What's The Price Of Flight ?
I was once asked, why would a group of middle aged men, mostly retired volunteer countless hours to restore a hollowed out 60 year old aircraft ? I was also asked why would someone travel across the country to see a particular aircraft ? I've seen people shell out hundreds, thousands even to fly on a vintage aircraft or perhaps fly with a particular family member or members. Many will ask, what compels people to hoist a vintage aircraft atop a pole and thousands come and somberly watch with pride? They were modern marvels. They are symbols of victory.
Prior to WWII, the American military machine was void of fighting a war on a global scale. So handicapped was the American military fighting machine that many soldiers did not even have guns issued, so they trained at army facilities with broom sticks. Small hand sized bags of flour or chalk dust were used to simulate hand grenades. In 1939, the US Army was ranked 19th in the rankings of ground forces with a strength of 174,000. The Army Air Corps, the predecessor to the US Air Force was perhaps fourth or fifth in the standings of global flying forces. This was due to the fact that there were fewer air forces than land based armies. In 1939, the US Army Air Corps had a personnel strength of only 26,000. The aircraft inventory, most of which were obsolete, had about 1,200 bombers and fighters. Open-cockpit airplanes such as those of WWI were still flying in operational units.
The 1930's saw the emergence of the importance of strategic bombing under the tenets of air power theorists such as Guilio Douhet, Hugh M. Trenchard, and Billy Mitchell. However, because the U.S. had taken the stance of isolationism, the Air Corps had not incorporated it as a part of its doctrine nor mission. The US was more concerned with defending the western hemisphere rather than getting involved with military interdiction in Europe. Therefore strategic bombing was not of a main concern initially. The long-range bomber was originally pitched as a means of intercepting the enemy at sea in support of the coastal defense mission. Enter the B-29.
The National Defense Act adopted in April 1939 approved for a strength of 5,500 aircraft for the Air Corps with a maximum of 6,000 airplanes. In May of 1940, President Roosevelt called for an air force of 50,000 airplanes. This consisted of 36,500 airplanes for Air Corps, and 13,500 for the U.S. Navy and an annual production of 50,000 airplanes. By the summer of 1941, Army Air Forces strength was 152,125 personnel. The Air Corps had 6,777 aircraft. Out of this number, 120 were heavy bombers, 903 were light and medium bombers, and 1,018 were fighters. Fewer than half of these were combat aircraft. unfortunately many of these were obsolete bombers and fighters. In December of 1941 leading up to Pearl Harbor, virtually all of the major types of airplanes with which the Air Force would fight World War II were in production or soon would be. The B-29 was in development and would fly within the year.
One of the most technologically advanced airplanes of World War II, the B-29 had many new features, including guns that could be fired by remote control. Two crew areas, forward and aft, were pressurized and connected by a long tube over the bomb bays, allowing crew members to crawl between them. The tail gunner had a separate pressurized area that could only be entered or left at altitudes that did not require pressurization. The B-29 was also the world’s heaviest production plane because of increases in range, bomb load and defensive requirements.
The first production B-29s began to roll off the production lines at Boeing in Wichita, Kansas in September of 1943. By the middle of January of 1944, 97 B-29s had been built by Boeing at the Wichita plant. However, only 16 of these were flyable. During March and April 1944, the intensive effort to get the first B-29s ready for overseas service became known as the "Battle of Kansas." At a price tag of $3 billion, the B-29 was the war’s most expensive program. It was also prove to be the most crucial, for only the Superfortress could deliver the atom bombs that would eventually end the war in the Pacific. The B-29 was the most sophisticated, advanced, as well as complex bomber of World War II. Under normal circumstances, each of its major features would have taken five years to test and field. The most demanding of all hands down, was development of its Wright R-3350 engine.
The Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone is a twin-row, supercharged, air-cooled, radial aircraft engine with 18 cylinders displacing nearly 55 L. Power ranged from 2,200 to over 3,700 horse power. Developed before World War II, the R-3350's design required a long time to mature before finally being used to power the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. The Wright R-3350 had to be expedited in order to meet President Roosevelt’s goal.
