #1 and #2 engines was missing. In the next mile the flight engineer's data sheet was found and three of the forward compartment crew members left the airplane — too low for their parachutes to open. At 12:26 PM, only 3 miles from Boeing Field, the #2 XB-29 crashed into the Frye Meat Packing Plant killing pilots Eddie Allen, Bob Dansfield, and the other 6 crew members on board. The crash and resulting fire killed an additional 20 people on the ground and destroyed much of the airplane and the plant. There was clear evidence that fire and dense smoke had gone through the bomb bay into the cockpit in the last moments before impact. Burns on the bodies and clothing of the 3 crew members bailed out just before impact were a part of that evidence. Eddie Allen and his crew died service their country the best way they knew how. In 1 minute the fire had gone from undetectable to catastrophic.
At 12:26 PM on the 18th day of February, 1943, the saga of Eddie Allen ended. However, not so his legacy which has continued to this day to benefit his fellow men for whom he always showed such great respect.
The scientific flight testing methods which Eddie Allen developed continued to serve his country well throughout the war. And they have continued to this day to evolve and improve and keep pace with technology and to serve man—just as Eddie Allen would have wanted.
The flight test team that Eddie has assembled and trained was decimated, devastated and demoralized. Some of its members would probably never completely get over his loss — but they did put the pieces back together and continued to "fight the battles" and get the answers as Eddie would expect them to.
On April 23, 1946, three years after Eddie Allen's death in the February 18th crash of #2 XB-29, he was posthumously awarded the Air Medal — an honor rarely bestowed upon a civilian — by direction of the President of the United States.
The medal was presented to Florence Allen Howard, Eddie's widow, by Major General Benjamin T. Chidlaw, Deputy Commander for Engineering for the Air Material Command at Wright Field, during ceremonies at the Boeing Plant #2. At Mrs. Howard's request, General Chidlaw pinned the medal on Turney Allen, the six year old daughter of the late pilot.
The Citation reads:
"To Mr. Edmund T. Allen, Civilian Test Pilot, for meritorious achievement in aerial flight on December 30, 1942. On this occasion while piloting an Army Air Force XB-29 type aircraft under extremely unfavorable flying conditions, an uncontrollable fire developed in the number four engine. In spite of the fact that he would have been justified in abandoning the airplane under such conditions, Mr. Allen elected to remain at the controls and attempt to safely land it. As a result of his skill and daring invaluable test data and a prototype airplane were saved, the loss of which would have immeasurably retarded the entire B-29 Program at a crucial time in its development."
It is signed by President Harry S. Truman.
"In the course of a great war such as we have only recently concluded, there are a great many unsung heroes — men who labor and work in relative obscurity while others garner the laurels of combat accomplishments. Of course, the men who flew the planes in combat and met the enemy on his own ground deserve the plaudits which have been accorded them. But in the air war there were other men whose work and without whose sacrifice it would not have been possible to get into combat the planes that finally won the war.
"Especially this was true in the case of the aircraft test pilots — the men who took the planes in their experimental stages, tested their potentialities, ironed out their defects and brought in the reports that made it possible to fashion these airplanes into formidable weapons of war. Theirs was the contribution of a scientific objectivity combined with the daring and fearlessness of the pioneer, and the contribution was a magnificent one. They have earned the admiration and the respect of the men who flew the planes that grew out of their efforts and accomplishments and, as a matter of fact, they were really a part of the great Air Force team that bombed the enemy to defeat.
"Eddie Allen was outstanding among these men."