Consolidated B-32 Dominator

Last modified July 12, 2009


(From "Flying Terminated Inventory", Stephen Harding, Wings, April 1993, p. 40. Used with permission.)

The Consolidated B-32 Dominator four-engined heavy bomber was ordered at the same time as the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. However, the B-32 was definitely the USAAF's second choice, and was intended primarily as insurance in case the favored Boeing design failed. Since the B-29 ultimately turned out to be an outstanding success, the B-32 was built only in relatively small numbers and used in only a very few combat actions during the last few weeks of the war. Although its brief combat career was unspectacular, it did have the distinction of flying the last aerial combat mission against Japan.

In early 1939, General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, the acting head of the Army Air Corps, had become alarmed by the growing war clouds in Europe and in the Far East. He established a special committee, chaired by Brigadier General W. G. Kilner, that would make recommendations for the long term needs of the Army Air Corps. In their June 1939 report, the Kilner committee recommended that several new long-range medium and heavy bombers be developed. Hastened by a new urgency caused by the outbreak of war in Europe, on November 10, 1939, General Arnold requested authorization to contract with major aircraft companies for studies of a Very Long-Range (VLR) bomber that would be capable of carrying any future war well beyond American shores. It was to be superior in performance, range, load-carrying ability, and in defensive armament to existing B-17 and B-24 aircraft. Approval for the VLR bomber project was granted on December 2, and USAAC engineering officers under Captain Donald L. Putt of the Air Material Command at Wright Field began to prepare the official specification.

In January of 1940, the Army issued a set of formal requirements for the "superbomber", calling for a speed of 400 mph, a range of 5333 miles, and a bomb load of 2000 pounds delivered at the halfway-point at that range. The official specification was revised in April to incorporate the lessons learned in early European wartime experience, and now asked for more defensive armament, more armor and provision for self-sealing fuel tanks. This became the basis for Request for Data R-40B and Specification XC-218. On January 29, 1940, the War Department formally issued Data R-40B and circulated it to Boeing, Consolidated, Douglas and Lockheed.

On June 27, 1940, the Army issued contracts for preliminary engineering data for the new "superbomber" to four manufacturers, which were designated in order of preference as Boeing XB-29, Lockheed XB-30, Douglas XB-31 and Consolidated XB-32. Seeing that they were at a competitive disadvantage, Lockheed and Douglas both subsequently withdrew from the competition before any detailed designs could be completed, but both Boeing and Consolidated stuck with it. On August 24, 1940, the Army ordered two prototypes and a static test model from Boeing under the designation XB-29. At the same time, two XB-32 prototypes were ordered from Consolidated as insurance against the failure of the favored XB-29. The contract was dated September 6. A third XB-32 was added to the contract in November. The first XB-32 was to be delivered within 18 months of the contract date, the second 90 days later, and the third 90 days after that.

The Consolidated XB-32 was assigned the designation of Model 33 by the company. It was similar in overall layout to the twin-finned B-24 Liberator, with a high-mounted Davis-type wing, twin tails, and a twin bomb-bay covered over by a set of roll-up doors. It differed from the B-24 in having a larger wing, a cylindrical fuselage, and a rounded, B-29-type nose. However, the rounded nose was replaced by a more conventional stepped windshield before the first prototype flew. The engines were the same as those of the XB-29 -- four turbosupercharged Wright R-3350 Duplex Cyclone air-cooled radials. Like the Boeing B-29, the XB-32 had pressurized crew compartments and remotely-controlled turrets. However, the turrets on the XB-32 were retractable.

The B-32 mockups were built in late December of 1940. They were modified to incorporate changes suggested by a Wright Field report on wind tunnel testing of a 1/35th scale wooden model. The revised mockups were reinspected and finally approved on January 6, 1941. Thirteen service test YB-32s were ordered in June of 1941. These would be developed in parallel to the construction of the three XB-32s.

The first XB-32 (41-141) was rolled out at San Diego on September 1, 1942, nearly six months behind schedule. At this stage in the war, the B-32 was still an important part in the USAAF's war planning. The August 1941 plan was based on precision bombing of German industrial targets with 98 groups of bombers, 48 of them equipped with B-29s and B-32s. The USAAF was already unhappy about the delays in both the B-29 and B-32 programs, and since the B-32 had actually been the first to be completed, the Army wanted flight tests to begin at once. Because of problems with the pressurization system and the gun turrets, these items had been left off the first XB-32 so that it could begin flight testing right away.

