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AVIATION: New Intercontinental Bomber

5 minute read
TIME

The Air Force, which for months has been trying to decide on an intercontinental jet bomber to replace the B-36, last week picked one. The plane: Boeing’s eight-engined B-52. The Air Force awarded Boeing a letter contract to build some 70 of the planes, and announced that no more B-36s will be built after the ones now being built are finished. It was a double blow for Convair, which had hoped that its B60 would be picked as the long-range bomber. But the B-52 is considerably faster than the B-60. Powered by eight Pratt & Whitney J57 jet engines with some 80,000 h.p., the B-52 can far exceed 600 m.p.h., v. 435 m.p.h. for the B-36. In its 153-ft.-long fuselage, the swept-back-wing plane can carry 10,000 lbs. of bombs 10,000 miles, and drop them from altitudes of more than 50,000 ft.

The new giant is an enormous advance in bombers; it is a battleship of the air, and, like battleships, will probably never be mass produced as the B-29 was. And the cost is fantastically high: each bomber will cost an estimated $15 million v. $5 million for the B-36. Furthermore, the plane is so complicated that even Boeing has doubts about mass production. As Boeing’s President William Allen put it: “Comparing a World War II bomber and the B-52 is like comparing a kiddie-car and a Cadillac. Designing the Flying Fortress took 153,000 engineering hours, while designing the B-52 took 3,000,000.”

Hurry-Up Job. The bomber started out 3½ years ago as a makeshift project. Five Boeing engineers had gone to Wright Field to show the Air Force plans for an intercontinental turbo-prop bomber on which Boeing had been working for two years. But the Air Force turned it down, said it wanted a long-range, all-jet bomber. The engineers holed up in a hotel room for two days and, using a bureau top as a drawing board and balsa wood from model airplane kits, put together a rough model of the kind of jet bomber Boeing could make, along with a 33-page estimate of its performance. One look was enough to persuade the Air Force to order two prototypes. When the planes were put through their tests this spring, they did better than the estimates. And Bill Allen, whose company has had more ups & downs in the last seven years than a crop-dusting airplane, was finally flying in calm air.

Rough Ride. The rough ride for Bill Allen started as soon as he stepped into the presidency in 1945. A University of Montana graduate and Harvard-trained lawyer, Allen began handling Boeing’s legal affairs 20 years ago. Though he is no production man or engineer, he learned the plane business so well that he was made a director, was put into the top spot at the death of Philip G. Johnson. The day of his election., the Government canceled all Boeing’s war contracts for B-29s Boeing had to lay off 25,000 men. The next day, Bill Allen scrounged for something to keep going.

Instead of trying his hand at other products, as many other planemakers did. he took a gamble and stuck to planes. He built 50 Stratocruiser airliners, sold them —and lost $13.5 million. But Allen cashed in in a more important way. With the Stratocruisers, he held together his top-notch engineering staff under Wellwood E. Beall, the engineering genius who directed the design of World War II’s B-17 and B29, and later the building of the B-52. His staff set to work designing the B-47 medium bomber, landed $17.7 million in contracts for it and for guided missiles.

Into the Black. Still, Boeing’s troubles were not over. In 1948 its 15,000 machinists went on strike for the union shop and rigid seniority provisions. Bill Allen, who feared that the demands would eliminate the flexibility he thought management needed, sued the union for breach of contract—and won. After 144 long days the men returned, minus the union shop and the seniority clause they had demanded.

Despite the strike, after two years in the red, Boeing climbed out in 1948. Last year, with a backlog of more than $1 billion in orders, it netted $7.1 million. In the first six months this year alone it earned almost as much as in all of 1951. But the profit is down to 2% of gross (v. 7% for U.S. Steel). Bill Allen thinks that is too low; he says the Government should allow planemakers a bigger profit margin, to enable them to buy their own plants, keep them from being dominated completely by the Government.

He is deeply troubled about the future of his country—not only because of what the enemy might do, but also because of what the American people may do to themselves. Says he: “Every time we get a new Government-owned plant, the tendency is for the Government to exercise more & more control over the operation—a tendency toward socialized industry.”

Into the Supersonic. Bill Allen is unhappy about the arms program: he thinks that it should be stepped up at the expense of civilian industry, which he says is now competing for men & materials needed by planemakers. For this reason—and because of the vast complexity of the new planes—Allen does not think the Air Force will reach its goal of 143 groups by 1955, as planned.

Still more complicated planes are on the way, and last week Boeing was preparing for them. The company started tearing down its supersonic-speed air tunnel, where models of the B-52 had been tested, to make way for a $1,500,000 tunnel to test even greater speeds. In the new one, Boeing will start work on supersonic bombers to replace the B-52.

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