Beauty and the beast

Last of WWII B-29 Superfortresses flies into Michigan

By David L. Barber
Pioneer News Network

Flying high over center stage of the Pacific Theater, she played both roles — beauty and the beast.

Her sleek silver curves were a thing of beauty, all right. Nearly 100 feet long and with a wing span just a few inches shy of 142 feet, to say she commanded the attention of her awe-struck enemy audience would be an understatement.

Enter the beast — the B-29 Superfortress. Capable of carrying 20,000 pounds of bombs — more than three times the payload of her smaller sister, the B-17 Flying Fortress — the B-29 may have entered World War II during its last act, but the super star Superfortress still played a huge role in bringing the war to a sudden and stunning climax.

"Fifi,” the B-29 Superfortress

“Fifi,” the B-29 Superfortress

Of the 3,960 B-29s made so long ago, only one still flies today. Named “Fifi,” the B-29 spent the past week in Michigan, first at the Willow Run-based “Thunder over Michigan Air Show,” then at Kalamazoo Air Zoo. The pride of the Commemorative Air Force that is based at the Midland International Airport in Midland, Texas, “Fifi” turned more than just a few heads during her week-long aerial performances in Michigan.

“There’s no doubt that it has a certain connection, a certain soul to it,” said Col. David Oliver, operations officer. “That soul is retold through the stories of the men and women who flew it. We get a lot of comments — maybe from a son or a grandson — who had a father or a grandfather who flew on these.

“It brings back memories of their crew and certainly every B-29 had a very tight knit crew. That was the way they survived — helping each other and working together.

“Often times, when the veterans come back, they remember a lot of those good friends. It gets nostalgic for them and it reminds them of some of their buddies.”

Age is a funny thing when it comes to flying such an aircraft. By today’s standards and being just 30 years old, Oliver is one of the youngest pilots who routinely sits behind the controls of the world’s last flying B-29.

But had he done that 68 years ago — during the closing days of WWII — he’d have been an old man at 30 years old.

“They were young boys, you know,” Oliver said. “Some of them had just barely enlisted and (suddenly) they were gunners. Some of the officers might have been a little bit older. Paul Tibbitts was 29 years old when he dropped the atomic bomb (on Hiroshim), and he was very old for an aircraft commander. And he was a lieutenant colonel, at the time.

“It’s certainly a big privilege for a young guy to fly the airplane. Of course, in World War II, in combat, most of the aircraft commanders were probably about 22, 23 years old. Some of the crew members were 18, 19 years old. I’m much older than what the typical age was.”

Col. David Oliver, operations officer

When reflecting on the WWII service record of the B-29, Oliver talks of the “men and women of the Greatest Generation” who played critical roles in the airplane’s story.

“I always say the men who flew it, and the women who built the airplane,” Oliver said. “The airplane was built by — constructed by — a female work force. We’re certainly proud of that fact. (It’s) our American heritage.”

Finding, fixing and flying the world’s last B-29 became the focus of officials with the Texas-based air museum in the mid-1960s. However, they were told that no such aircraft remained in inventory, anywhere, not in storage or at any of the post-war’s numerous military aircraft disposal depots.

Then, in 1971, a pilot flying over the desert in California reported seeing several B-29s scattered here and there. The once proud airplanes had all but been destroyed by the sun, the sand and even vandals. A Texas businessman and WWII Air Force veteran, Vic Agather, took the lead in getting that aircraft restored to flying condition.

After a series of negotiations and trading paperwork with the federal government, museum officials were given permission to take one B-29 from the sandy graveyard. After several weeks of restoring the aircraft in the unforgiving California desert, B-29 SN44-62070 finally took flight and was flown to its new base in the Lone Star State.

“(Mr. Agather) worked on B-29s as a reservist during World War II and was very instrumental in the retrofit program,” Oliver said. “He later became part of the Commemorative Air Force, and, in 1971, helped to get the airplane out of the desert. He financially supported the airplane for many years. His wife’s name is Fifi, so the crew (named the airplane) in honor of him, (and what he did to help restore the airplane).”

As beautiful and beastly as the B-29s were during their history-defining days of World War II, they also became notorious for having troublesome, explosive engines. In fact, more B-29s were lost during the war due to fiery engine malfunctions, then to enemy combat. Unbelievably, many of the B-29’s original engines burned out and needed to be replaced after just 25 hours of service.

Not long after restoring ‘Fifi,’ officials with the Commemorative Air Force decided to replace the four, large propeller engines with more modern, safe ones.

“Now that she has basically new engines, she’ll probably outlive all of us,” Olilver said. “She’s very strong, very safe and very sturdy. She’s the last of her kind. She has a great story to tell. She means a lot of a lot of people.

“Like I said, it’s a privilege, an honor, to fly her. We’re very proud of her.”

The B-29 Superfortress

Impressive for its time, the B-29 Superfortress boasted some amazing numbers.

Manufacturer: Boeing

Role: Strategic bomber

Crew: 11

Length: 99 feet

Height: 29 feet, 7 inches

Wingspan: 141 feet, 3 inches

Maximum speed: 357 m.p.h.

Maximum range: 3,250 miles

Service ceiling: 33,600 feet

Armament: 8, or 12, .50 caliber machine guns; 1, 20 mili-meter cannon

Maximum bomb load: 20,000 pounds

First flight: September, 1942

Introduction into WWII: May, 1944

Produced: 1943-46

Cost: Approximately $639,000

Delivery of atomic bombs: “Little Boy” was dropped from a B-29 named “Enola Gay” on Hiroshima, Japan, Aug. 6, 1944; “Fat Man” was dropped from a B-29 named “Bockscar” on Nagasaki Aug. 9, 1944

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