The first XB-32 took off on its maiden flight on September 7, 1942 from San Diego's Lindbergh Field, with test pilots Russell Rodgers and Richard McMakin at the controls. Problems with one of the rudder trim tab actuating rods forced an emergency landing at nearby NAS North Island after only 20 minutes in the air.

The XB-32 had R-3350-13 engines inboard, and R-3350-21 engines outboard, all of which drove three-bladed Hamilton Standard Hydromatic propellers. The XB-32 was later fitted with four 0.50-inch machine guns in each of its top and lower turrets, plus a pair of 0.50-inch machine guns and one 20-mm cannon mounted in the rear of each outboard engine nacelle firing rearward and controlled by aiming stations in the fuselage and tail. In addition, two fixed 0.50-inch guns were carried in the wing leading edges, outboard of the propellers.

Development problems continued, and in February 1943 the YB-32 contract was cancelled. However, a month later a contract for three hundred B-32s was placed, although some USAAF officers were in favor of cancelling the B-32 program outright since the B-29 program was now proceeding forward rapidly. The B-32s were to built at the Fort Worth Consolidated plant, although the prototypes had been built at San Diego. The popular name Terminator was assigned. On May 10, 1943, XB-32 41-141 crashed just after takeoff because of a flap malfunction, injuring six crewman and killing Consolidated test pilot Richard McMakin. This was a major setback for the B-32 program, since some vital test records had been destroyed in the crash, which meant that several tests had to be repeated.

The second XB-32 (41-142) flew for the first time on July 2, 1943. The second XB-32 sported the same type of twin fin and rudder assembly but with modified rudder tabs. It was also pressurized and had remotely-controlled retractable gun turrets in the dorsal and ventral positions, with a manned tail "stinger".

The first flight of the third XB-32 (41-18336) was delayed by further technical problems. When finally completed in November of 1943, the machine by now incorporated several features that the Army deemed unsatisfactory. In December of 1943, the USAAF came to the conclusion that the B-32 as it then existed was obsolete by contemporary world standards. A host of changes were recommended in order to save the program from cancellation. The USAAF felt that the defensive firepower of the XB-32 was totally inadequate and recommended that the remotely-controlled turrets be replaced by manned turrets. The armament was changed to a pair of 0.50-inch machine guns installed in nose, ventral, tail and two dorsal positions. The engine nacelles were redesigned, and four-bladed propellers were adopted. It was now envisaged that most of the missions carried out by the B-32 would be at low or medium altitudes, and the pressurized cabin was abandoned. The weight savings achieved by the omission of the pressurization enabled the maximum bombload to be increased to 20,000 pounds. Improved fuel, oil and bomb-release systems were needed, an automatic flight control system was installed, and emergency exits were improved. The bombardier's view was improved through installation of the B-24's Emerson Model 128 nose assembly. These changes were so major that they represented a virtual redesign of the entire aircraft.

The third XB-32 was used as the text bed for the changes. After its 25th flight, the third XB-32 was fitted with a single Boeing-designed 16.5-foot tall B-29-type vertical tail. However, this was still inadequate, and a Consolidated-designed 19 feet 6 inch vertical tail was substituted. This was first flown on the third XB-32 (41-18336) on November 3, 1943, and ultimately became standard on production B-32 aircraft.

With these revisions, the design became known as the Model 34, and orders were increased to over 1500 aircraft, including a third contract for 500 aircraft to be manufactured in the San Diego plant. San Diego was to produce fuselage parts for Fort Worth, and the latter was to build wings for incorporation into complete aircraft at San Diego. Powerplant auxiliary packages were to be built at Downey, and the rudder and the engines were to come from the Chicago plant of General Motors.

In August of 1944, the popular name of the B-32 was changed to Dominator. However, in August of 1945, this name was officially dropped because of objections made by the State Department at a United Nations conference. I am not sure of the reasons for the objection, but the name "Dominator" must have been deemed to be "politically incorrect" for the postwar environment. After that, the aircraft was officially referred to as simply B-32.

Although the first production aircraft built at Fort Worth (42-108471) was initially fitted with a complete B-29 vertical tail, it was later fitted with the definitive tall tail. Production B-32s carried ten 0.50-inch Browning M2 machine guns, mounted two each in manned nose, tail, belly and two dorsal turrets. The two dorsal turrets were built by Martin and were electrically-operated and fitted with streamlining "teardrops". The nose, tail and dorsal turrets were electric-hydraulic ball turrets built by Sperry. The belly turret was retractable, but protruded slightly when retracted.

The first B-32 delivery was made on September 19, 1944 with the second Fort Worth-built aircraft (42-108472). However, it was written off the very same day when its nose wheel collapsed on landing. Production delays held up delivery of the next aircraft, 42-108475, until November 22. Service tests were to be carried out at Eglin and Pincastle Fields in Florida and at Wright Field and Vandalia, Ohio.

