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The Douglas XB-19 was what we would today call a “technology demonstrator”. It was never intended for series production, but was built as a proof of concept design to explore the idea of a very heavy long-range bomber. It was the largest aircraft built in the U.S. until the Convair B-36 flew in 1946. (USAF photo)
The top-secret project was begun in 1935, Douglas beating out Sikorsky for the contract. Construction was lengthy, facing delays in funding due to the Depression and changes due to the rapid progression of innovations in aviation at the time. Douglas recommended cancelling the project because the design had become overweight, underpowered, and too expensive.
The USAAC instructed Douglas to proceed in spite of the developmental issues. Douglas finished the aircraft using its own funds at a considerable financial loss. In an interesting public relations move, the USAAC declassified the project and the huge bomber became a press favorite. (USAF photo)
The first flight took place on 27JUN41 with Major Stanly Ulmstead (pilot) and Major Howard Bunker (co-pilot) at the controls. A crowd of 45,000 had gathered at the Douglas plant at Santa Monica, CA to witness the event. Six P-40Cs of the 20th Pursuit Group from Hamilton Field provided escort.
The aircraft handled well in the air, but there was significant porpoising during the landing approach at March Field. In addition, the taxiway was damaged due to the immense weight.
Everything about the design was to a large scale. Both of the XB-19 main wheels survive and can be seen today, one at Hill AFB in Ogden Utah and one at the NMUSAF in Dayton, OH.
The tip of the vertical fin rose to 42 feet (12.8 meters) above the ground, here airmen giving the tail a wash down provide perspective.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the aircraft was camouflaged in the standard Olive Drab over Neutral Gray scheme and the designed defensive armament of five .50 caliber, six .30 caliber, and two 37 mm guns was fitted. (USAF photo)
On 23JAN43 the XB-19 arrived at Wright Field in Dayton OH to continue its testing program. By that time the XB-19 was serving as a “flying laboratory” to test equipment and concepts for America’s heavy bomber programs. One modification was the replacement of the 2,300 hp Wright 3350 radial engines with 3,000 Allison V-3420 24-cylinder in-lines and four-bladed props. This change was performed at Romulus Army Air Base at Detroit, MI.
The aircraft’s immense 212 foot wingspan was a continued source of fascination, here illustrated by the mechanic at the end of the port wing at Romulus. The down side was the aircraft was simply too big to fit in many hangers and it took up a lot of space on the ramp.
The aircraft was redesignated XB-19A to reflect the engine change. The new engines solved persistent cooling problems with the Wright radials and increased maximum speed by almost 70 mph (111 kph).
The aircraft serial was 38-471, and was marked in the USAAF paradigm as 8471 in yellow on the tail, here with the last two digits also repeated on the nose. The barred U.S. national insignia date the photograph to after August 1943 while the aircraft was still serving as a test bed for new equipment.
Most of the test equipment was later removed and the XB-19A was converted to carry cargo, intended for use within the continental U.S. In this configuration it could carry up to 45,000 pounds. Externally, the change was indicated by the removal of the dorsal turret with the opening being faired over and the addition of a cargo door. The aircraft was used little in this configuration.
The XB-19A was then transferred to the All-Weather Flying Center at Wilmington, OH. There it was stripped of its camouflage paint and given high-visibility markings in the form of a red vertical tail and nose with yellow engine cowlings. It is pictured here in these markings in storage at Davis Monthan where it was scrapped in 1949.