Hangar Flying: Gen. Tibbets’ 90th

 - January 30, 2007, 7:37 AM

About 800 people gathered in Atlanta in late February to celebrate the 90th birthday of the man who, by following his military orders on Aug. 6, 1945, is widely remembered for bringing World War II to an end. Gen. Paul Tibbets was 30 years old when he flew a B-29 over Hiroshima, Japan, so that it could release the first of only two atom bombs ever dropped in anger.

Today, Gen. Tibbets wears his 90 years well. The accumulated decibels of all his flying have impaired his hearing to the point that he listens with the help of a transmitter sending signals to his hearing aids, but he looked spry in his Enola Gay bomber jacket as he signed copies of his book in the Mercury Air Center facility at Peachtree-DeKalb Airport.

The brainchild of their respective proprietors, John Enticknap and Pat Epps, the 90th birthday bash was held jointly over the course of two days at Mercury Air Center and Epps Aviation, two of Fulton County’s three competing FBOs. Both Epps and Enticknap hold warbirds and WWII memories in high respect, and the venue was a natural. The measure of Epps’s devotion to preserving warbirds and honoring those who flew them has to be his perseverance in exhuming airplanes from the “Lost Squadron” that were forced to land on the Greenland icecap in 1942, in addition to his ownership of a DC-3 in C-47 configuration.

History and ‘The Bomb’
Gen. Tibbets can no more escape a lifetime of questioning about the atom-bomb mission than lunar astronaut Neil Armstrong can escape his “one small step.” Inevitably, Gen. Tibbets was quizzed about the Enola Gay mission, which remains enduringly controversial. To some, the mission was morally wrong. Those who see the mission as ending a war with an enemy that had no intention of surrendering are about equally incensed by the stand of the disapprovers.

When asked how he would like history to remember the bombing of Hiroshima, Tibbets replied, “I’m glad we did it. There was talk about it shortening the war, but I don’t believe that. It saved lives. We were losing 5,000 people a day. We didn’t drop the bomb to end the war but to save lives. It has been said that ending the war conventionally would have cost a million lives on each side, but I believe the Japanese would never have surrendered if we hadn’t dropped the bomb.”

Rather than the atomic mission, the theme of the occasion in Atlanta in February was Operation Bolero, which delivered American-built aircraft to the European theater for combat ops with the U.S. Army Air Forces in England. The operation began on June 15, 1942, from Bangor, Maine, with the movement initially of 49 B-17s, 80 P-38s and 52 C-47s. Gen. Tibbets (then a major) was a pilot in the B-17 squadron whose aircraft served as navigational “mother ships” for the P-38s, which lacked the long-range navigation equipment necessary for the mission.

The plan 63 years later in Atlanta was to reenact a Bolero formation using the newly restored B-17 Liberty Belle, P-38 Glacier Girl (a genuine Bolero aircraft exhumed from beneath 268 feet of Greenland ice and rebuilt, on which more later) and Epps’s venerable C-47. Another part of the plan was to have Gen. Tibbets sit in the left seat of Liberty Belle while it formated on Glacier Girl and Epps’s C-47 in the Georgia sky.

Gen. Tibbets (who at one time ran Executive Jet Aviation) declined to fly, however, preferring to watch the flypasts from the Epps ramp, which didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the assembled crowd. Steve Hinton, one of the most highly regarded pilots in the warbird and movie-flying community (he succeeded Bob Hoover as Unlimited pace pilot at the Reno Air Races 15 years ago), is the only person the owner allows to fly Kentucky-based Glacier Girl, and he was happy to fly in from his California home to do the honors in Atlanta.

The story of how Glacier Girl rose from beneath 268 feet of ice to fly again has to go down as the most dogged recovery in the history of aviation. The expedition took root in 1980 when Epps and his friend Richard Taylor, flying home from a week-long aerial excursion of the Arctic, started to talk about the legendary Lost Squadron, forced by an Arctic blizzard and vanishing options to land on the Greenland ice on July 15, 1942, just one month to the day after Operation Bolero had begun. All the crews were rescued, but the airplanes were abandoned to the ice. Reports that the six P-38s and two B-17s had been sighted as recently as the early 1960s galvanized Epps and Taylor into action, and the rest is carved indelibly into aviation history.

The Big Dig
The following year Epps, Taylor and two associates arrived at the site with camping gear and magnetometers but, unable to locate the airplanes, they concluded that Greenland’s brutal weather had buried them under possibly 40 feet of snow. That estimate turned out to be wildly optimistic. After more expeditions with friends and family, the team struck gold–or better still, weathered aluminum–in 1988 with the help of subsurface radar, which located eight large objects in the ice. A steam probe revealed that the airplanes were buried beneath 260 feet of ice, setting in motion a recovery operation of staggering difficulty.