All the B-29s used in the first raid on Japan on the steel center at Yawata, June 15, 1944, were built at the Wichita plant. The night air raid Bombing of Yawata on the night of June 15, 1944 was the first air raid on the Japanese home islands conducted by Army Air Corps strategic bombers during World War II. The air raid was executed by 75 B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers based out of China. Only 47 of these aircraft dropped their bombs near the raid's primary target, the Imperial Iron and Steel Works. Five B-29s were lost in accidents during the operation and two more were destroyed by Japanese fighter aircraft. The initial raid yielded minimal results with very little damage to the plants. However, just as with the Doolittle Raid, it sent a very strong message to Japan that it could be seriously "touched". Intelligence gathered by the B-29s also revealed weaknesses in Japan's air defenses A second raid was planned and executed based on these findings. On August 20, 1944 a second raid was executed and much of the city was destroyed by B-29s. In the end, Boeing built a total of 2,766 B-29s at plants in Wichita, Kansas.
B-29s were primarily used in the Pacific theater during World War II. As many as 1,000 Superfortresses at a time bombed Tokyo, destroying large parts of the city. Then finally, on August 6, 1945, the B-29 Enola Gay dropped the world's first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later a second B-29, the Bockscar, dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki. In the wake of this pivotal death nail in the coffin, Japan surrendered.
FIFI is a Boeing B-29 Superfortress. It is one of two B-29s that are currently flying in the world along with Doc being the other B-29. FiFi is owned by the Commemorative Air Force and is based at the Vintage Flying Museum at Meacham International Airport in Fort Worth, Texas. FIFI was acquired by the CAF in the early 1970s when a group of CAF members found her at the U.S. Navy Proving Ground at China Lake, California where she was being used as a missile target. The airplane was rescued and restored and flew for over thirty years until 2006 when the chief pilot made the decision to ground her pending a complete power plant re-fit. What followed was an extensive four year restoration that included replacing all four engines with new custom built hybrid engines. FIFI returned to the sky in 2010 and since that time has traveled coast to coast attracting large crowds at every show tour.
A few years ago, The Birmingham Southern Museum of Flight hosted FiFi at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport (BHM). Nearly 1,000 persons showed up to witness this piece of living history. Some came from as far away as Mobile, Alabama and out of state such as Tennessee and Georgia. Numerous were more than willing to shell out the price tag of nearly $600 for an approximately 20-minute fight over the skies of Birmingham, Alabama and Jefferson County. Many, mainly those with no military service or connection will question why? The answers lie in what the aircraft truly represents- America's might, muscle, and machine at a critical hour. It is a total reflection of that sleeping giant that was awakened after the Pearl Harbor Attack. It is the plane that ultimately sealed the fate of Japan.
" The B-29 was the plane that ended the war. Ultimately all warbirds have a expiration date to keep flying, but it’s amazing to see these planes fly and the legacy they represent. I have been lucky enough to fly on Fifi and a B-17 as well and there’s nothing like it", explains Greg Parker. Named after Enola Gay Tibbets, the mother of the pilot, Colonel Paul Tibbets, the Enola Gay, also co-piloted by Robert A. Lewis bombed Hiroshima. The Enola Gay also participated in the second atomic attack as the weather reconnaissance aircraft for the primary target of Kokura. However, clouds and drifting smoke resulted in a secondary target, Nagasaki, being bombed instead. The B-29 was simply a game changer.
One participant had a grandfather who flew as a crew member on the B-29 during WWII. This grandfather passed away when he was a very small child. He chose to ride on the aircraft to get a feeling of what his then young adult grandfather felt, to smell the oil and gas of the aircraft and experience the cold thin air as he flew into unknown but certain danger. For him, the B-29 served as a connection to the youthful legacy of a grandfather that he knew so little about, a form of perhaps closure. Paul Loll can share similar sentiments in that he knew first hand of the power and purpose of the B-29.
