In the aftermath of WWII, Americans wanted their troops home. NOW. Once hot to fight and win a war on two fronts, public fervor cooled significantly once the cries for peace arose in the West and the East. Gone was the cool, level-headed father-figure of Roosevelt, here was the country-bumpkin dropped-into-the-frying-pan Harry S. Truman.
He faced unheard of trials in the days after being sworn in. President Roosevelt had not seen fit to keep him up to speed on all things. He was notified within hours of Roosevelt's death, but after Stalin, of the existence of the atomic bomb (though not by the same people). He was not particularly deft at international diplomacy, so his debut at Potsdam was less than stellar. He did make a big decision, though: he decided to drop the bomb. He also presided over the peace that came. A series of labor strikes and economic upheaval followed the war, though, calling his leadership into question.
To fund new domestic spending requirements the military was demobilized in massive numbers as fast as possible. All branches were affected. The US Navy mothballed hundreds of ships in the three years after the war. All but a few battleships were resting pier side within a year of the end of the war. Tons of equipment was either sold to other countries or melted down. Sometimes it was taken straight from the factory to the scrap yard.
The Army Air Forces once boasted fleets of aircraft in the tens of thousands, and a fleet of over 2,800 B-29 bombers alone at war's end. By 1947, the newly created Air Force had fewer than 300 B-29s in active service (largely because of the small number of air crews to pilot them). Only a few of which, in the 509th bomb group, could deliver an atomic bomb.
It was in 1947, however, that things were changing yet again. The Soviet Union had been proving difficult to deal with. Stalin continued to retain his "Satellite" states despite United Nations and US demands for the satellite states to be made independent. Recent communist ventures included Greece and few others that raised US fears of expansion. It did not help that Stalin continued to preach his expansionist intentions.
Defense planners began to work on the best way to deal with the Soviet Union within months, if not weeks, of the end of the war. The US monopoly on Atomic Weapons made strategic aircraft an important factor in any such plan. As the Soviets continued to ignore deadlines for release of states, continued to talk about expansion, and continued to stall the re-unification of Germany, tensions in US defense circles continued to rise. Efforts were began to bolster the numbers of air crews that would be needed for the new jet bombers scheduled to come on line in the next few years.
There were nearly two thousand B-29s in storage. Bringing them out of storage, fixing them up and using them to train and hone new air crews was now an objective. Expanding the military was going to prevent the Soviet Union from making the move that was so feared.
The B-29 was a four-engined bomber developed by the Boeing Aircraft Company to carry heavy bomb loads long distances. It consisted of a very aerodynamic fuselage and narrow low drag wings. It had four large Wright R-3350 Duplex Cyclone engines sporting 18 cylinders each. These wonderful engines were the fruit of years of labor and design. The engines were miracles of engineering! They did not have to depend on a heavy liquid cooling system, all they needed was air. The only problem with B-29s was that, in the early years, their engines had a habit of overheating (for the real story on the R-3350 and the building of the Chrysler production line in Chicago, please see this site. It is well worth the time it takes to read.).
On November 4th, 1947, B-29 #44-69989 crash-landed in a wheat-stubble field just three miles South West of Wilbur, Washington. The course of events leading up to this, while perhaps not complicated, was definitely steeped in politics of the era.
The B-29 in question had originated from Warner Robins AFB. Warner Robins did not exist ten years previous. It did not begin life until 1941 when the ground was broken for a depot. It was not until January of 1942 that it was named Warner Robins. By 1947 it was being used to rehabilitate aircraft.
The ferry crew picked the aircraft up at Warner Robins AFB on November 3, 1947, and flew it to Forth Worth, Texas. From Fort Worth, they planned to fly the aircraft to Spokane Army Air Field. The flight went well, they flew at 20,000 feet and as expected discovered a frontal area that topped out at 15,000. As they were letting down into SPAAF in weather (read overcast). All of sudden, the number three propeller began to run away, or overspeed. Overspeed happens when the propeller wants to turn faster than the engine due to external pressures, like airflow, putting stresses on the engine that can damage it. left unchecked the massive propeller blades COULD fly off and damage the aircraft fatally. Usually the variable pitch propellers of the era would simply change their pitch to maintain the same engine RPM, however, 9989's number three propeller system was not working.
Major Douglas H. Kellar, of the 345th squadron, was the pilot. As he was beginning to bring 9989 in for the base leg at SPAAF, the engineer, Robert C. Marks, called out to watch number three engine. He had been in the middle of his check list. Everything was ready. The RPMs were set at 2200, gear and flaps were up, and the "putt putt," or auxiliary engine was on the line (it supplied auxiliary electricity at times like landings and take off because the main engines would be called on to make throttle changes and might not keep up the appropriate electrical load. The B-29 had numerous motors and servos that required electricity. When the B-29 was designed it was decided that electric motors would be less prone to battle damage than a hydraulic system.) Marks noticed that number 3 engine was up to 2250 RPM. He checked to make sure the pilots were not adjusting it, but it continued to climb.
The co-pilot, Major Edison F. Arnold, also of the 345th, noticed that the engine RPMs were about 2700 and climbing. He attempted to bring the RPMs down with the RPM toggle switch, but that did not work. Major Kellar retarded the throttle and Major Arnold pushed the feathering button. That only brought the RPM down about 300 hundred RPM, but it quickly began to rise again. They repeated the process after it was obvious there was no action the first time. This also did not work. Then Marks reported that number 3 engine was losing oil rapidly. It was coming from behind the propeller governors. The right scanner, William Schafer, also noticed the oil leak.
