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Prototype Boeing B-29 crashes into Seattle's Frye Packing Plant on February 18, 1943.
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On February 18, 1943, the second of Boeing's top-secret XB-29 prototype Superfortress bombers catches fire 20 minutes after takeoff from Boeing Field and crashes into the Frye Packing Plant. Lead Boeing test pilot Eddie Allen and 10 crewmen perish along with 19 workers in the meat-processing factory. Although the event cannot be concealed, the identity of the aircraft type -- which will drop the first atomic bombs on Japan -- will remain classified until the end of World War II.
Birth of a Superfortress
In 1940, the U.S. Army Air Corps commissioned Boeing to design a new bomber that could fly higher and farther than its stalwart B-17. Two XB-29 prototypes were rushed to completion at Seattle's Boeing Plant 1, and the first took wing from Boeing Field on September 21, 1942, with veteran Boeing test Pilot Edmond T. "Eddie" Allen (1896-1943) at the controls.
Tests continued on both planes through the winter of 1942-1943. The second XB-29 took off from Boeing Field late on the morning of February 18, 1943, for routine engine tests with Allen and a crew of 10 technicians and engineers. Twenty minutes into the flight, Allen radioed that he had an engine fire and was returning to land.
Terror in the Sky and on the Ground
The first blaze was extinguished but a second fire erupted. Two crewmen bailed out as the plane narrowly missed downtown Seattle skyscrapers on its approach, but their chutes could not deploy in time. The giant bomber pancaked onto the Frye plant just short of Boeing Field, killing Allen and the remaining eight aboard.
Fortunately, most Frye employees were on their lunch break when the factory burst into flames. Army Pvt. Sam Morris, a newly enlisted African American from Florida was later hailed as a hero for helping to rescue several workers from the conflagration. Official records say 19 died on the ground, although early reports ranged as high as 30.
The nature of the aircraft was kept secret while work proceeded on the B-29. Ultimately, thousands of the planes were built at Renton and at Wichita, Kansas. They helped to turn the tide in the Pacific, and it was a B-29 Superfortress, the Enola Gay, that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
Boeing Archives, Year by Year, 75 Years of Boeing History (Seattle: Boeing, 1991); Peter M. Bower, Boeing Aircraft Since 1916 (London: Putnam, 1989); Robert Redding & Bill Yenne, Boeing, Planemaker to the World (San Diego: Thunder Bay Press, 1997); James R. Warren, The War Years: A Chronicle of Washington State in World War II (Seattle: History Ink/UW Press, 2000).
Note: This essay was revised on November 5, 2001, corrected on February 15, 2013, and revised on June 10, 2014.
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