A secret Boeing bomber, a deadly crash and a shattering moment on Seattle's home front during World War II.
This month 75 years ago, the second prototype of Boeing’s new XB-29 bomber suffered an engine fire, barely missed downtown and crashed short of Boeing Field into the Frye & Co. packing plant. The airplane was so secret that most particulars of the crash were classified until after World War II.
A total of eight on board, including top test pilot Eddie Allen, and 19 people on the ground were killed. Two other crew members who attempted to bail out died, too, in the Feb. 18th, 1943, incident. (Other estimates are as high as 31, including a firefighter).
According to History Link: “Fortunately, most Frye employees were on their lunch break when the factory burst into flames. Army Pvt. Sam Morris, a newly enlisted African American from Florida was later hailed as a hero for helping to rescue several workers from the conflagration.”
The 787 Dreamliner’s troubled rollout carried huge financial risks for the company. But advances in computer-aided design and decades of engineering, machinist and pilot know-how ensured it wasn’t deadly, despite the plane’s new advanced composite body. In the earlier years of aviation, particularly in the rush of wartime, the stakes were much higher (although today’s Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey has a controversial safety record).
The B-29 was most famous for delivering the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The planes also carried out massive raids on Japanese cities, including the March 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, which produced the highest immediate casualties and destruction of any bombing in the war.
But getting the huge bomber airworthy was an enormous challenge for Seattle’s aircraft designers, engineers and builders. It was revolutionary in many ways, such as being pressurized for the altitudes the Army Air Corps demanded it achieve, when the request for proposals first came out in 1940.
The B-29 was far above and beyond the workhorse B-17, which had established the company’s chops for building bombers. The new airplane was highly complex, with one of the biggest component supply chains of the war (the B-29 is often said to have cost more than it cost the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb — it didn’t, but was still expensive). Yet the new plane suffered repeated engine fires and reliability issues. As the war continued and U.S. forces neared Japan, capturing or building airfields, they needed the B-29. Only after the legendary “Battle of Kansas,” a high-pressure effort centered in Wichita to correct defects and improve production, did the bombers start to be delivered in large numbers.
About 2,766 B-29s were built at Boeing plants in Renton and Wichita. Bell Aircraft built another 668 in Georgia, and the Glenn Martin Co. assembled 536 in Nebraska
This is a year of many 75th anniversaries, harking back to when America was fighting in World War II. As of 1942, $1.7 billion in aircraft and ship construction projects had been awarded to companies in the Puget Sound region (about $27 billion in today’s money). You can read more about the dramatic changes on the Seattle home front here.
Following the crash, the packing plant was rebuilt and resumed operations. Incidentally, the company founders were art collectors, and their bequest started the museum that bears their name.