Thursday, March 28, 2013


A 19th century poetess wrote that good things come to he who waits.  In 1880 Violet Fane certainly was not thinking about a flight in a B-29 Superfortress.  But I was.

In 2010 the Commemorative Air Force lured me to Texas to promote Whirlwind, my history of air operations over Japan.  I agreed, provided I could get a ride in Fifi, the only flying B-29. She had recently returned to flight status, otherwise I would’ve tried to finagle an earlier flight as research for the book.

Came the day.  Time passed.  Finally I had to abandon the Midland flight line while somebody finally fetched the fuel truck.  Therefore, my speech about B-29s bombing hell out of the Empire of the Sun had suitable audio as Fifi motored off, a basso accompaniment to my oratory.

Colonel Bill Coombes issued an oral IOU for a makeup flight, valid anytime, anywhere.  So when I learned that Fifi’s 2013 tour included Arizona, I contacted Bill, and he made it happen.  The 100-mile round trip to Deer Valley was small enough price to pay for a B-29 flight.

The briefing was conducted under Fifi’s nose.  Our pilot, Colonel David Oliver, introduced the flight crew including copilot Mark Martin, flight engineer Shad Morris, and the three scanners/observers.  Issuing a cautionary note, Oliver said, “The B-29 was not built for comfort.  It was built for freedom.”

He was right.

With five other hardies I strapped into the compartment aft of the wing, where gunners once controlled remotely operated turrets.   It was a tight fit.  And it was uncomfortable.  But no matter.  When the crew fired up number three, the R3350 belched a wondrous blue-gray cloud that bathed the Boeing in an oil-rich aroma.  The young lady seated next to me fanned the air in front of her face.  I inhaled, held the breath, and savored the moment.


I was reminded of the Army Air Force summaries I consulted for Whirlwind.  The twin-row Wrights had serious cooling problems for the rear bank of cylinders, causing numerous fires.  Because the cases were magnesium, they tended to keep burning.  As I recall, 87 percent of B-29 in-flight fires resulted in loss of the aircraft.  One CAFer said, “We simply could not keep flying the airplane with the original engines.”

The Wrights required extensive modification--$3 million worth—but Fifi now is fully operational.  Even so, Shad Morris said that the maintenance man hours to flight hour ratio is 100 to one.

After warmup we taxied to the runway amid 8,000 horses of engine noise.  Considerable noise—shoulder to shoulder, we could not easily talk to each other.   When Dave and Shad came up on the power, the lightly-loaded bomber surged forward.  I timed the takeoff run at 25 seconds.

Once level at 5,000 feet, the scanners in the waist blisters signaled we could move around.  Now, I’m 5-foot 8 on a good day, and I had little head clearance.  I climbed into the main fire-control seat, swiveling 360 degrees.  The view forward ended with the muzzles of the top turret’s four .50 calibers.  I grasped the gunner’s handles, imagining my sight reticle framing a Japanese fighter flying a pursuit curve on Fifi. 

Next I crawfished my way aft to the tail gunner’s position.  No easy task—I had to wedge my way through a couple of bulkheads, sliding over boxes that once contained ammunition, and remembered to hold my hat when passing the open hatch with its 200 mph slipstream.

Returning to my seat, I marveled at what B-29ers endured.  Our half-hour flight was, as advertised, cramped, noisy, and uncomfortable.  But imagine spending 14 or 15 hours in that slim aluminum tube—twice a typical ETO mission time.  And except for the brief period over the target, the entire B-29 combat flight was over water.  A round trip of 3,000 miles from the Marianas to Japan and back.

Fifi missed combat.  She rolled out in July 1945, a month before other B-29s ended the war with single bombs on two Japanese cities.  But Fifi fulfills a mission seven decades downstream from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  She not only recalls an historic era, but honors the airmen whose prospects for survival in the water and enemy territory were no better than 50-50.  And Fifi honors the men and women who built her and nearly 4,000 of her sisters.

Debarking from a bomber three years older than I am, I reflected again—good things come to him who waits.