Hands on History at CAF’s AirPower History Tour
With only two airworthy examples remaining of nearly 4,000 airframes built, it’s a rare treat to see a B-29 in operation. Aviation geeks from near and far had that opportunity during the recent stop of the Commemorative Air Force’s AirPower History Tour stop at Oakland County International Airport in Southeast Michigan. The airport, known to pilots at “Pontiac” is located in the city of Waterford and is surrounded by the inland lakes that are famous in the region, and is celebrating its 90th birthday in 2019. What better way to celebrate than a visit from one of the rarest warbirds in operation?
The aircraft arrived on 1 July ahead of public exhibition from July 3rd to 7th. The B-29, known as “FiFi”, is the crown jewel of the CAF fleet and was joined on this leg of the tour by a PT-13 Stearman and a T-6 Texan, both of which were offering rides throughout the week. FiFi was available for walkthrough cockpit tours (included with the ramp fee) during the visit, with her 10 passenger seats being available for the two scheduled rides each morning on the tour’s weekend days.
To aviation enthusiasts, the B-29 needs no introduction. The pressurized heavy bomber was state of the art in the 1940s when it entered service with the US Army Air Corps, and is widely credited for ending World War II through the firebombing of Tokyo as well as the atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In addition to pressurization, other innovations present on the aircraft included remote controlled defensive gun turrets and tricycle landing gear. Of the 3,970 B-29s built, only 26 are preserved, with 24 of those in the USA, and two of them being airworthy. For many years, FiFi stood alone as the only operating B-29, though she was joined by Doc in more recent years. The B-29’s distant cousins in the form of the Guppy series aircraft are still operated by NASA to haul outsized cargo to this day.
The B-29 was originally powered by the 55 Liter, 18 Cylinder Wright R-3350 radial engines. Initially the massive radials required frequent maintenance and replacement, though they eventually developed into reliable machines powering the Famed Lockheed Constellation, DC-7, and A-1 Skyraider among many others. Fifi utilized the aircraft’s original -57AM engines that resulted in downtime for the big bomber. In 2006, FiFi was grounded and the long process of refitting new custom engines based off of two of the more reliable R-3350 variants was undertaken. After 4 years on the ground, FiFi returned to the skies in 2010, and has once again been traveling the country with each of her cowlings bearing the name of her engines which, apparently, all have somewhat unique personalities.
History buffs, aviation fans, and folks who just happened to be passing through filled the ramp, seizing the opportunity to spend some time up close and personal with one of the most recognizable aircraft in today’s skies. The tour’s star was roped off awaiting riders first thing in the morning, with the Stearman and Texan also sectioned off on the hot side of the ramp. The trainers spent the morning taking riders up for short trips in the local area while FiFi remained grounded due to a lack of suitable divert fields. As it became clear that the weather would not cooperate, the crew prepped the B-29 for cockpit tours for the gathered crowd which commenced ahead of schedule.
Attendees young and old patiently waited in line for their turn to climb aboard FiFi, which involved a climb up through the front bomb bay between racks of replica 500 pound general purpose bombs. At the top of the ladder you step through a small hatch in the cockpit section’s pressure bulkhead into the radio/navigator’s area. Immediately behind you as you enter the aircraft, you can see the tunnel that passes between the front and rear sections of the aircraft over the unpressurized bomb bays. The tunnel is not much wider than an adult’s shoulders, and it looked to be a long and uncomfortable crawl from the cockpit to the gunner’s compartment in the aft end of the plane.
Turning back towards the front, you’re greeted by a rack of radio equipment to your right and the navigator’s station to your left. The map on the navigator’s table is signed by MAJ Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, the navigator on Enola Gay’s fateful mission on 6 August, 1945 in which the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. “Dutch” was the final surviving member of Enola Gay’s crew, and it was a moving moment to realize that a man who was a part of one of history’s most impactful chapters was once right where I stood at that moment.
