EAA AirVenture

Historic Meeting of B-29s 'FIFI' and Doc

 - July 26, 2017, 10:49 PM
The Commemorative Air Force's FIFI, one of two remaining airworthy B-29s, made an appearance at this year's AirVenture. (Photo: Matt Thurber)

More than 50 years since two B-29 Superfortresses shared the same airspace, the Commemorative Air Force’s “FIFI” and the recently restored “Doc” flew together over Oshkosh at this year’s EAA AirVenture show. These are the only two airworthy B-29s remaining, and while FIFI has been flying since the 1970s, Doc took to the skies only last July after a 17-year restoration.

FIFI is a frequent flier at Oshkosh, and after the performance, her crew spends the rest of the week giving rides and tours out of nearby Appleton Airport, part of the B-29’s summer tour season. FIFI arrived at Oshkosh on the first day of the show, July 24, after a short flight from Kankakee, Illinois, another stop on the tour.

I had the opportunity to fly in FIFI from Kankakee to Oshkosh, and during the flight I was seated in the bombardier’s position in the nose of big four-engine bomber. Multiple window panes flooded the compartment with light, and it felt a bit like flying in an isolated bubble, except for the overt reminders of the nature of this airplane, from the gunsight and Norden bombsight pinned in place on the right side and the indicator showing the status of the up to 20,000 pounds of bombs that the B-29 can carry to the exposed guts of the plumbing and flight controls on either side just in front of the two pilots.

The B-29 requires three cockpit crewmembers, consisting of two pilots and a flight engineer. FIFI and Doc are both operated with a total crew of 12, which includes ground support, ride and tour sales and in-flight positions such as the rear, left and right scanners. FIFI is under the care of the CAF B-29/B-24 Squadron, based at Dallas Executive Airport in Texas, which is also where B-24 Diamond Lil calls home.

During the flight to Oshkosh, in addition to retired airline pilot Allen Benzing flying in FIFI’s left seat and Cessna 185 owner and airline pilot Jeff Skiles (of “Miracle on the Hudson” A320 landing fame) flying right seat, the flight engineer position just aft of the copilot was filled by FIFI senior crew chief Rick Garvis. The flight engineer starts and operates all of the engine controls, at the command of the pilot flying. The pilot and copilot each have four throttles for engine control, mostly used during taxi, takeoff and landing. The pilot’s position also has an elevator trim wheel.

The B-29’s nosewheel is free-castering, and thus steering on the ground is via differential braking or power. But the expander-tube brakes are somewhat grabby, according to both Benzing and Skiles, and this can make steering with brakes a lurchy affair. Using power is generally smoother.

En Route to OSH

At some airports, such as Kankakee, taxiway lights stick up higher to accommodate winter snow drifts. The airport’s taxiways are narrow enough that the B-29’s outboard engines and low-slung propellers could hit the taxiway lights, so FIFI’s crew developed a special procedure for this kind of airport. After starting all four 18-cylinder Wright R-3350 radial engines and taxiing away from the ramp at low power to avoid blasting other aircraft and nearby buildings, Garvis and the pilots did the runup and some before-takeoff checklists, then he shut down the two outboard engines for the taxi to Greater Kankakee’s 6,000-foot Runway 4. Once lined up on the runway, he restarted the two outboard engines, then the crew ran the final checklists, and it was time to take off.

On the roll, FIFI accelerated fairly slowly once the engines were set to takeoff power, roughly 40 inches of manifold pressure. Benzing had explained that it’s sometimes necessary to use differential power to keep the nose straight on takeoff, so there may be a need to manipulate the throttles. But normally once power reaches about 30 inches, he turns the throttles over to Garvis to set maximum power.

From my seat in the nose, I could see that we tracked the runway centerline perfectly, and after accelerating to more than 100 knots, the nose gradually lifted up, and then equally slowly, the rest of the airplane followed in a shallow climb. There is no need to pull the control wheel aft to rotate the nose up on takeoff, Benzing said, and the B-29 simply flies smoothly off the runway.

Once aloft, we climbed just over a couple thousand feet to stay below a scattered-to-broken cloud layer, rumbling over the emerald green Illinois and Wisconsin countryside. I was surprised at how smoothly the B-29 flies, with absolutely zero vibration from the big Wright radials. The view from the bombardier’s seat, although constrained by window frames, opens up a wide-angle window on the outside world, and it’s easy to see how the bombardier can look almost straight down at targets.

As the terrain grew more lumpy the further north we flew, I couldn’t help contrasting the somewhat noisy wake of our 1942 B-29 as we flew over countless reminders of modern life: power-generating windmills lazily turning wind into kilowatts to power smartphones; warehouse stores and supermarkets filled to bursting with stuff that was strictly rationed during the war; cars that in the 1940s would have looked like futuristic flivvers from the pages of Popular Science. And meanwhile, Benzing and Skiles were picking out aerial traffic that posed no threat other than possibly trying to occupy the same space, by using a Stratus radio receiver getting signals from ground stations delivered to the ForeFlight software running on iPad tablet computers mounted just behind and to the side of each of their control wheels.

