The B-29 Superfortress was the most effective bomber flown by any nation in World War II and was the world’s first nuclear-delivery-capable aircraft. It was in service from 1944 until 1954 as a long-range/very-heavy bomber in combat in World War II and the Korean War. The F-13/RB-29 variants served as long-range reconnaissance aircraft from 1944 to 1956.
By the end of World War II, the USAAF had almost 1,500 B-29s in the western Pacific area. B-29s dropped the only atomic bombs used in combat, on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August 1945.
The B-29 was developed for the USAAF as a long-range strategic bomber. It was a four-engine, streamlined aircraft with three pressurized compartments for the flight crew. The Norden bombsight and the AN/APQ-7 Eagle bomb-navigation radar were installed.
Standard defensive armament consisted of eight to ten .50-caliber machine guns in four remote-control turrets, the top forward turret often having four guns. The tail turret mounted two additional .50-caliber guns and an optional 20mm cannon. Photo aircraft generally had all guns removed except for the tail guns, though additional gun turrets were reinstalled in the Korean War era in response to the Soviet MiG-15 fighter threat. Subsequently, only the WB-29 weather recon variants were unarmed.
The standard recon configuration provided for six cameras mounted in the pressurized rear compartment. The first installation had a single vertical camera for general work; the second had two split-vertical cameras mounted to cover a strip of ground three miles wide, providing high-resolution stereo imagery for detailed interpretation; the third consisted of three cameras, one mounted vertically and the other two aimed obliquely, covering ground about 30 miles (48 kilometers) wide.
On 1 November 1944, an F-13 (photo) variant became the first US aircraft to fly over the Japanese capital of Tokyo since the Doolittle bombing raid of April 1942. Taking off from Saipan, the F-13 flew over the Japanese capital at 32,000 feet (9,754 meters) in clear weather, without opposition. That total mission was almost 14 hours.
A typical photo mission had an F-13 remaining over a Japanese city for an hour, flying a 3,000-mile (4,828-kilometer) round trip from Saipan. At that altitude, the recon aircraft were virtually immune to Japanese fighters and antiaircraft guns.
Heightened tensions in 1945 and 1946 led the AAF’s newly created Strategic Air Command (SAC) to plan Arctic routes for air strikes against the Soviet Union. The 46th Reconnaissance Squadron deployed to Alaska in March 1946 with a mix of B-29s and F-13s to map the vast, little-known Arctic basin. By 1947, the unit— redesignated the 72nd Reconnaissance Squadron— began flying peripheral photographic missions off Siberia’s Chukotka Peninsula, the closest Soviet territory to Alaska. The first priority of these missions was seeking out possible Soviet bomber bases. Flying as high as possible in good visibility, the F-13s could photograph coastal facilities.
SAC also deployed the RB-29-equipped 31st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron to Okinawa in the late 1940s. After the Korean War began in June 1950, the 31st moved to Japan to fly photo missions over North Korea.
Early in the post–World War II era, both ELINT and COMINT versions of the RB-29 were developed. The 46th Reconnaissance Squadron jury-rigged a photo aircraft with rudimentary ELINT gear, which first flew missions off the western Siberian coast in late 1946.
The first dedicated ELINT “ferret” aircraft—with a crew of 13, including 6 electronic warfare officers— began flying missions the next summer out of Alaska. On those missions, the aircraft detected a hitherto unknown string of Soviet early-warning radars. Later in 1947, this RB-29 deployed to West Germany, from which base it flew several missions along the East German border as well as one mission in the Berlin corridors over East Germany. Upon their return to the United States, the crew and aircraft formed the nucleus of the first permanent ELINT reconnaissance organization, the 324th Radio Countermeasures Squadron. In 1948, more ELINT-modified RB-29s were deployed, flying missions out of Okinawa and Alaska as well as West Germany, complementing the RB-29 photo effort.
In 1950, the Air Force Security Service (AFSS)— whose mission was collecting and processing COMINT—began testing aerial COMINT collection on an RB-29 flying ELINT missions. The following year, AFSS began full testing using a dedicated RB-29, with a crew that included five COMINT operator positions. Testing continued in the United States, followed in June 1952 by intensive flight tests from Japan.
Operational missions were then flown over the Sea of Japan along the Soviet Far East and Arctic coasts as well as off the North Korean coast. In 1952, the aircraft deployed to Europe, where it spent six months evaluating COMINT collection flying from British, West German, and Libyan bases. The prototype aircraft returned to the Far East, where it flew operational missions until 1956. No other RB-29s were fitted as COMINT collectors; that role in the air force went to specially modified Boeing RB-50s, which became operational in 1956.