Leaving that piece of history behind, one walks forward towards a truly expansive cockpit by modern standards. The pilot and copilot sit on opposite sides of the aircraft, with a wide path between them leading to the bombardier’s seat. The flight engineer sits facing rearwards behind the copilot, and has a full set of engine controls as well as a wall of gauges in front of him. One can not help but notice the resemblance to the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, with the fictional starship’s design having clearly been influenced by this legendary World War II bomber. Historical accuracy takes a back seat to flight safety in the cockpit, where modern instruments are mixed in with original era hardware to make up the panels of the pilot, copilot, and flight engineer. A decidedly non-period correct mount was present to hold the pilot’s GPS for additional navigational capability despite the presence of the navigator’s station immediately aft, certainly better safe than sorry with this priceless piece of history! One can only imagine the amount of coordination and communication that must go on between the crew to keep this 74 year old bomber happy and healthy in the air. Exiting the aircraft is done through a hatch in the floor of the cockpit, climbing down a ladder through the nosegear bay and back to ground level.
When she’s not touring the country making appearances at airports and airshows, FiFi resides in Ft. Worth, TX and is operated by the CAF’s B-29/B-24 squadron. The aircraft was acquired by the Confederate (now Commemorative) Air Force in 1971, having been used as a missile target and thankfully escaping destruction. Aircraft 44-62070 was built by Boeing in Renton and delivered to the Army Air Corps in 1945. After a hard landing in Colorado, the aircraft had its combat systems removed and was turned into a trainer. Following a storage period, it returned to flight before being retired to the bomb range at China Lake where it sat for over 10 years before being discovered by CAF.
The big radials on FiFi marked their territory on the ramp, and served as a reminder to the gathered crowd that this particular B-29 is no static display tucked away in a museum hangar, rather an active piece of living history that helps tell the story of the greatest generation. Lest one forget the amount of money and maintenance it takes to keep history alive, consider this: FiFi has 72 cylinders with a total of 144 spark plugs and each engine has an 85 gallon tank of oil with 10 gallons of oil consumption, and between 400 and 500 gallons of fuel burn expected per hour. Each winter, FiFi spends about 3-4 months at home base for her annual inspection and other yearly maintenance procedures. Each flight hour results in hundreds of hours of maintenance to keep FiFi flying, hundreds of hours well spent in the eyes of most avgeeks! Between consumables, maintenance and other expenses, costs are estimated at $10,000 per flight hour for a B-29, though one can’t truly put a price on seeing such a rare piece of history in action!
Despite Saturday’s weather issues, Sunday presented a perfect opportunity to fly. To make up for Saturday’s cancellations, FiFi took to the skies 4 times! Each flight began with the process of starting the bomber up. The two inside engines were started at the parking spot, rumbling to life with an unmistakable sound and smell known to warbird aficionados around the world. Due to low ground clearance of the outside propellers on narrow taxiways, the B-29 taxis using only its #2 and 3 engines. Upon reaching the end of the runway, the other two engines are started and final preflight checks were performed in position on Pontiac’s 6,500 foot Runway 9R. Even from nearly a mile away, the roar of 72 cylinders of radial power echoed around the parking ramp in front of the terminal. FiFi picked up speed and broke ground about halfway down the runway, slowly climbing as speed built up. In order to keep the engines cool, airspeed is a priority over altitude when taking off. Keeping the big Wrights happy is key to keeping the 70+ year old bomber in the skies, and ensuring the cylinders were cool is a good start to do that. The rumble of the radials faded into the distance as one of the two remaining airworthy B-29s spent about 40 minutes flying the fortunate passengers on a trip around the Southeast Michigan skies like none other. Upon return, FiFi came in and performed an overhead break before coming in for a landing. Shutting down the #1 and 4 engines to taxi back to the parking area, the bomber crept back onto a set of steel plates on the ramp. Due to the wheel loading on the 6 landing gear tires, the plates were an effort to ensure the asphalt taxiway/ramp area that FiFi was parked on wasn’t damaged.
As the engines were shut down and FiFi was buttoned up at the end of the tour stop, it was a great moment to reflect on the history that she represents. While this airframe never saw combat, FiFi and Doc represent the pinnacle of WWII bomber technology, and represent one of the most important aircraft from the era. Many of the innovations from the B-29 are still used on aircraft to this day, and to see this aircraft so advanced for its day remains a rare treat.
In short, if the opportunity presents itself to see FiFi in the flesh at an airshow or CAF tour event, run, do not walk, to the nearest appearance. Every donation helps keep the historical treasures flying and telling the story of the greatest generation, whose sacrifices must never be forgotten. The dedication and efforts of organizations like the Commemorative Air Force as stewards of history is admirable, and it is an honor to be able to share the experience they keep alive with readers.