The B-29 program, often referred to as “the three-billion-dollar gamble,” was an astoundingly expensive undertaking during World War II, even exceeding the costs of the renowned Manhattan Project.
And Today, we’ll explore the development, production, and operational costs of this iconic aircraft.
Let’s get right into the costs!
On September 6, 1940, a contract worth $3.6 million was signed for the development of two XB-29 prototypes and one static test article. This contract was later amended on December 14 to allocate funds for an additional flyable XB-29.
The first XB-29, which had a serial number of 41-002, made its initial flight on September 21, 1942.
The development cost of the Boeing B-29, amounted to approximately $9 million before this first airplane took to the skies. On the other hand, the US Army reported the cost of the first B-29 to be $3,392,396.60.
In addition, a separate contract was signed in 1941 for the production of 14 YB-29 service test units at a cost of $1,403,623.86 each.
And these costs were before mass production began in the big factories. And that takes us to the next section…
Cost per Aircraft
As the number of B-29 orders grew, manufacturers managed to reduce the cost per unit due to increased efficiency in mass production techniques and the expertise of assembly line workers.
The first 100 B-29s required 157,000 man-hours to build, which decreased to 78,000 for the subsequent 100, and then to 57,000 for the third set of 100. By 1944, this figure had dropped to 30,000 man-hours. However, despite these efficiency improvements, many bombers still needed thousands of man-hours of modifications after completion.
The cost of the B-29-40-BA model was $971,373, while the final B-29-90-BW variant was priced at $495,780. In comparison, the competing B-32 model initially cost $822,195, and later $731,040, with only 145 units produced.
The cost of a B-29-55-BW was $618,045:
|Government Furnished Equipment (GFE):|
|Engine equipment||$ 5,796|
|Aircraft equipment||$ 102,415|
Ton-for-ton cost compared to B-17
When comparing the Boeing B-17 and B-29 bombers, the B-29 offered a significantly higher payload capacity and efficiency. On average, the B-29 could carry 10 tons of payload, whereas the B-17 and B-24 could only carry 2.5 tons each. In terms of monthly capacity, the B-29 could transport 130 tons, while the B-17 carried just 25 tons.
In a ton-for-ton comparison, the B-29 surpassed the B-17 by a ratio of 5 to 1 in bomb load capacity and a striking 10 to 1 in ton-miles carried, even when considering the considerable distance differences between their respective missions.
In terms of cost, the B-29 came with a higher price tag, with a unit cost of $620,000 compared to the B-17’s $210,000. This translated to a cost ratio of 3 to 1 in favor of the B-17. However, given the B-29’s superior payload capacity and efficiency, its higher cost was justified.
Total Production Cost
The B-29 program was an incredibly expensive endeavor during World War II, with costs surpassing even those of the Manhattan Project, which was widely quoted at two billion dollars.
The initial estimated cost for the production run of 3,943 B-29s (out of the 5,092 orders that were eventually canceled) amounted to $3.7 billion, resulting in an average cost of $930,000 per bomber.
If the additional 5,092 B-29s that were on order at the end of the war had been completed, the total cost of the program could have ranged between $5.4 billion and $7.2 billion, assuming that the unit costs remained constant.
It took 46 people to fly and take care of the B-29 compared to the 31 people in the B-17. That was a ratio of 1.5 to 1.
Depot maintenance and modification
The labor cost for the depot maintenance and modification of a B-29 was $99,000. In comparison, the same cost for a B-17 was $19,273. And for the B-47, which was introduced into the Air Force in 1949, the cost was $205,000.
The B-29 required an airframe overhaul every 4,000 hours and each overhaul required 12,000 man-hours.
The number of overhauls per year was determined from the flying hours’ forecast for that year. For example, during the fiscal year 1949, a total of 85 B-29 overhauls were planned.
Direct cost per hour
In 1950 it cost the U.S. Air Force $ 233.32 to operate one Boeing B-29 for one hour. This figure represents only the direct operating costs, for supplies, equipment, gas, oil, etc., and does not include crew costs and other indirect costs. The following is a table of the direct hourly operating costs of Air Force aircraft then in service:
|Type of Aircraft||Operative cost per hour (1950)|
|Convair OA-10 (PBY)||$ 55.61|
|Boeing B-17||$ 96.97|
|North American B-25||$ 55.13|
|Douglas B-26||$ 75.25|
|Boeing B-29||$ 233.32|
|Convair B-36||$ 1,024.17|
|North American B-45 (jet)||$ 386.77|
|Boeing B-50||$ 421.00|
|Beech C-45||$ 18.61|
|Curtiss C-46||$ 57.50|
|Douglas C-47||$ 37.63|
|Douglas C-117||$ 37.66|
|Douglas C-54||$ 97.71|
|Douglas C-74||$ 237.45|
|Fairchild C-82||$ 79.27|
|Boeing C-97||$ 272.40|
|Republic F-47||$ 68.95|
|North American F-51||$ 62.92|
|Lockheed F-80 (jet)||$ 120.18|
|North American F-82||$ 96.49|
|Republic F-84 (jet)||$ 117.00|
|North American F-86 (jet)||$ 145.11|
|Sikorsky H-5||$ 40.54|
|Vultee L-5||$ 8.54|
|North American T-6||$ 13.84|
|Beech T-7||$ 18.69|
|Beech T-11||$ 18.69|
Engines overhaul hours & cost
By the beginning of the 1950s, the B-29 engines could operate 250-270 hours before an overhaul was needed, with the cost of the overhaul at $ 3,050 and the cost of the new engines at $ 22,500. The following table compares these values with other aircraft at the same time:
|Engine||Estimated hours between overhaul||Cost of overhaul||Cost of Engine|
|Fiscal year 1951||Fiscal year 1952|
|R-3350 for B-29||250 hr||275 hr||$ 3,050||$ 22,500|
|1-47-11 for B-47||100 hr||150 hr||$ 7,000||$ 38,500|
|J-47-11 for B-36||40 hr||55 hr||$ 7,000||$ 38,500|
|R-4360-41 for B-36||225 hr||250 hr||$ 6,800||$ 55,425|
|R-4360-53 for B-36||225 hr||250 hr||$ 7,500||$ 80,000|
- Boeing B-29 Superfortress Facts: 11 things to know
- Manufacturing Marvel: The Story of the B-29’s Production
- Building the B-29: The Subcontractor’s list
- Building the B-29: The contracts List
- Building the B-29: Designations and Serial Numbers
- Boeing B-29 Superfortress: The Ultimate Look: From Drawing Board to VJ-Day by William Wolf
- Air corps newsletter, volume 27, 1944
- American aviation daily, volume 67, editions 1-43
- The Icarus Syndrome: The Role of Air Power Theory in the Evolution and Fate of the U.S. Air Force by Carl H. Builder