"I flew on the B-29 in 1953 as a gunner/scanner and she became my first love . And when I see a B-29 in a static display, it saddens me when they are in a deteriorated condition. But, they are getting as I am and one day will be grounded for good", says Loll. For many veterans, historians, and aviation enthusiasts it seemed not only negligent, but dishonorable and disrespectful for these once formidable aircraft to sit and deteriorate away, seemingly as if old race horse put out to pasture.
Alan Fischer feels that vintage aircraft like the B-29 should continue to fly because the rich legacy of the B-29." We should keep these aircraft flying in honor of those teenagers/young men who flew them and never made it home". Even among those who are able to remember 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed immediately, war does not have the same affect on them as those who saw war on their living room TV sets during the Vietnam era. Nor can they relate to those who had to rely on Western Union V-mail and telegrams as well as news reels at the local movies during WWII to have contact with their families and be informed about the war effort. For the current generation of youth war is but a video game. What these aircraft accomplish is that they keep alive the legacy and tell what happens when a nation pulled together to fight enemies on two global fronts.
For some, these aircraft are mechanical and tangible extensions of their forefathers. They serve as connections between their patrilineal forebears and current familial generations. These aircraft allow people today to reach back and understand who their descendants were and what they accomplished. Seemingly a form of closure. Peter James of Hatfield, Pennsylvania recently took his son Dale on a ride on FiFi. "It was Dale's first ever airplane ride and it was in a B29. He sat in the same seat position as his great grandfather sat in WWII. His great uncle Doug came to watch and allowed Dale to take his great grandfather's dog tags and squadron patch for the ride. To the best of my knowledge it was the first time that those two items were airborne in a B29 since June 1 1945 when his plane was shot down over Iwo Jima" Peter James proudly explains of his legacy attachment to the B-29.
The ill fated crash that James references was that of the "Ghost planes of Iwo Jima". During the Battle of Iwo Jima. The Battle of Iwo Jima which was fought between (19 February 19 - March 29, 1945 was a major battle in which the United States Marine Corps and Navy landed on and eventually captured the island of Iwo Jima from the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. The American invasion, designated Operation Detachment, had the purpose of capturing the island and its two airfields: South Field and Central Field. The strategy consisted of two objectives. The first was to provide an emergency landing strip for battle-damaged B-29s unable to make it back to US air bases in the Marianas, Tinian, Saipan, and Guam. The other was to provide air fields for fighter escorts, long-range P-51 Mustangs of the 46th Fighter Wing under the VII Fighter Command (Later reassigned to the 20th Air Force) to provide fighter coverage to the bombers. Lying roughly halfway between American Army Air Force bases in the Mariana Islands and the Japanese islands, the military base on Iwo Jima gave the Japanese an ability to send early air raid warnings to the Japanese mainland and launch fighters from its airfields to intercept raids.
Jack Krump agrees that these legacy aircraft should remain on flight status. "Although it is very costly to keep them up to flight standard, what they symbolize is worth the expenditure Yes keep them flying. We have pristine models for static display. Enola Gay at the Smithsonian and Bock’s Car at the USAFM in Dayton", he says. Dwight Rinner agrees also in that, "I've always said the Enola Gay should fly. The B17 Memphis Belle should fly. I understand the cost, but if we don't remember history, we are doomed to repeat it".
Despite being void of the digital technology of today's modern aircraft, these aircraft still motivate and inspire. The thirst for manned flight has never diminished for flight itself represents freedom, restrained only by gravity. These vintage aircraft represent a host of narratives, all meeting at a common intersection of victory. This victory has carried the day for generations. One such person that clearly sees the virtue of the B-29 and other vintage aircraft is Commemorative Air Force B-29/B-24 member, Michael Bauer.
"My dad wanted to be a pilot but was color blind. He continued his interest in aviation and took me to a static display of WWII aircraft when I was about 8 yrs old. I still remember crawling around those planes and sitting in the cockpit. I think that sparked my ultimate career as a pilot", Bauer says. Willing to "shell out the funds", he says, he is currently he is training as a crew member on FIFI and next year Diamond Lil. Seventy years later, such aircraft are still drawing massive crowds to witness the power, the glory, and living testimony of America's rise to meet the threat of global tyranny and aggression.