The 31st and 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadrons’ RB-29 photo aircraft flew missions throughout the Korean conflict from bases in Japan. They identified targets and provided damage assessments primarily for the SAC B-29 bombing effort. Some photo RB-29s were modified to include ELINT capability and collected against Soviet and Chinese radars on the Manchurian side of the border with North Korea (the aircraft remaining in Korean airspace). Several aircraft were attacked by MiG-15 fighters; three RB-29s were shot down, while others were damaged.
These losses resulted in the introduction of the turbojet RB-45C Tornado for this role. In addition, the Soviets shot down three RB-29s (photographic and electronic) over international waters, well away from the combat area, between 1950 and 1954. (The more heavily armed B-29 bombers were also attacked by MiG-15s and, on 27 October 1951, B-29 gunners downed six MiG-15s—the highest number of enemy aircraft downed on any day of the war.)
In 1946, the AAF Air Weather Service (AWS) was created to provide information to support US military operations. The command began with 46 RB-29 aircraft with specialized equipment. These aircraft would be designated WB-29 in the early 1950s. A weather officer’s position was created, and a newly developed dropsonde ejection chamber was installed with a table and seat for the dropsonde operator in the starboard scanner location. Additionally, a 640-gallon (2,423-liter) fuel tank was placed in each bomb bay, and the atmospheric sampling “bug catcher” was installed where the aft-lower turret had been, along with an access panel so that sampling filters could be retrieved in flight. Other modifications included new radar, a radar altimeter, and improved radios.
The 59th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron flew almost daily missions between Eielson AFB, Alaska, and Yokota AB, Japan, beginning in May 1949, seeking evidence of a Soviet nuclear detonation. The effort was rewarded when one of its RB-29s, flying this route on 3 September 1949, obtained evidence that the Soviet Union had exploded its first atomic weapon on 29 August. AWS RB-29s followed the nuclear cloud as it crossed over Canada, the Atlantic, and into British airspace. An AWS WB-29 detected the first Soviet hydrogen bomb test on 12 August 1953.
The WB-29s were phased out in the mid-1950s, replaced by WB-50s.
In the early 1950s, the United States supplied 87 B-29s to the British—named “Washington”— as interim strategic bombers pending delivery of British-built aircraft. Three of these were SIGINT reconnaissance variants, entering service with the RAF No. 192 Squadron and flying missions from 1953 to 1957 along the Soviet periphery from the Barents Sea in the north to the Caspian Sea in the south. These aircraft were unarmed and usually carried four ELINT and two COMINT collection specialists. Occasionally the Washingtons were tasked to collect intelligence on high-interest Soviet naval ships at sea. In 1956, a Washington flying missions in the Mediterranean collected ELINT on the Egyptian air defense system prior to the Anglo-French-Israeli seizure of the Suez Canal. In late 1957, these aircraft were withdrawn from service, replaced in this role by the reconnaissance variant of the de Havilland Comet.
In 1944 and 1945, three US B-29s made emergency landings in Soviet Siberia after strikes on Manchuria and Japan. These planes were carefully copied to produce the Tupolev Tu-4, given the NATO codename “Bull.” Approximately 1,200 Tu-4s were built with production ending in 1952. A few of these aircraft were transferred to China. Several Soviet Bulls were converted into photorecon variants with the designation Tu-4R. Some of these were additionally fitted with ELINT collection gear, and a few with a rudimentary ECM capability.
One Soviet Tu-4 reportedly was modified to a “radiation reconnaissance” aircraft and flew missions out of southern Chinese bases in the 1950s, collecting against American nuclear tests in the Pacific.
The prototype XB-29 flew on 21 September 1942, with the first delivery to an AAF unit in July 1943. The Boeing, Bell, and Martin companies produced 3,628 aircraft, with all but 230 delivered by August 1945. The last aircraft was delivered in June 1946 (another 200 B-29 and 5,000 B-29C aircraft were cancelled at the end of the war). The much-improved B-29D model was produced as the B-50 Superfortress.
The F-13 reconnaissance variant was in service from 1944 to 1956 (redesignated RB-29 in 1948). The first purpose-built F-13 was delivered in October 1944. A total of 118 specialized F-13/RB-29 variants were produced. Additional B-29s were field modified in the western Pacific for reconnaissance missions.
Up to 13 (including 5 or 6 recon specialists)
4x Wright radial R-3350-57 or -57A; 2,200 hp each
Empty: 68,821 lb (31,217 kg)
Maximum: 137,000 lb (62,143 kg)
99 ft (30.2 m)
141 ft 3 in (43.1 m)
7 ft 10 in (8.5 m)
Maximum: 407 mph at 35,000 ft (10,666 m)
Cruise: 24 mph (409 kph)
41,500 ft (12,650 m)
3,500 mi (5,633 km)
Varied (see text); minimum 2x.50-caliber machine guns (1,000 rounds)
AN/APG-15 tail fire control (in some aircraft); AN/APQ-7 Eagle bomb/nav