By the end of December of 1944, only five aircraft had been delivered to the various test centers. In comparison, the B-29 had been in combat for nearly six months. By this time, the USAAF was quite unhappy about the delays and deficiencies in the B-32 program. Those few B-32s that had been delivered were experiencing a high rate of mechanical malfunctions, and there were complaints about faulty workmanship on some of the delivered aircraft. Many in the USAAF were now recommending that the B-32 program be cancelled outright, with B-32 crews being transferred to B-29 units.

Brigadier General Donald Wilson reported on the status of the B-32 program in December, and recommended that even in spite of the difficulties it would be unwise to abandon the Dominator program until a full set of tests had conclusively demonstrated its unsuitability. He recommended that no final decision about the Dominator's future be made until after the completion of service tests and that the crew training program should continue.

In support of the training of crews, starting on January 27, 1945, 40 aircraft (42-108485/108524) were delivered without turrets and bombing equipment as TB-32s for crew training. The unarmed TB-32s carried ballast to compensate for the weight of the absent turrets and bombing equipment. Prospective B-32 pilots underwent 50 hours training in TB-32s and co-pilots received 25 hours of flight time and 25 hours of observer training.

In service, the B-32 had numerous deficiencies. The cockpit had an extremely high noise level and the instrument layout was poor. Bombardier vision was rather poor. The aircraft was overweight for the available engine power, the mechanical subsystems were inadequate, and there were frequent engine fires caused by a faulty nacelle design. There were frequent undercarriage failures, which caused the type to be grounded briefly during May of 1945. On the plus side, the B-32 had excellent low-speed directional control, good takeoff and landing characteristics and rapid control response. The B-32 was a stable bombing platform, its manned turrets provided good protection, its subsystems were easily accessible for maintenance, and its reversible inboard propellers gave it excellent ground-handling characteristics.

Many of the problems encountered during the B-32 service tests were eliminated in subsequent production aircraft, either through design changes or through better quality control during manufacture.

An August 1944 directive from the USAAF had required that a combat test be carried out before the B-32 could be introduced into service. However, the AAFPGC agency opposed both a combat test and general service introduction of the B-32, so it seemed that the Dominator would be consigned to operational limbo indefinitely. In the meantime, Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney, the commander of the Far East Air Forces, had been anxious to get B-29s but his requests had always been turned down on the grounds that the B-29s were urgently needed elsewhere. As an alternative, General Kenney started requesting B-32s instead. On March 27, General Arnold approved Kenney's request and authorized a comprehensive Dominator combat test.

Col. Frank R. Cook was appointed commander of the test detachment. Three B-32s were chosen for the combat test (42-108529, -108531 and -108532). -108531 was damaged in an accident before leaving Fort Worth, and was replaced by 42-108528. -108528 was in rather bad shape, since it had been used as a test machine at Fort Worth. The first two arrived on Luzon on May 24, with the recalcitrant -108528 not arriving until the next day. The test was to be carried out under the auspices of the 5th Bomber Command, with the 386th Bombardment Squadron of the 312th Bombardment Group as the host unit. The 312th BG had four squadrons (386th, 387th, 388th, and 389th) that had been operating A-20s, and if things worked out well, all of the A-20s flying with the 386th and 387th BS would be replaced by B-32s. However, by the end of the war only the 386th and 387th had made the transition to the B-32, with the 388th and the 389th Squadrons still retaining their A-20s.

The first combat mission took place on May 29, 1945. It was a strike against a Japanese supply depot in Luzon's Cayagan Valley. All three of the Dominators were to take part, but -108528 aborted on takeoff. The other two proceeded to the target. There was no opposition, and bombing runs were made from an altitude of 10,000 feet, and both aircraft returned without incident. This raid was followed by a series of attacks on Japanese targets in the Philippines, in Formosa, and on Hainan Island in the Tonkin Gulf. The only opposition encountered during these missions was some rather inaccurate flak. The tests were thus deemed a success, and plans were made to convert the entire 386th Bombardment Squadron to B-32s. The 312th BG was scheduled to move to Okinawa as soon as the conversion of the 386th BS to the B-32 was completed.