At this point Arnold declared an emergency, or in his words, he, "notified GCA that we were in trouble." He also notified them that they were heading West to find clear weather. GCA had him down as saying: "Having trouble with number 3 engine, turning westward." The ceiling at SPAAF was only about 400 feet above the ground. They had been through some heavy precipitation in the course of their let down and realized that it would be difficult to make the approach the first time. Kellar did not feel it safe to continue the GCA let down because if they should have to make a go around, the number three engine would not be available for use. They knew that the weather cleared to the west, so they decided to try to make it to Moses Lake or Ephrata. This would give them a chance to control their difficulties without sacrificing altitude in a GCA letdown. If they could not fix it, they would bail out. Kellar instructed the crew to prepare to abandon the airplane.
They slowed the aircraft to 180mph and that seemed to help hold the RPM down. The oil continued to leak out of number 3. Marks shut down number 3 by turning off the magnetos and fuel flow. The oil pressure in the nose of the engine was down to 10 pounds, but the pressure in the rear continued to hold until there remained only about 10 gallons of oil, then it began to oscillate. Marks reported, "We lost 55 gal[lon]s of oil in about 15 to 20 minutes." Major Kellar asked if there was a chance of fire, to which Marks replied, "With all that oil there was a very good possibility." Someone in the crew requested that they belly it in, but Kellar replied that the land below was too rough for that. The vibration from the surging engine and prop was considerable. Kellar feared the propeller might leave the nacelle and strike the cabin if the engine froze up.
This crew stands in front of their bomber which had a runaway prop which separated from the nacelle in World War II. Fortunately, it happened after landing. It severed the nose from the rest of the aircraft. No wonder the crew was worried about the runaway prop! (image from Squadron Signal publications)
The front end of the number 3 engine, note the oil! A Wright R-3350 is buried in there.
Note the oil on the exterior of the cowling. Also, the fact that the propeller reduction gear box has broken free of the engine is obvious in this photo.
More oil, notice the damaged flaps.
When the oil in number three was almost exhausted, Kellar ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft. The altitude was 5,500 feet and speed was 170. The two scanners who rode in the rear, left via the rear entrance door, right scanner first, then left. The Radio operator, Navigator, and Engineer left via the entrance through the nose gear bay. The engineer went head first while the other two opted for a feet first exit. It was shortly after the crew bailed out that Wilbur, Washington was sighted through a hole in the clouds and cultivated fields nearby. The pilots decided to try to attempt a belly landing.
9989 rests in a wheat stubble field near Wilbur, Washington.
They had closed the nose gear doors and proceeded with a belly landing. Crash investigators described it as a very successful belly landing. According to Kellar, on approach to the chosen field, the vibration got very bad, and the RPMs bounced from 500 to 4000. Arnold stated that he had seen RPMs of over 4500. As they were making their final approach, number 3 was vibrating badly and beginning to freeze up. The landing was undoubtedly rough on the pilots, however, neither was injured. Both set about securing the aircraft by cutting off the magnetos to the remaining engines, disconnecting the batteries, and turning off the auxiliary engine to avoid the possibility of fire.
The hand drawn map in the accident report indicates that the ship came to a stop in about 150 feet. The aircraft was on a heading of 120 degrees, which is roughly South East. The map also indicates that there was some sort of road going north to south just west of the crash site. Wilbur is noted as being approximately 3 miles North East.
The causes for this accident are considered to be several, but all center around the propeller governor and feathering mechanism. Because of the damage upon landing, it was impossible to discern for certain. The oil pressure was lost to the propeller governor and it could not, therefore, control a constant RPM. The cause of this was assumed to be the rupture of a pressure oil line. The propeller governor gasket also failed and the remaining oil left via that failure. The gasket was considered to have failed because it was either a "shipping" gasket, or one of improper substitution.
One of the main issues was that the crew failed to make a test hop before leaving on their cross country ferry flight. This, coupled with no ground test of the feathering system and a cursory inspection of the aircraft before lift off was likely a recipe for the following crash.
Captain Moore, the Navigator, and S/Sgt. Schafer, the Right Scanner, were wounded after they jumped out. The rest were unharmed. It is assumed, due to the statements of the investigating board that 9989 was returned to flight status. She was removed from the field. It is assumed, also, that 9989 went on to protect American interests.
The land owner, August Rux, signed an affidavit confirming that he did not expect compensation for the damage done to his land. He noted that the only damage done was the road that led to the crash site, which would be fine, since he planned to plow over it in the spring anyway.
(Author's Note: I have sent off for the Aircraft History Card for this aircraft, and hope to receive it in the next month or so. I will add that information to this post when I get it, so please leave a comment and check the box for responses if you are interested, as I will post notification of the UPDATE there. Thank you for reading!)
2 different Accident Reports from the USAF concerning B-29 #44-69989
Great Engines and Great Planes.
Warner Robins AFB Wikipedia Entry
Warner Robins AFB Site
B-29 Superfortress Wikipedia Entry
Birdsall, Steve, B-29 Superfortress in Action, Squadron Signal Publications, Carrollton, Texas, 1977.
Collison, Thomas, The Superfortress is Born; The Story of the Boeing B-29, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, New York, 1945.
Wagner, Ray, American Combat Planes; Third Edition, Doubleday & Company, New York, 1982.