Skiles flew during most of the flight, then as we neared Oshkosh, Benzing took the controls and steered FIFI over Warbird Island, the starting point for funneling warbirds to the airport, then towards Runway 36. We flew a high pass over the runway then broke to the right and returned for landing. Benzing explained that landing the B-29 requires planning ahead. Not only does it take time to think about, and then request power settings from the flight engineer, but the big airplane doesn’t respond quickly to control movements and power changes. It is difficult if not impossible, for example, to descend too steeply and recover, so Benzing brought the B-29 down final at a relatively shallow angle with plenty of power, then gradually reduced power as the B-29 crossed the end of the runway and gently descended to the pavement. Once near the runway he skillfully touched the upwind wheel slightly ahead of the other main wheel, both with a small squeak, then let the nose down gently a moment later for an incredibly smooth landing and straight-ahead rollout. We easily made the turnoff at taxiway P2 and trundled into the entrance to Boeing Plaza where a crowd awaited FIFI’s arrival.

Both FIFI and Doc graced the Boeing Plaza ramp for the night and the following morning, attracting large numbers of visitors eager to soak up the historic meeting. Both airplanes had been rescued from the U.S. Navy Proving Ground at China Lake, Calif., where they were among about 100 B-29s abused for missile target practice.

Doc's Resurrection

While FIFI was rescued in the 1970s, Doc’s resurrection didn’t begin until 30 years ago, when Tony Mazzolini found the B-29 in 1987, rotting although miraculously mostly unscathed by all the weapons testing. It took Mazzolini 11 years of networking with various officials before he was able to secure title to the B-29. This included persuading the secretary of the Navy not to cut it into pieces because he suddenly concluded that it was officially a “nuclear weapons delivery system.” Finally a helpful Navy attorney “found a way to make it happen,” Mazzolini said, by transferring title of the B-29 to the National Naval Museum in Pensacola, Fla., and allowing the museum to barter for the Superfortress.

The museum didn’t need a ratty old B-29 in the desert and asked for a freshly restored B-25 in trade. Mazzolini and crew went to work and found a workable B-25 in Venezuela and sent a team to dismantle it and ship it back to the U.S. An extensive six-year restoration followed at Air Heritage in Beaverton, Penn., and after transporting the B-25 to Pensacola, Mazzolini finally secured the title to the B-29.

Obstacle after obstacle dogged Mazzolini and his team, and an initial restoration attempt at Inyokern Airport in California fizzled due to lack of facilities and resources. Finally Mazzolini was able to get help to bring the B-29 carcass to Wichita’s McConnell Air Force Base, where it arrived on May 19, 2000.

What followed was a 17-year restoration, which could never have happened without the many extraordinarily dedicated volunteers toiling tirelessly to allow Doc to return to the skies. “Seventeen years of hard work by such loyal, dedicated volunteers who put their hearts and souls into it,” he recalled.

Ken Newell, an A&P mechanic with Inspection Authorization, was just one of the volunteers and now is senior crew chief on Doc and will soon be its flight engineer. He started working on Doc in 2014, and one of his tasks was figuring out what to do with the fuel system. The 22 original rubber bladder fuel tanks were hopelessly ruined and had to be replaced, so with the helps of a retired Boeing engineer, new bladders and all of the interconnects and hardware were fabricated and installed.

Doc made its first flight after the restoration on July 17, 2016, and since then the B-29 has flown more than 30 hours. “We’re taking it slow,” Newell said. The group formed to bring Doc back to life—Doc’s Friends—is busy with the application process for a waiver from the FAA to allow passenger rides, and this will be part of the fundraising to help keep Doc flying and pay for building a new museum hangar and education center at Eisenhower Airport in Wichita. The goal is to open the new facility in September 2018.

Meanwhile, no matter where FIFI and Doc fly, they attract youngsters eager to learn about these strange flying machines and older people full of memories, either their own or of parents who served during World War II.

At EAA AirVenture, one 92-year-old woman, who riveted B-29 nose and tail sections at the factory in Wichita during the war, came to visit the airplane that she likely helped build. “I’m happy to get this airplane here for people to see it,” Newell said.

“What a thrill,” said Mazzolini, as he gazed at both B-29s on the ramp at Oshkosh. “We’re restoring the past for the future, for the people who flew on them and built them and saved this nation.”

During the afternoon airshow on the second day of EAA AirVenture, Doc and then FIFI taxied slowly away from Boeing Plaza and took off on Runway 18, then flew circles overhead as about a dozen B-25s and warbirds galore took to the skies in the Warbirds of America show. When the exhibition was over, FIFI turned north for Appleton and her next summer tour stop, while Doc landed and taxied back to her spot at Boeing Plaza. But in spirit, the last two surviving B-29s remained bonded, wingtip to wingtip.