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THE XB-15:First of the Big Bombers of World War II

By Gloria Rhoads Champine

For the Library of Congress Veteran’s History Project.

This story has been written, partly through research, through recollections of my stepfather, William J. Heldt, deceased, (Major USAF Ret.) of Tampa, Florida, and from the stories I remember as a child. It was originally Published in Virginia Aviation, 1978 and has been slightly modified.

As a young Army Air Corps brat, growing up at Langley Field, Virginia, it was just “Daddy’s plane” – everyone’s Daddy had an airplane. Little did I know that his big bomber was the Boeing XB-15 (Boeing Model 294) which was developed as a design study awarded by the Army in 1934 to determine the feasibility of an extremely heavy bomber, larger than anything yet built in the United States. The study resulted in an order to Boeing for a single experimental XBLR-1 (Experimental Bomber, Long Range Model l). Before the airplane was completed, the designation was changed to XB-15.

The XB-15, with a wing span of 149 ft. and a length of 87 ft. 7 in., gave the military forces the confidence to go ahead and develop bigger and better bombers.

The XB-15 had been designed to use four l,000-hp liquid-cooled engines then under development, but since they were not available in time, twin-row Pratt & Whitney “Twin Wasp” radials of 850 hp with l,000 hp available for takeoff, were substituted. The big bomber was always handicapped by the lack of power due to this substitution. I remember hearing many, many times that the bomber landed at 49 mph. It just seemed to hang in the air when coming in for a landing.

The large size of the bomber allowed many innovations that were not previously available in aircraft. The XB-15 had a wing area of 2,789 sq. ft., gross weight of 70,706 lbs., top speed of 200 mph, range of 5,130 mi. and service ceiling of 18,900 ft. Armament available was 6 machine guns and an 8,000-lb bombload. (Specifications from the Boeing Company document, “Pedigree of Champions.”)

Inside the wing were passageways which allowed the crew to crawl on their hands and knees out to the engines to make minor repairs in flight. As flight engineer, Daddy had to climb into the wings many times. Bunks were installed for crew rotation because the range was considerably further than other aircraft of that day. Many of the accessories were electrical, so two auxiliary generators driven by gasoline engines were installed in the fuselage. Another new feature was the use of a separate crew member as flight engineer with a station and control panel of his own. This station was the world of Bill Heldt. Each of the crew members had specific assignments, then assumed other duties as needed.

Early aviators from the U.S. Army Air Corps will remember Daddy as Bill Heldt (William J. Heldt, Major, USAF, Ret.) formerly of Tampa, Florida. Heldt flew all of the flights on thee XB-15 during it’s military tour of duty at Langley with the exception of one flight. He had a small amount of per diem due him from an earlier flight and since cash money was such a precious commodity to the military in the early days, he asked to be excused from what was expected to be a routine flight of the big bomber in order to go to the Finance Office to receive his cash. As Heldt watched, the large bomber took off from the runway and started to circle the field; smoke began pouring from two engines which had some minor repair just prior to take off. The pilot, Major Caleb V. Haynes, immediately brought the plane down, and from that time on, Heldt never missed another flight.

The XB-15 was used as a research vehicle by the Army Air Corps and many research programs wee conducted by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Nightly, these research flights were discussed by the Army crew during penny-ante card games which were always played on an old Army blanket covered kitchen table in one of the crew’s family quarters on base. During these games, the crew members would refly the missions, take apart the bomber bolt by bolt, put it back together, and discuss the crazy things those “NACA Nuts” were doing. They lived, breathed, and drank to the XB-15. It was their life, their livelihood, and their love. Caleb Haynes was highly respected by all of his crew. He was the best, and so were they.

As part of a comprehensive investigation of the flying and handling qualities of the XB-15, the stalling characteristics were studied in detail and documented in a NACA Memorandum Report entitled “Stalling Characteristics of the Boeing XB-15 Airplane (Air Corps No. 35-277) by M. N. Gough and R. R. Gilruth. Mel Gough was NACA’s Senior Test Pilot and Gilruth was a Junior Aeronautical Engineer when this report was written in November, 1938.

The Army made the bomber available for these tests between August 20 and September 12, 1938. The Army crew did not always know the details of the tests and many lengthy discussions were held concerning the weird maneuvers this big bomber was being requested to perform. Instruments installed for the flying-quality measurements included control-position recorders, roll, pitch, and yaw turnmeters, a center-of-gravity accelerometer, and air-speed recorders which were used for the stalling tests. The control-force measuring device was also available. Silk tufts were taped to the wing surface so that the development of the stall could be observed visually and photographed with a motion-picture camera. During one of these tests, Heldt observed that the bomber had stopped forward flight and “must be flying backward,” the tufts taped on the wings had fluctuated and then reversed. When the bomber touched down at its normal landing speed of 49 mph, the crew breathed a sigh of relief, they’d lived through another one. A series of 17 stalls were made during this research program.

The first time Heldt saw the XB-15 was when it was delivered to Wright Field in Ohio by Major Stanley Olmstead, who flew in low level over the hangar and sideslipped the XB-15 to a landing. After checkout flights, the Langley crew flew the bomber to Langley Field. The XB-15 was one of the first aircraft with a short field capability. It would come in over Back River at Langley, land on the runway, and turn off at the first taxiway. But it was an entirely different situation on take off with a full load. Heldt said it sometimes took two miles to get airborne.

