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The B-29 Superfortress: Dodge plays a major role

The B-29 bomber was one of the most famous and impressive large aircraft of World War II; they were bigger and faster, better balanced, and perhaps tougher than the B-17 “Flying Fortress” or B-24 “Liberator,” always equipped with pressurized cabins and used up into mid-1953. The B-29’s biggest moment was on August 1, 1945; 836 of the bombers attacked targets in Japan and Korea, and 784 returned. The planes were still fairly new — the test planes had been ordered in 1941.

B29 Superfortress

Shortly after its first successful test, the military realized that, to get the number of four-engined planes they needed, another source of engines would be needed; Wright could not build enough of the Cyclone powerplants to meet demand. They presented the job to Chrysler Corporation in 1942, demanding that production start in early 1943, with a thousand engines per month being built by the start of 1944 — despite there being no building or mass-production-ready blueprints.

tex colbertL. L. “Tex” Colbert was General Manager of the project, while William C. Newberg was Chief Engineer (both were eventually to be undistinguished presidents of the company). The master mechanic was C. J. Synder, the plant engineer was H.J. Laidlaw, and the production manager was W. H. Eddy.

Chrysler employees traveled to Wright’s plant near Paterson, New Jersey (it still exists, though it’s no longer in its original use). The 18-cylinder engine was just beginning its testing phase; and the first XB-29 airframe was not to be built for another nine months.

Chrysler chose a site near Chicago, officially run by Dodge (“Dodge-Chicago”), presumably due to the large labor force. The famed architect Albert Kahn, facing a shortage of steel, worked with Chrysler to create a pioneering arched-rib design that cut steel use in half — saving 9,200 tons of the metal.

Contractor George A. Fuller ran the construction night and day, creating 6,300,000 square feet of floor space in 19 buildings. The huge complex took up 30 city blocks, costing $173 million — roughly $2.4 billion in 2012 money. The central building took up 82 acres, 22 of which were air-conditioned for precise assembly. This was the only aircraft engine factory to take in pigs of aluminum and magnesium at one end, and return finished engines at the other.

Newberg had new engines generate electricity during testing, to prevent waste; that brought 91,106,000 kilowatt hours of power.

The Wright Cyclone engine design had actually begun way back in 1927 as a nine-cylinder with hemispherical combustion chambers and air cooling, good for 525 horsepower. More output was needed, and many changes were made, including doubling the cylinder count.

wright cyclone engine

The B-17’s were rated at 1,200 horsepower; by using higher compression ratios and supercharging, Wright brought power ratings on their Cyclone up to 2,200 horsepower.

Chrysler delivered 344 engines in June, well over the scheduled number; they hit a thousand on July 13, and continued to exceed expectations. They delivered 7,500 by the end of January 1945, and 16,000 in mid-June. But when Japan surrendered, the contract closed — with 18,413 engines built.

citation

As they produced the engine, they also found opportunities to improve it, resulting in thousands of design changes and a total of 48,500 engineering releases and change notices. Dodge had 120 graduate engineers (as well as assistants for them) working on 26 major improvements, such as pre-stressed pistons, shot-peened connecting rods, higher-pressure fuel injection and oil pressure, and the use of the corporation’s Superfinish and magnetic inspection.

Rear cylinders overheated because there was not enough clearance between cylinder baffles and the cowl; increasing low-speed cooling backfired on high-temperature airfields in the Pacific. Pilots were trained to lift slowly, to cool the engines before slowly building speed for flying thinner air.

The engines often ingested their own valves, causing fires made worse by the presence of magnesium. That same magnesium caused some components to expand at different rates, causing oil leaks which were another cause of fire and failure. Backfiring through the carburetor could also cause fires until they started using fuel injection.

As Chrysler put its hands onto the project, the engine life was nearly doubled from 200 hours before an overhaul to around 400.

Dodge-Chicago engines were used interchangeably with Wright’s. Dodge made just over five engines per plane; Wright made just 13,800 engines despite having two dedicated factories (Cincinatti OH, Woodbridge NJ). Dodge-Chicago cut the cost of producing each engine from $26,833 to 12,117 ($12,954 for the fuel-injected version), building 18,413 engines at about half of the estimated cost.

B-29s in combat

The B-29 bomber had a 5,418 mile range, a maximum speed of 399 mph (bombing runs were done at around 210 mph), and a service ceiling of 36,150 feet. They had a gross weight of 140,000 pounds.

Temperatures in India and China were often over 120°, bringing the bombers’ interior temperatures up to nearly 200°. The high temperatures also made detonation a problem, cutting the life of the valves. Repair and upgrade kits were sent out across their fields of operation.

b29 engine

In their two years of service against Japan, they dropped 169,676 tons of bombs; during the three years of the Korean War, they dropped 167,000 more tons.

The B-29 program ended up being the most expensive of the war projects, but it was decisive in the victory against Japan. In addition to engines, Chrysler built:

Sources and Related Additional Reading

Breer, Carl. (1995). [Yanick, A. J., Editor] The Birth of Chrysler Corporation and Its Engineering Legacy. Warrendale, PA: Society of Automotive Engineers, Inc.

LeMay, Curtis E. and Venne, Bill. (1988). Superfortress: the story of the B-29 and American Airpower. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Stout, Wesley W. (1947). Great Engines and Great Planes. Detroit, MI: Chrysler Corporation.

Not-quite-related Plymouth ad

They came smashing through the Japanese lines and there it was -- a 1941 Plymouth DeLuxe sedan in the heart of the New Guinea jungle!

On its side was painted the enemy's rising sun insignia. American bullets had drilled the machine so full of holes that the entire top had to be removed. But the motor, according to Staff Sgt. Kenneth B. Schooley, who described the incident, was "in excellent condition, despite having a few, large caliber bullets bounced off it."

After the usual rough jungle travel, he writes, "it's like riding on air." At last report, the sedan was no longer "De Luxe" but it was doing a real job on New Guinea. The medical detachment requisitioned it, took out the back seat, put in a floor, and was using the Plymouth to transport wounded troops from the front.

Plymouth records show that this historic car went from the factory to a dealer on Guam. Probably the Japanese seized it there and took it with them to New Guinea. The full story won't be known until after the war - if then.

But there's no mystery about the reason why Plymouth is a great car on New Guinea or on Main Street. Plymouths were designed and manufactured to do their job under the worst conditions and the best. That quality is now going into Bofors anti-aircraft guns, assemblies for Helldivers, many other war needs. Meanwhile, three million Plymouths are proving their stamina on the roads. They may have to last a long time. They're built to do that when serviced by experienced Plymouth dealers.

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