No points for second place

by Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

***image1***In November 1939, just after the beginning of World War II, Army Air Corps General “Hap” Arnold was given permission to initiate development of a Very Heavy Bomber to ultimately replace the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator.

Both Boeing and Consolidated submitted designs for a four-engine, high-altitude heavy bomber with a completely pressurized cabin, remotely controlled guns and 2,200 horsepower turbo supercharged engines to give it performance vastly superior to any existing bomber.

Consolidated took a conservative approach with its XB-32, in essence a scaled up, pressurized “Super Liberator,” while Boeing took a gamble with the XB-29 “Superfortress,” a giant leap in bomber design with a radical new wing design and an entirely new approach to the engine nacelle design.

The XB-29 showed such potential that it was ordered virtually “off the drawing board,” after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but a number of B-32s, with normal, manned gun turrets and no pressurization, were ordered as a back up for the radical B-29.

Both aircraft were plagued with early problems, but surprisingly the seemingly more conservative B-32 had more than the B-29. Despite having the same power plants as the B-29, the B-32 had more trouble with engine fires in its conventionally cowled engines than the Superfortress’ engines. Additionally, the B-32  was overweight, its mechanical subsystems were inadequate, the cockpit had an extremely high noise level and the bombardier’s vision was poor. There were even frequent undercarriage failures, which caused the type to be grounded briefly. On the plus side, it was a stable bombing platform, its manned turrets provided good protection, its subsystems were easily accessible for maintenance and it had excellent ground-handling characteristics. In fact, it was far superior to any other bomber in the world − except the B-29, and that was what counted.

The B-32 might have completely disappeared except Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney, the commander of the Far East Air Forces, had been turned down in his requests to get B-29s because the B-29s were urgently needed elsewhere. As an alternative, General Kenney started requesting B-32s instead; General Arnold approved Kenney’s request and a number were sent to the Far East Air Force, where they performed well, if not spectacularly.

Interestingly, the name of the B-32 was subject to a “political correctness” debate. The B-32 was named the “Dominator,” but the Assistant Secretary of State for Culture, Archibald MacLeish, said the name “Dominator” was “inappropriate for a United States airplane,” and insisted the name be changed to “Terminator.” The Air Force agreed, but the type was taken out of service before the name change could take effect, and the “Terminator” name had to wait for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to become part of the national vernacular.

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