The longest flight or time in the air without refueling was for 16 hours when they were mapping the Galapagos Islands, a very wild group of islands in the Pacific Ocean 650 miles west of Ecuador in South America. Prior to World War II, the United States needed this area mapped in order to determine just where an air base should be located. A camera crew was included with this flight and it became a test of the crew’s endurance as there were accommodations only for two members to get rest at any one time. In 1942, Ecuador allowed the United States to establish a base on the Galapagos to guard the Panama Canal. This base was returned to Ecuador in 1946.

Another mission of interest was when the bomber and crew were sent to Panama to practice bombing the Panama Canal locks. A 20-ft. square concrete reinforced simulated lock was constructed for this practice bombing. A canopy was to be put over the actual locks as a preventive measure. Each working day for six weeks, the crew had to maintain the bomber, load the bombs, and fly. They could only fly one mission a day because of the intense cloud cover that was typical for that area. This one mission a day was exhausting for the crew. During the practice bombing, the bombardier sat in the nose of the airplane and talked to the pilot over the interphone. When his bombsights were set up, he would issue instructions to the pilot, l degree to the right, or 1 degree to the left. By the time they were ready to release the bombs, the XB-15 had moved 200 ft. forward and they missed the target. For six weeks they missed the target. A B-17 was dispatched to Panama that was equipped with the new Norden bombsight, which had been developed for use by air forces prior to World War II. The XB-15 crew was extremely happy when the B-17 arrived. Using this new bombsight, the B-17 bombadier was able to hit the target on the first try. This meant the XB-15 and crew could return home to Langley.

In 1939, the XB-15 crew earned the Mackay Trophy for the most distinguished aviation event of the year, along with “the most sincere thanks and gratitude of the Chilean Air Force.” In February, 1939, the XB-15 was on a flight to Seattle, Washington when instructions were received to return immediately to Langley Field. The International Red Cross had requested assistance because of a devastating earthquake that shook the South American country of Chile, with very tragic consequences. The bomber serviced at March Field, California for the return trip to Langley. They immediately took off and flew nonstop back home. After landing at Langley, while the crew got some rest, the two inboard engines were changed, the inside of the bomber was stripped of all unnecessary parts, and racks and platforms were placed in the bomb bay. The XB-15 was loaded with ether, chloroform, cat-gut, syringes, needles, and x-ray plates. At dawn the next morning, the bomber took off and headed south. Refueling stops were made in Miami and Panama. The Government of Chile was extremely grateful to the crew and the United States for their assistance. Nothing was too good for these Americans that had brought the needed medical supplies to this earthquake-torn country. The crew of the XB-15 was treated like royalty and served a lobster dinner the night before they were scheduled to return to Langley. A Chilean chef prepared a marvelous dinner of cantaloupes with ice cream and decorations on top, lobster, and of course, plenty of Scotch. Some lobsters were left over so the crew had them wrapped and carried them onboard so they could have a good meal on the return flight. Heldt was to be the first airborne cook, and his small galley couldn’t prepare anything as superb as these lobsters.

On the takeoff the next morning, the wind was in the wrong direction, so Major Haynes had to take off towards the hangar. Later, a letter was received stating that several women spectators had fainted when they thought the big bomber was going to hit the hangar.

The XB-15 flew off the coast of South America about 20 miles at an altitude of 21,500 to 30,000 ft. in order to avoid the mountainous terrain in that part of the world. Icing weather conditions were encountered and all four engines started to lose power. Heat was turned on and the ice soon dissipated, but a few gray hairs were earned during those few moments.

A little later in the flight, a couple of the crew members felt it was time to eat some of the leftover lobsters. While eating, one of the officers walked up, took the lobsters away and threw them overboard. He told the crew members that it would make them sick. Sure enough, when the bomber landed in Panama, Heldt had to be taken off to the base hospital. When the doctor learned what had been consumed in the last 24 hours, he said he just happened to have something that would clear the problem in a very short time. Heldt had to drink almost a pint of Epson Salts. It seems he had acquired an acute case of Lobster-Scotchalism.

Another notable flight during the year 1939 was in June when the body of the Mexican flying ace, Francisco Sarabia, was returned to Mexico City. Sarabia had died when his airplane crashed into the Potomac River. The Sarabian family was so grateful for the courtesy of the United States that they presented the crew with a gift, an ocelot, which was promptly named “Babe.” A special cage was built for Babe and placed in one of the hangars at Langley. She was fed only the choicest pieces of steak and had her eggs specially cooked. With all the attention and care she received, she still remained a “wild” cat. When she became too large to continue as the crew’s mascot, Babe was given to the zoo in Washington, DC. When Heldt visited the zoo much later, Babe became excited as she remembered him.

In 1940, the 49th Bombardment Squadron broke up and Heldt was transferred, along with the XB-15, to Washington, DC, as part of the newly formed Ferry Command. the XB-15 was utilized in ferrying pilots (frequently among those pilots were many WASPS, Women’s Air Force Service Pilots) and equipment to Newfoundland . There they would switch planes and fly across the Atlantic Ocean to Scotland. Returning to Newfoundland, the crews would then ferry the XB-15 back to Washington. It was used to shuttle back and forth between Washington, DC and Newfoundland for some time.

Since the XB-15 was designed strictly for research, it was not suited for combat, yet its load-carrying capability was put to good use during World War II when it was converted to a cargo carrier designated as the XC-105.

Like so many other aircraft of that period that had a long and distinguished service career, the XB-15 was sold to a scrap melting plant in Indiana for salvaging and melt down. It was truly a museum piece in my opinion, but then I am prejudiced.

November 9, 2006

6 May 1936: XBLR in Full-Scale Tunnel

For more on the XB-15, see Wikipedia page.

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