Following the dropping of the atomic bombs, in August of 1945, the unit was ordered to move to Okinawa before the conversion could be carried out. Six more B-32s joined the squadron on Okinawa a few days later. Combat operations continued in spite of the de-facto cease-fire that had been called following the bombing of Nagasaki. During this time, the B-32s flew mainly photographic reconnaissance missions, most of which were unopposed. However, on August 17 a group of 4 B-32s flying over Tokyo were fired on by radar-directed flak and were attacked by Japanese fighters. The American aircraft escaped with only minor damage, claiming one confirmed fighter kill and two probables. During a reconnaissance mission over Tokyo on August 18, 42-108532 and 42-108578 were attacked by Japanese fighters. The American gunners claimed two kills and one probable, but -108578 was badly shot up and one of her crew was killed with two being injured. This was to prove to be the last combat action of World War 2.

The last Dominator mission of the war was flown by four B-32s on August 28 in a reconnaissance mission to Tokyo. The mission was a disaster, although not because of any enemy action. 42-108544 lost an engine on takeoff and skidded off the runway. All 13 men aboard perished when the aircraft exploded and burned. On the way back from the target, 42-108528 lost power on two of its four engines. The plane's pilot ordered the crew to bail out, but two men were killed.

After VJ-Day, the surviving B-32 aircraft were ordered to return to the USA. All further production of the B-32 was cancelled in September/October of 1945. At the time of cancellation, Fort Worth had produced 74 B-32s and 40 TB-32s, and San Diego had built only one. The last six fully-equipped Dominators (42-108579/108584) were flown from the production line directly into storage at Davis-Monthan and Kingman, Arizona. Twelve additional aircraft in shop-assembled status at San Diego and Fort Worth were declared "terminal inventory" and were also flown directly to disposal sites. At least 37 partially-assembled machines were stripped of all their government-furnished equipment and engines and were scrapped on site by the contractor. Those Dominators that were already in service were flown to the nearest disposal center, and all the non-flyable examples were scrapped in place. By 1947, most of B-32s that had been sent to the disposal centers had been scrapped.

No surplus B-32s were ever sold to foreign air forces, and the aircraft's complexity and reputation for mechanical unreliability made it unattractive on the postwar commercial market. There is only example in which a commercial customer showed any interest in a surplus B-32. In June 1947, Milton J. Reynolds, a pen manufacturer, announced that he was planning to buy a surplus B-32 for a round-the-world flight over both poles, but this plan was never carried out.

No intact, complete B-32 survives today. B-32-1-CF 42-108474 had been set aside for display at the Air Force Museum, but was unaccountably declared excess and scrapped at Davis-Monthan in August of 1949. Only bits and pieces of B-32s remain in existence today. A nose turret from a B-32 is in storage at the Paul Garber Restoration Facility of the Smithsonian Institution at Suitland, Maryland. Another B-32 nose turret is on display in a Minnesota museum. A static test wing panel from a B-32 was erected as a monument to aviation pioneer John J. Montgomery on a hill near San Diego.

Serials of Consolidated B-32:

   41-141/142		Consolidated XB-32 Dominator
   41-18336			Consolidated XB-32 Dominator
   42-108471/108484		Consolidated B-32-CF Dominator
   42-108485/108524		Consolidated TB-32-CF Dominator
   42-108525/108584		Consolidated B-32-CF Dominator

Specification of Consolidated B-32 Dominator:

Powerplant:
Four 2200 hp Wright R-3350-23A Duplex Cyclone eighteen-cylinder air-cooled radial engines, each with two turbosuperchargers.
Performance:
Maximum speed 357 mph at 30,000 feet, 281 mph at 5000 feet. Initial climb rate 1050 feet per minute. An altitude of 25,000 feet could be reached in 38 minutes. Normal range 2400 miles at 20,000 feet. Maximum range 3800 miles.
Weights:
60,278 pounds empty, 123,250 pounds maximum gross weight.
Dimensions:
Wingspan 135 feet 0 inches, length 82 feet 1 inches, wing area 1422 square feet.
Armament:
Ten 0.50-inch machine paired in nose, tail, ventral and two dorsal turrets. A maximum load of 20,000 pounds could be carried internally.

Sources:


  1. John Wegg, General Dynamics Aircraft and their Predecessors, Naval Institute Press, 1990

  2. Stephen Harding, Flying Terminated Inventory, Wings, April 1993, p. 40

  3. United States Military Aircraft Since 1909, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

  4. American Combat Planes, Third Enlarged Edition, Ray Wagner, Doubleday, 1982.

  5. E-mail from Robert Hornbeck on use of B-32 by 312th BG.

  6. E-mail from George Howatt on only two squadrons of the 312th BG having converted to the B-32 by war's end.

  7. E-mail from Kevin Semple on 386th BS being the only unit to fly combat missions.

  8. E-mail from Griff Murphey on length of B-32.