A National Treasure – Memorial Day, 2015

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There exists a multitude of ways to measure the wealth of a nation. Gross domestic product is probably the most common. Land mass and area could be another. Perhaps even the gold a country keeps. However, of all the methods for measuring the wealth and holdings of a nation, what actually defines a National Treasure? Is it a monument, a unique geological formation, something acquired?

Recently, at Williams-Gateway airport southeast of Phoenix, Arizona I had the opportunity to have this question answered.

The Commemorative Air Force operates a wide range of aircraft, mostly dating from WWII and before as living tributes to those who fought in our country’s wars and conflicts. However, one of those aircraft is possibly a little more special than some of the others. “Fifi” is, as of this writing, is one of only a handful of surviving B-29 airframes and the only airworthy example of the type. She is a B-29A and spent the war stateside as a training aircraft. Eventually rescued from the China Lake Weapons Range by the Commemorative Air Force, the product of both a magnificent restoration and impeccable maintenance, she is now available for tours and flights. Ergo, such a unique situation creates the opportunity for something special to be experienced.

The overcast sky, gray and muted, stretches to the horizon over airport. Below it, the CAF crew arrives and begins preparing for the day. In flight suits and polo shirts they move about in the cool early morning air, setting up tents and preparing aircraft. Behind them resides a C-47, a Beech D-18, a B-25 and the unmistakable shape of a B-29. As the crowd begins to file in, the first group of people who have offered the required donation to fly in Fifi begin to climb aboard. The crew methodically performs the pre-flight checks and everyone is excited to experience the most advanced aircraft of WWII. Through the lens of my favorite Canon, the propellers begin to turn and smoke belches from the exhaust stacks before Fifi bellows to life, a rumble thundering from the engines. In a cacaphony of noise and smoke, Fifi comes to life, her voice strong and echoing across the airport. The reliability issues of the R-3350 engine originally specified for the B-29 are well documented and the engines originally fitted to Fifi were no exception. After an extended grounding and refurbishment, she now flies on a unique engine. A special hybrid of components from several sub-models of the R-3350, these engines were created to give this piece of history the reliability required to continue to fly into the next several decades. The new designation is R3350-B29. The new engines with their huge four-bladed propellers growl at idle as they warm up.

Standing among the spectators in front of this 70+ year old aircraft, an unshakable thought begins to settle in; this aircraft, this mass of aluminum, rubber, fuel and oil, idling in front of me emanating a magnificent racket, is a national treasure of the United States. As Fifi taxis into take off position and does her run ups a look over my shoulder to the other aircraft imparts the same realization. All of these aircraft are priceless artifacts of the history of our country. While this might sound obvious to read, letting the thought sink in nonetheless creates a strong string of thoughts, one which inevitably results in the border between history and present becoming blurred and nearly indiscernible. It is impossible not to imagine a group of 18 to 25 year old Americans on an island in the South Pacific, Africa, or Europe climbing into these aircraft, preparing to face an enemy determined to destroy them. It is inescapable to remember so many of these heroes and the aircraft that carried them never made it home. Fortunately a mild, cool breeze restores reality. However, a thought lingers; that the relative peace and security this country, and indeed the majority of the world, has enjoyed for the past 70 years is due directly to these aircraft and the crew that served in them. There is nothing that could be more valuable to a nation.

As Fifi makes her take off run, my lens swings over the head of a seated gentleman. After lowering my camera, I come face to face with another, more fleeting national treasure. His name is Robert Adams and the B-29 is his aircraft. He was a bombardier in WWII. Now easily in his 90’s, he has made the journey from the middle of Phoenix to see a B-29 for the first time in over 60 years. Like many veterans, once his military life ended, he settled into a new civilian life that had nothing to do with his previous service. Now, thanks to the CAF and Fifi, he will have the opportunity to share his experiences with the rest of us lucky enough to be within earshot. It goes without saying, those of us present were lucky. It also goes without saying an attempt to capture every experience and memory contained within him would take far more words and pages than allowed here.

As Fifi taxis into position after the final flight of the day, her propellers slowing and her engines finally quiet the crew begins to prepare for the crowd touring the aircraft. Before that happens though, they have instructed Mr. Adams and his family to approach the nose of the aircraft. They intend to put Mr. Adams in his old duty station behind the bomb sight of a Boeing B-29A Superfortress. A few nervous glances are traded, all of us contemplating how we would get a 90+ year old veteran currently seated next to a walker, up the narrow ladder and hatch in the nose gear bay.

The United States veteran is a unique person, one unlike any other. With the more elderly veterans often seen with walkers or in wheel chairs, a person could be forgiven for thinking they are incapable of much physical exertion. That person would be mistaken in this case. There is a quiet strength within someone who has served our country that never leaves them. At certain times this strength will manifest itself in amazing ways.

There are no adjectives capable of fully describing the feeling of pride and amazement when the crew asked Mr. Adams to come to the airplane. With little more than a healthy grunt and a slight wobble, he stood straight up, stepped to the side of the walker, faced his aircraft and walked straight to it without any assistance. Before I could wrap my brain around what just happened, this 90+ year old man had aged to 20 again, had ducked under the nose gear door and was prepared to climb the ladder. Fortunately he paused for a picture long enough for me to catch up. Just as quickly as he had approached, he was up the ladder and into the cockpit. Following him into the cockpit, it didn’t take long before Mr. Adams had squeezed between the instrument panels and found his seat in the nose. As he did, it was very apparent the memories were returning just as quickly. As he so eloquently stated, “It looks a lot more complicated than I remember.” The gravity of the moment felt heavy on my shoulders, the Canon shutter chattering away in a futile attempt to capture the incredible provenance of the situation; a veteran bombardier returning to his post in a B-29, two precious and irreplaceable treasures of the United States brought together in a single moment.

Such is the nature of these visits. The opportunity to bring the men and machines to which we owe everything together is a rare and fleeting opportunity. It is one not to be missed. As we celebrate Memorial Day, we can give thanks to these heroes, the finest of which Fifi and Mr. Adams represent. The inevitability of human life means our veterans will eventually pass into history. However, the machines in which they flew and fought will remain, preserved, and as an enduring legacy of their bravery.

Photorecon salutes the veterans who have given the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.

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