America was in the midst of a global depression, in which many were poor and unemployed. The nation was also very much so divided on race living under a legalized system of segregation and discrimination. Gender roles were very defined as women lived very mundane lives with few options for upward mobility. However, for the sake of the war effort and preservation of democracy, a nation united. "As soon as we were attacked, the people of the United States unified in a common purpose. Men went to war and women entered the workforce to replace them. Together, they brought to bear the full industrial/military might against the enemy that brought the Axis powers to their knees. Everyone made personal sacrifices through wartime rationing and produced wartime machines and supplies at an almost unimaginable rate", Bauer explains. What the nation needed were aircraft and she needed them quickly and a nation rose to meet those needs.
According to Bauer, "The B-29 was a big leap in technology over it's predecessors: Pressurization, computer controlled guns, turbo compound engines. It was the most expensive project of WWII costing nearly twice as much as the Manhattan project. It is the only plane that has dropped an atomic bomb on an enemy in wartime". War is often described and justified as a necessary evil, thus war is hell. However, the threat to democracy and freedom at the hands of Communism, Fascism, and Nazism was the epitome of hell. Complacency and isolation only emboldened and empowered these nefarious agendas bent on world domination. Bauer further details, "On the B-29 alone, they produced nearly 4,000 planes plus spare parts in 3 short years and were scheduled to build another 5,000. And that's just one slice of the output during the war. We need to preserve this history so that future generations can see what our capabilities are if we pull together". This is especially important given the recent racial disparities and hostilities. If an attack such as Pearl Harbor were to happen today, would the nation be able to rally to a patriotic cause despite such tensions, division, and furthermore a reduced industrial capacity in comparison to that of WWII ?
In 1987, Tony Mazzolini found No. 44-69972, affectionately known as "Doc", and began plans to remove and eventually restore the B-29 to flying status. Doc's journey began nearly 45 years previously when it rolled off the assembly line in March of 1945. Along with six other B-29's, in July of 1951, Doc was assigned to radar calibration duty. The squadron was known as the "Seven Dwarfs". Because 44-69972 was the oldest aircraft, it was named "Doc". Doc and the other B-29's were assigned to target training in China Lake, California. For the next 40 years, Doc lay collecting rust and dust in the Mojave desert until being found by Tony Mazzolini.
It was while serving in the US Air Force as a flight engineer at Griffiss Air Force Base, New York that Mazzolini encountered the Seven Dwarfs. Decades later it was while witnessing FiFi that he began to wonder were there any other salvageable B-29's and what ever happened to the aircrafts of the famed radar unit. He had been told of sighting of hundreds of B-29's as well as other decommissioned aircraft resting quietly in a "boneyard" in Aberdeen Proving Ground and China Lake Naval Weapons Center being used as test targets. In 1987, he was granted permission to visit the base along with his inspection party. In the distance he saw a largely in tact B-29. As fate would have it, the serial number which was still visible turned out to be that of Doc, one of the seven B-29's that he'd seen more than thirty years previously.
Although the aircraft had significant structural damage, it was largely still intact. Despite the aircraft being obviously outdated and having no significant purpose beyond target practice, the US Navy was still reluctant to release a near fully intact B-29 to Mazzolini. U.S. Navy regulations stipulated that Doc would have to be demilitarized in order to be released. However, as Mazzolini saw it, a demilitarized B-29 essentially wasn't a B-29. Despite going through through the proper steps, channels, and creating a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization to help support his endeavor to acquire the B-29, it would take more than 11 years before the Navy would release Doc to Mazzolini. It would not be until 1998 that Doc was in the hands of Mazzolini, a dream fulfilled and thus the 16 year trek to restore Doc to FAA flight worthy status began.