The team was faced with digging straight down through 25 stories of ice, with no machine in existence that was capable of doing so, and bringing to the surface a 10-ton airplane spanning 52 feet.

But they did it, and the evidence stood on Epps’s ramp in February for all to see. Glacier Girl is a stunning, magnificent specimen of a P-38 following a painstaking restoration for its owner, Roy Shoffner, a Middlesboro, Ky. entrepreneur who had done well with Wendy’s and McDonald’s franchises and from founding the Middlesboro Bank.

The full story of how Glacier Girl was exhumed is told in a 223-page, hardcover book liberally illustrated with photographs of the people and processes that brought the P-38 from deep in the ice to the sky once more. The book is available directly from Epps Aviation, 1 Aviation Way, PDK Airport, Atlanta, GA 30341; phone (770) 458-9851; www.eppsaviation.com.

It’s $45 well spent, buying not only a book that fascinates all who pick it up but also the satisfaction of knowing that you contributed to the expedition in some way. Needless to say, when a group of people gathers that is so intent on succeeding at so daunting a task, tensions build and personalities clash, and the book doesn’t shy away from portraying the human side of the process.

The trauma of Glacier Girl’s rebirth has no equal, but the B-17 that participated in Gen. Tibbets’ birthday party has a story to tell, too. Owned by the Douglas, Ga.-based Liberty Foundation since 2002, Liberty Belle took to the air just last December 8 after a restoration that began in 1992. Don Brooks is the founder of the Liberty Foundation, and it was his final push that completed the B-17 restoration, inspired by the more than 30 missions his father flew as a Flying Fortress tail gunner in the original Liberty Belle with the 390th Bomb Group in Framlingham, England, in World War II.

The B-17 that now carries the name Liberty Belle was built as a G model by Lockheed in Burbank late in the war, in May 1945. After post-war storage, Boeing modified the airplane to carry a Pratt & Whitney XT34P turboprop in its nose for research and development flying. Retired in 1967, the B-17 took up residence with the New England Air Museum but was damaged when a tornado struck the facility in 1979.

In 1990 the airplane found its way to Tom Reilly’s Flying Tigers Warbird Restoration Museum facility in Kissimmee, Fla., and in 1992 the 80,000-hour restoration began. It cost $3.5 million to restore Liberty Belle to her current airworthy condition, making her the 14th Flying Fortress worldwide still flying, and the operating costs run about $3,500 an hour. Gen. Tibbets’ party was a fitting post-restoration public debut for Liberty Belle.

We’ve Got Three More

British Airways finds itself in something of a PR pickle after all the publicity about its globe-trotting three-engine 747. Not once but twice did the same 747-400 press on to its destination after losing one of its four engines early in the flight.

The particular airplane involved (G-BNLG) was one of a batch BA bought in the late 1980s/early 1990s, with registration letters that invited affectionate nicknames. G-BNLB, for example, was known among crews as “Never Leave Base.” Maybe Lima Golf will now be known as “Not Landing, Going.”

In the first incident (on February 19), the airplane lost an engine very early in the flight–on takeoff from LAX–but after circling for 20 minutes to talk with BA ops in England and weigh their options, the crew pressed on with the 10-hour flight over the polar ice and the North Atlantic Ocean, evidently confident that London lay safely within reach.

Unfortunately for all those tasked with justifying the decision not to land in the U.S., the big Boeing, carrying 351 passengers, encountered some fuel issues short of the British capital and had to put down in Manchester. The PR problems had yet to peak, however.

On its very next round trip, the very same 747-400 lost the replacement engine on the No. 2 pylon (after a shutdown prompted by a drop in oil pressure) that had been installed after removal of the No. 2 engine that had surged on takeoff from LAX. This time ’NLG was 3.5 hours into a 14-hour flight from Singapore to London, carrying 356 passengers. Again, after consulting with BA ops in England, the crew continued on three and landed in London after 11 hours.

Was it legal? Yes, insisted BA. Was it safe? Yes, and we’ve done it before [before the February 19 incident], said BA, the New York-based PR spokesman adding that “Had there been any kind of question on safety, they would have turned back to Los Angeles or gone to another U.S. airport.”

Was it prudent? The crew’s decision to continue attracted much criticism both within the airline community and among travelers in general, particularly in the U.S. The FAA is not convinced that the decision to proceed to London from Los Angeles was legal, safe or sensible and is said to be considering legal action against BA. The irony here is that the British CAA, often regarded by Americans as a pedantic stickler, has said it sees nothing wrong with the BA LAX-London crew’s decision to continue.