Canadian Warplanes 5: Boeing B-29 Superfortress

Boeing B-29 Superfortress in RCAF service

(Wilma Bearman Photo via Don Smith)

Boeing EB-29B Superfortress (reconnaissance version), USAF (Serial No. 44-84035).  This aircraft was flown by Keith Greenaway during long-range navigation flights throughout the Arctic.  (Larry Milberry, Sixty Tears, p.251)

While working with NORAD in Colorado Springs in 2003, I spoke with former RCAF Squadron Leader George Sweanor, (retired) who served with No. 419 Squadron during the Second World War (he is now age 98), living in Colorado Springs. He maintained that he flew as a Navigator on B-29s assigned to the RCAF on arctic long range patrol flights in 1948. he said, "the RCAF never changed the markings, we just flew them on loan". Larry Milberry has photos of these B-29s in his book "Sixty Years" on page 224 and page 251. The photo of the EB-29 Don Smith sent was likely taken at RCAF Station Edmonton, (Namao), Alberta, given the flat landscape in the background. This aircraft was flown by Keith Greenaway during long-range navigation flights throughout the Arctic.  (Larry Milberry, Sixty Tears, p.251). This Boeing EB-29 Superfortress (reconnaissance version), USAF (Serial No. 44-84035) was initially built under license by Bell Aircraft Company, Marietta, Georgia, as a B-29-55-BA Superfortress, and delivered to the USAAF 30 June, 1945. 44-84035 was assigned to the 4112nd USAAF Base at Olmstead, Pennsylvania. It was later modified to EB-29. 44-84035 was later assigned to the 6520th Flight Test Squadron, 6520th Test Support Wing, Hanscom AFB, Massachusetts, which is still an active base, near Bedford Massachusetts. 44-84035 was damaged by a bird strike on 21 September, 1954, and reclaimed at Laurinburg AFB, North Carolina on the same date.

S/L George Sweanor was one of the founding members of No. 419 Squadron that stood up in 1941 in the United Kingdom as the third RCAF bomber squadron overseas. In 1942, he was captured after being shot down over enemy territory, and spent 800 days as a POW. In 1944, then P/O Sweanor was involved in the daring escape from Stalag Luft III camp in Zagan, Poland, when he acted as a lookout during the excavation of the escape tunnel dubbed “Harry”. This event was immortalized in the 1963 film, “The Great Escape.”

Following the war, S/L Sweanor remained with the RCAF. He was part of the group that opened the Cheyenne Mountain home of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), in Colorado Springs, which celebrated its 60th anniversary on 12 May 2018.

His last assignment was in Colorado Springs, where he retired and began teaching at Mitchell High School. He is also a founding member of 971 RCAF Association Wing in Colorado Springs. He regularly attends events as a special guest, along with members of the Canadian Armed Forces serving at NORAD.

Photo taken post 1947, credit (Wilma Bearman via Don Smith)

The RCAF actually had a "B-29 Detachment" post war.  In 1947, the RCAF's B-29 Detachment was created to assist with a joint USAF/USN/RCAF project to study low frequency LORAN (long range navigation) in the arctic.  In cooperation with the 4149th Base Unit, USAF, from Middletown, Pennsylvania, Canadian and American personal flew over 100 B-29 missions over the north, some lasting almost 17 hours.  Three B-29s were assigned to the unit, which was headquartered in Edmonton, Alberta, including B-29B (Serial No. 44-84035), coded BF-035, and (Serial No. 44-84021).  In 1948, the Detachment was renamed the RCAF LF LORAN Flight, but the work continued.  On 29 December 1948, B-29 (Serial No. 44-84021 crashed at Fairbanks, Alaska, during a flight for the program.

F/O Sweanor documented as a Navigator with the B-29 Detachment, Edmonton, Alberta.

(USAF Photo)

Boeing EB-29B Superfortress (Serial No. 44-84035), 4112nd AFB, Olmstead Field, Pennsylvania.

Both the RCAF and Army Survey Establishment had concurrent Arctic missions.  The fliers supported the research and the surveyors relied on conventional runs to move them around.  The force multiplier was the availability of commercial helicopters on lease, and various cargo a/c.  With forward camps supplied by landing strips and beach strips, the surveyors would fly forward for their daily observations.  Very often, the task included laying out bright or contrasting marker panels visible to the sky.  Simultaneously, there were overhead photogrammetry flights snapping long photo lines.  Not nearly as glamourous as long range navigation exercises.  Maybe because much more disciplined flying was required.

No. 408 Squadron history (published in 1984 by Canada's Wings/The Hangar Bookshelf), records the use of SHORAN for navigation in the featureless northern areas of the country. The unit history grudgingly accepts that they did cooperate with Natural Resources and Army Survey to fly flight lines and collect the necessary triangulations that would tie map sheets together correctly.  That said, the history is very thorough and quite interesting to read.  (Terry Warner)

The RCAF B-29 Detachment was formed in March 1946. The Detachment was based at RCAF Station Edmonton, Alberta. While the Det had RCAF as part of its name, the USAF portion of the detachment was part of the 4149th Base Unit USAF from Middleton, Pennsylvania.  The combined USAF, USN and RCAF crews flew over 100 missions, some lasting up to 17 hours, in Canada’s North and Alaska to conduct tests of various LORAN sites and procedures.  RCAF personnel included pilots, navigators, a flight engineer, ground crew technicians, and a photographer.  The flights were also carried out in the Spring, Summer and Fall of 1947, 1948 and 1949.

On 12 March 1948, the detachment’s name was changed to RCAF LF LORAN Flight Test Section and later was known as the B-29 Flight Test Section. Equipment tested included the AN/APM-52, AN/APM-53, LF LORAN AN/APM-9 (XA-3).

Due to the nature of the flight tests, the flights of the B-29’s were not always announced in advance which led to numerous reports by Ground Observer Corps personnel of unknown B-29s flying in the North.  It should be remembered that the Tupelov Tu-4 Bull was a direct copy of the B-29.

It must be stressed that the RCAF B-29 Detachment was not a Canadian flying unit nor were the aircraft on strength to any RCAF unit.  It is, however, included here to show the diversity of aircraft and units that were in Canada during these years and the fact that they were stationed at an RCAF station and did have RCAF personnel as part of the flight crews.

B-29 (Serial No. 44-84021) was the first US military aircraft, of any branch, to reach the North Pole).  B-29 (Serial No. 44-84035), coded  BF-035, lost the propeller off its No. 1 engine and attempted to land at Fairbanks on 28 December 1948. Touch-down was made about ¾ down the length of the runway.  The B-29 then swung to starboard, struck a snow bank, which collapsed the nose gear and broke the fuselage in two. The aircraft was written off.

A Douglas C-47 Skytrain (Serial No. 51127), coded CE-127, was used to assist with ground monitoring, and a Douglas C-54 Skymaster (Serial No. 272513) was used for special flight testing.  (Mike Kaehler)