The journey for Mazzolini resurrecting Doc from the dead to its rebirth consisted of a very long, burdensome, tedious, stressful, and expensive ordeal. What did this aircraft represent that he would invest both tangible and intangible resources ? What is the significance of this aircraft that Mazzoloni would engage in a decades long emotional roller coaster initially beginning with the stone walling of the US Navy attempting to prevent him from acquiring the plane, and was more than willing to spend multi-millions of dollars to obtain the aircraft ? It would take millions more dollars to actually restore the aircraft. Furthermore, one of the initial terms was that Mazzolini would have to exchange a restored aircraft.
The restoration of Doc was bigger than Mazzolini. Hundreds of public and private donors, and hundreds of volunteers came together to form "Doc's Friends". One of those volunteers was a former "Rosie the Riveter", Connie Palacioz. She was 92 when Doc was granted flight worthiness, the end of a stressful journey to simply rebirth a legend. When Doc was originally rolled off of the assembly line, she was only 17 when she worked on the assembly line that produced Doc. In an interview with Air & Space Magazine, she stated, “All my rivets are still there, except for seven”. Palacioz was referencing the actual rivets and the fasteners she personally installed on Doc over 70 years ago at Boeing's Wichita Plant 2.
One can only imagine the joy of a nearly one hundred year old plant worker to see her work still intact over 70 years later, and on an iconic plane that helped turn the tide of the war. Her efforts as well as those of the "greatest generation", have stood the test of time, even under the harsh climate and conditions of a military graveyard of decommissioned planes. To see your tedious works, still in tact is one thing. However, to see your efforts literally take flight makes the hard work of the volunteers and the saga of Mazzolini's efforts to obtain Doc the story of legends and worth the decades long push to reconstruct a legend.
Just as with Connie Palacioz, Fiske Hanley of Fort Worth, Texas also lived to see the beloved planes restored and returned to flight duty. Fiske Hanley served as a Flight Engineer during WWII on a B-29. In a similar fate as that of the Ghost Planes of Iwo Jima, he was shot down over the skies of Japan during a bombing mission in a B-29. He was held as a prisoner of war until being liberated at the end of WWII in the Pacific. He would later author of the book "Accused American War Criminal". In 2020, he died at the age of 100. In his life time, he saw the design, construction, rise, fall, and resurrection of a type of aircraft that he helped use to reshape world history.
"We should keep FIFI and Doc flying to keep the next generation interested in WWII history. While there remain static models, some of which are continuing to deteriorate, seeing one actually fly or taking a ride in one is a big attraction", Bauer comments on the legacy of the likes of Hanley, Palacioz, and thousands of other known and unsung heroes. The preservation of vintage aircrafts serve as living history tools for teaching opportunities. In doing so we are able to maintain the legacy of those such as 1st Lt Bill Desmond of the 393rd Squadron, 509th Composite Group, Army Air Corp, based on Tinian, Atomic Bomb Squadron. Although these giants roamed the earth during a different era and time, the mantra is still the same, you must be ready to fight. As history has shown us, it is not necessarily the biggest bullets and bombs, nor the biggest army that wins battles but the best of minds that win wars.
Over twenty years ago, Mr. Jim Goble of Knoxville, Tennessee took his then seven year old son "JGG" to an airshow to witness the living legend of Fifi. A mere opportunity to sit in the pilot's seat lit a fire in the young child. The Bible says to train up a child in the way that he should go so that he will not depart from it. Children often aspire to be what they see. Now, just a little more than a decade and a half after that memorable day, Mr. Goble's son is now a recent and highly esteemed alumni of Georgia Tech holding a degree in Aerospace Engineering and currently working for Gulfstream Aerospace. Neither FiFi, Doc, nor any other aircraft was built by itself and they were not built overnight. It took certain minds to conceptualize and design aircraft that would meet certain specifications. Despite the advantage of modern technology, America had an educated populace that could satisfy the military needs regarding effective air superiority.
The resurrection of flyable B-29's and other vintage aircraft has inspired a new generations of aerospace scientists and engineers. Mr. Goble's son represents the next generation (NEXGEN). Before the B-29 dropped its first bomb, or even took flight, it took expert engineers and Boeing had them. It takes a certain disciplined mind to turn a concept on blueprint to a flyable reality. With the current growing threats to US dominance in the Pacific as well as threats to our space based assets, it will take the current generation of those such as JGG to meet the needs of the current warfighter and carry the torch, just as the "greatest generation" did three-quarters of a century ago.
