"The XB-29: From Chaos to Victory" — An Excerpt from The Global Twentieth, by Bob Robbins

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

A special supplement to AVweb's profile of Bob Robbins.

At 12:26 PM on the 18th day of February 1943, the fortunes of the B-29 program disastrously hit rock bottom. At that instant, Boeing research test pilot Eddie Allen, his crew and the heavily instrumented #2 XB-29 were destroyed in a crash. That story is told in "Eddie Allen and the B-29."

This is the story about the painful aftermath, the road to recovery, the ultimate success of the XB-29 flight test program, and some of my involvement therein.

After Eddie's accident, of course all of the XB-29 pre-crash problems remained and now there were a lot of new ones. Eddie Allen, his crew and the #2 XB-29 were gone. The cause or causes for Eddie's accident had somehow to be found from the meager remains in all the devastation — and they had to be fixed before the #1 XB-29 or any other B-29 flew again. And every effort had to also be made at the same time to fix the many problems that had plagued Eddie. The remaining XB-29 and presumably the B-29s filling the production lines were too dangerous to fly without major modifications.

Boeing flight test was decimated, devastated, demoralized. In less than eight years Boeing had lost three chief test pilots and three big experimental airplanes and crews: Al Reed, Eddie's Chief of Flight Test and chief pilot was now the only man alive who had ever piloted a B-29. To the best of my knowledge, Al never flew again after Eddie's accident. Al Reed left Boeing a few weeks after Eddie's death and dropped from sight.

The end of March a man by the name of N.D. Showalter became the new Chief of Flight Test. He had been Boeing Chief Military Projects Engineer and deeply involved in both the B-17 and B-29 programs. He had flown with Eddie Allen on the testing of the #2 Stratoliner after Julius Barr had been killed in the 1939 crash of the first one. N.D. was a good pilot but had not pursued that as a profession and did not have much opportunity to fly. When he could he would fly occasionally with some of us as copilot. Under N.D.'s skillful guidance morale improved and flight test gradually got back on its feet.

In the meantime a very comprehensive investigation into the cause of causes of Eddie's crash was underway. Witnesses were interviewed, fallen bits and pieces along the flight path were collected and studied, debris from the crash site was sifted through for all the evidence that could be found, the remains of engines and propellers were disassembled and examined and many, many ground tests and engineering analyses were run.

Extensive airplane modifications resulted. Possible conditions which could cause fuel leaks were eliminated. Fuel filler necks were relocated, fire stop bulkheads were installed, better sealing in some places and better ventilation in other places was provided. Dams and overboard drains were also provided to get rid of any fuel the might leak. These and many other improvements were incorporated in the #1 and #3 XB-29s and all production airplanes.

Bob Robbins
Bob in #1 XB-29, Nov. 1944

Shortly after Eddie's accident, Brigadier General K.B. Wolfe was directed by General Arnold to take over all aspects of the B-29 program. One of his directives was that the Army Air Corps would take over the entire B-29 flight test program and the #1 XB-29 flight test program would be done at Wichita where conditions were much more favorable. The weather was better, runways were longer and wider, approaches were clearer and good alternate fields were relatively close. The Boeing Wichita plant would provide support. The #1 XB-29 pilot and copilot would be Air Corps officers. Other than that the airplane would be operated and maintained in accordance with Boeing flight test procedures and by Boeing people who were familiar with the large amount of highly specialized instrumentation. I was asked to be the primary interface between the Air Corps pilots and the Boeing test crews — essentially to be the Flight Test Project Pilot but without any piloting duties. Unresolved was any consideration of whether I would ever be allowed to fly the airplane.

On August 30, 1943 the #1 XB-29 was flown from Seattle to Wichita by Col. Olson. Since the loss of the #2 XB-29, this was the only heavily instrumented B-29 in existence — a very valuable airplane from which a lot of data was needed in a hurry. Col. H.S. Estes was the copilot. The very generously signed me on also as a copilot and let me fly for a couple of hours on the way to Wichita. In Wichita they arranged for me to get some transition time. My first flight there was with Major Sullivan on September 3, 1943 from Wichita to Salina in the brand new YB-29 service test airplane #41-36963. Major Sullivan gave me four flights, five takeoffs and six landings on the 3rd and 4th of September at Smoky Hill and Walker in "Sixty Three."

In the weeks of #1 XB-29 flight testing that followed, I was allowed to fly as copilot on every flight and given the opportunity to get as much experience with the airplane as our test requirements permitted. On October 8th Col. Estes checked me out as Aircraft Commander and Ed Martin as my copilot, and, Except for a few additional flights with us over the following two weeks, turned the #1 XB-29 flight test program over to us in its entirety. After October 21 the #1 XB-29 flight test program was a total, 100% Boeing responsibility once again.

By October 28, 1943 we had finished the initial testing with the #1 XB-29. The airplane and testing had gone extremely well. In five and a half weeks we had made 24 flights in 72 hours of flying. There had been no engine failures and no significant problems. We had gotten large amounts of crucial performance and engine cooling data and make takeoffs up to 130,000 pounds. We flew a 3,000 mile, 14-hour simulated bombing mission with a 10,000 pound simulated bomb load. There was no longer any doubt that the B-29 was going to be a fine airplane. And the severe trauma suffered by the Boeing Flight Test Organization from Eddie Allen's February 18th crash was largely healed. N.D. Showalter, the superb Boeing manager and Chief of Flight Test, had restored the Flight Test Organization to the superb team that Eddie Allen had built. He had also earned the respect of K.B. Wolfe and the Air Corps. N.D. had stayed in Wichita during the entire time the #1 XB-29was there to do everything possible to help achieve the huge successes that had been realized. It was time to take the #1 XB-29 back to Seattle for configuration and instrumentation changes so we could get on with the next series of tests and to explore new ideas and potential improvements to make the B-29 fleet as safe and combat effective as possible. It was a triumphal return.

In December we flew 37:25 more and still had no engine failures. Things were going great — a far cry from the fierce problems Eddie Allen had been fighting a year before.

Bob Robbins
CAF's B-29 "FIFI"

The #1 XB-29 had earned the right to a name. After careful consideration and in view of its past and probable future of experimentation and exploration, it seemed right to name her "The Flying Guinea Pig." To the end, it was an appropriate name.

On August 15, 1945 when the war ended, there had been 9,062 B-29s ordered of which 3,970 were completed. After the war ended we continued the #1 XB-29 flight testing at a somewhat slower pace.

The last time I ever flew "The Flying Guinea Pig" was on May 9, 1947 when we used it as a landing simulator for the XB-47 Stratojet on which I was to make the first flight that December.

On May 11, 1948 the #1 XB-29 was scrapped. It had a total of 576 hours on it. Eddie Allen had flown it 27 hours. I ad been on board a total of 545 hours and had been pilot in command for 496 of those hours. From October 21, 1943 to the end of the war on August 15, 1945, I had been the Project Test Pilot and aircraft commander on every #1 XB-29 flight — 312 flights totalling 458 hours in 22 months.

There is a picture that shows "The Flying Guinea Pig" in the scrap yard fading away. After four years of very close association and being almost my entire life's work for two of those years, it is saddening to see something that served mankind so well just be left in solitude, ignored, to face away alone. She started as an incorrigible; developed to serve mankind well; was fun to fly. And while she has physically passed into oblivion, her memories continue on. I'll never forget the #1 XB-29 program.

However, I was fortunate that my next program, the XB-47 Stratojet, was even more fun to fly and even more exhilarating. Also it was the biggest peacetime bomber program ever. Over 2,000 B-47s were built.