Few aircraft have been as overlooked as the Consolidated B-32 Dominator. Developed during the Second World War, the B-32 was a heavy bomber designed for the United States Army Air Forces.
Despite its potential, the aircraft has remained a footnote, overshadowed by its more famous counterpart, the B-29 Superfortress. We aim to shed light on the Dominator, exploring its development, features, and the reasons behind its brief operational history.
The Genesis of the B-32
The story of the Dominator begins in the late 1930s, as world tensions escalated. In 1939, General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, acting head of the U.S. Army Air Corps, was concerned by the growing war clouds in Europe and the Far East. A special committee, led by Brigadier General W. G. Kilner, was established to recommend long-term needs for new bombers.
Their report led Arnold to seek authorization for a Very Long-Range (VLR) bomber project, surpassing the capabilities of the existing B-17 and B-24.
In January 1940, the Army issued formal requirements for this “superbomber”, envisioning a speed of 400 mph, a range of 5,333 miles, and a 2,000-pound bomb load deliverable at half that range. Following further revisions, which incorporated early wartime experiences in Europe, the Army sought more defensive armament, armour, and self-sealing fuel tanks.
This set the stage for the Dominator’s development, alongside the B-29, as a part of the Army’s quest for a superior long-range bomber capable of reaching distant targets from American bases.
The B-32 was developed by Consolidated Aircraft Corporation and was initially known as the XB-32 during its prototype phase. Its design was similar to the B-24 Liberator, featuring a high-mounted Davis-type wing and twin tails, but with a larger wing, cylindrical fuselage, and a rounded, B-29-type nose, later altered to a more conventional stepped windshield.
Powered by four turbosupercharged Wright R-3350 Duplex Cyclone air-cooled radial engines, the B-32 shared features like pressurised crew compartments and remotely-controlled turrets with the B-29, though its turrets were retractable. The development faced challenges, particularly with the defensive gun system, leading to delays.
The first XB-32 prototype was completed in 1942, nearly six months behind schedule. It took its maiden flight in September 1942 from San Diego’s Lindbergh Field. During its development, there were continuous revisions and modifications based on testing and operational feedback, which included changes in armaments and the tail design.
By late 1943, the U.S. Army Air Forces deemed the B-32 design as being obsolete compared to contemporary standards. This led to significant changes, such as replacing the remotely-controlled turrets with manned turrets, redesigning engine nacelles, and adopting four-bladed propellers. The pressurised cabin was abandoned for missions envisioned at low to medium altitudes, allowing an increase in the maximum bomb load to 20,000 pounds.
These extensive modifications essentially led to a redesign of the entire aircraft, and with these changes, the B-32 finally entered service in 1944, just early enough to see combat during the war.
The B-32 took part in the Last Dogfight of the Second World War
The B-32 eventually saw combat in the Pacific in 1945. By this time, however, the war was nearing its end, and the B-29 had already proven its effectiveness. The Dominator participated in a handful of missions against Japanese targets, but it was clear that the aircraft was not needed in the numbers originally anticipated.
One notable aspect of the B-32’s service was its role in the final air combat mission of the Second World War. On August 18, 1945, three days after Japan’s surrender, a B-32 was attacked by Japanese fighters, marking the last dogfight of the war.
Despite Japan’s surrender, four Dominators were assigned to photograph targets in Japan, but mechanical issues grounded two. The remaining two were attacked by Japanese fighters, including 14 A6M Zeros and three N1K2-J Shiden-Kai, mistakenly identified as Ki-44 Tojos by the Americans. Japanese aces expressed concern about the perceived threat of these flights. The B-32 “Hobo Queen II” encountered no significant damage and claimed two Zeros and a probable Shiden-Kai, although Japanese records don’t confirm any losses.
The second B-32, flying lower, sustained heavy damage, resulting in injuries to several crew members and the death of Sergeant Anthony Marchione, the last American air combat casualty of WWII. The damaged B-32 safely returned to Okinawa. This incident led to the disarmament of Japanese fighters from August 19th onwards.
The final B-32 combat mission occurred on August 28th, with two separate accidents leading to the loss of 15 crew members. The 386th Bomb Squadron ceased operations on August 30th.
End of the Line
After the war, the B-32’s fate was sealed. With no need for such a bomber in peacetime and with the B-29 firmly established as the Air Forces’ heavy bomber of choice, the B-32 program was quickly wound down and became redundant. Additionally, its operational issues and mechanical complexities contributed to its short service life. After V-J Day, the remaining B-32 aircraft were ordered to return to the United States.
Further production was cancelled in September and October of 1945. The few completed B-32s were either sent directly to storage or scrapped, and by 1947, most of the B-32s had been dismantled or scrapped.
The B-32 Dominator’s legacy in military aviation history is complex.
While it didn’t achieve the fame or extensive service record of its contemporary, the B-29 Superfortress, the B-32 represents an important phase in the evolution of bomber aircraft during World War II. It showcased advancements in areas like pressurised cabins and remote-controlled gun turrets. However, its operational role was limited due to its late entry into service and the end of the war.
Its failure can be attributed to a combination of factors. Firstly, it was developed as a backup to the B-29 Superfortress and was always the second choice for the U.S. Army Air Forces. As the B-29 proved successful, the need for the B-32 diminished.
Additionally, the B-32 faced numerous development challenges, including delays and technical problems such as issues with its pressurisation system and defensive gun turrets. By the time these issues were resolved, the war was nearing its end, and the strategic need for the B-32 had greatly reduced.
The story of the Dominator is a reminder of the rapid technological advancements and strategic shifts in aerial warfare during this era.