Universities such as Georgia Tech, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Auburn University, Alabama A&M and the University of Alabama at Huntsville, as well as the University of North Dakota and numerous other colleges and universities are on the leading edge of educating those who will be producing superior aircraft. Through the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering, Georgia Tech Aerospace Engineering graduate program is ranked #4 in the nation according to U.S. News & World Report. In addition to this, The Daniel Guggenheim School produces the most Aerospace Engineering Master's and Doctrinal degrees in the nation. Furthermore the Shanghai Ranking of World Universities named Georgia Tech the #2 aerospace engineering school in the world. The Aerospace Engineering undergraduate program is ranked #2 in the nation according to U.S. News & World Report in 2020.
This past March, Gulfstream Aerospace announced that had been awarded $696 million in contracts from the U.S. Air Force Life Cycle Management Center for engineering services support and contractor logistics for C-20 and C-37 aircraft. Under the leadership of Troy Miller, who is the Vice President of Military and Special Missions Sales, has poised Gulfstream Aerospace as a global leader. This is partly because the company made a commitment to employ the best minds that the aerospace community has to offer such as JGG. Those minds were based on peaked interests. For one little boy, that interest was kindled by a simple visit to an airshow and sitting in the pilot's seat. Now, he is positioned to meet the demands of an aerospace and aviation community ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Oppression is expensive, therefore freedom is not free. Liberty costs. During WWII, 276,000 aircraft were manufactured in the US. The staggering cost per B-29 aircraft in 1945 dollars was $605,390. Approximately 4,000 B-29's were built during WWII. There were 464 B-29's that were dispatched from the Marianas on the famed B-29 mission against Tokyo on May 25, 1945, cost 26 aircraft at a rate of 5.6%. Almost 1,000 planes disappeared en route from the US to foreign destinations. Approximately 43,581 aircraft were lost overseas. That includes 22,948 on combat missions, 18,418 in Europe, 4,530 and 20,633 due to non-combat causes overseas.
The B-29 was the world's most sophisticated, the most capable and most expensive bomber at that time. Despite this technological marvel, there were 40 B-29 accidents per 100,000 hours. The B-17 and B-24 averaged 30 and 35 accidents per 100,000 flight hours was too urgently needed to be able to stand down for mere safety reasons. However, given what was at stake, safety had to take a backseat.
At the on start of the war, The German Luftwaffe and the Imperial Japanese Navy and Air Force had the most sophisticated aircraft and superior pilots. Some fighter pilots entered combat in 1942 with less than 1 hour in their assigned aircraft. Rarely did pilots get the required training time to transition into there new aircraft. Colonel Donald Blakeslee, Group Commander of the 4th Fighter Group is said to have told his pilots transitioning from the P-47, "You can learn to fly 51s on the way to the target".
The United States was not looking for a fight. The fight came looking for the US. A nation called and the might and muscle was mustered to defeat an unrelentless adversary despite insurmountable odds. On paper, the U.S. was ill prepared, ill-equipped, and ill trained to fight superior adversaries on two fronts. However, it is not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog that wins. People of diverse backgrounds came together to produce first class planes as well as the pilots and crews that flew them. What these vintage aircrafts such as Doc and FiFi represent are a nation's rise to prominence in the face of multifaceted impediments. Had America not been America, this article would have easily been written in German or Japanese. I had the opportunity to fly upon FiFi in Birmingham, Alabama at the Birmingham Southern Museum of Flight. I saw multiple generations fly on upon the B-29 because some wanted to see the last view that a previous patriarch saw. Perhaps some wanted to see the massive network of gears, nuts, and bolts that mom or grand mom assembled. But in honor of this Father's and Memorial Day as well as observation of the D-Day Landing, we honor the greatest generation. All gave some, but some gave all. Now what is your price for flight ?