Pelican's Perch #56 Supplement:
Randy Sohn on the B-29
FROM: Col. R. L. Sohn — CAF, Chief Check Pilot — Bombers
TO: Tina Stewart — Editor Dispatch, 15 Jan 94
I just received the Winter issue of the Dispatch, the publication looks better each issue. Sometime I should show you some of the CAF stuff I've saved going back to 1965 if you don't already have access to it.
While reading, I noticed a few things that caused me to reminisce about the trip and the people. I thought I might add a few insights and corrections to make things technically accurate.
In "Mail Call" Jack Myers mentions watching our activities at China Lake Naval Weapons Test Center while preparing "Fifi" for the trip to Harlingen. He mentions that records indicate the USN received several more B-29s than were requested. I'd really like to know more about those records, we were told at the time that the Navy had burned all the B-29 records since they were not considered to be aircraft. That appears to be the reason the USN insisted they didn't have any B-29s in their possession.
Vic Agather, however, kept insisting that they must have because Roger Baker had seen them. Finding a B-29 was very important to the CAF, Lloyd Nolen's vision of a completed collection could only be satisfied with this acquisition. (I'll leave for another time or story just exactly what was Roger doing on/over/in the vicinity of a secret military installation.)
In truth, everyone turned out to be partly right after all had been said and done. The USAF had disposed of them in 1954 as "Government issued property - aircraft" and the USN had taken them on strength as "Government issued property — static ordinance testing devices."
So technically, the USN was right, they didn't have any B-29s. They did, however, have nearly fifty "devices" appropriately identified on their computer inventory lists as "targets." They had silently slept for seventeen years, abandoned with controls unlocked, at the mercy of the wind and the desert. As an aside, I once mentioned to our airline's chief pilot, Art Hinke (USNR), how fortuitous it was that they were used as targets by the USN instead of the USAF. Thusly allowing the CAF a choice of several relatively unscathed airframes. I assume that observation will be good for several more years of salty inter-service comments in the Officer's Club at Midland. (You know, now that I give the matter some thought, the check rides did seem to get tougher along about that time!)
At any rate, in large part due to the intensity of Vic Agather's perseverance (another story), we finally did obtain an airframe, (#44-62070, tail # 31 while at Randolph AFB) and after nine weeks of preparation, "Fifi" (yet unnamed) was ready to leave for her new home. In the CAF tradition of first things first, we purchased half a dozen spray cans, then masked and painted "CONFEDERATE AIR FORCE" on both sides in 117º heat just in case it might be the only time we ever flew her. I think the USN was very happy to have someone else's markings on this derelict.
As Mr. Myers says, the numerous weapons firing ranges surrounding China Lake NAS would become "hot" at 0800. The only communications was a portable VHF radio hastily jumper wired to a spare terminal on the flight engineer's panel. With the only navigational gear being a B-16 wet compass Lloyd Nolen always claimed was "last swung over the Yalu River." I had an earnest desire to "get gone." We were all highly trained, motivated and equipped with freshly packed parachutes. We had spent a good portion of the night pouring heavy weight non-detergent oil (only obtainable in quart cans in Trona "just up that there highway over the next mountain towards Death Valley") into the 80 gallon tanks.
Serendipity had intervened and the night before I had finally obtained a copy of a flight manual for the B-29. In fact, a pre-flight picture hastily taken of the flight crew shows it in my hand while we impatiently watched the nose wheel changing process. You can imagine the consternation the nose tire caused when it let go during the pre-start checklist. Well, never fear, this intrepid CAF volunteer recovery crew had faced problems like this before. We had proud traditions of the corps to uphold. (Doubters may refer to early CAF records concerning the trials and tribulations of one M. L. "Lefty" Gardner while single handedly saving various WW II fighters from Yankee smelters and successfully returning them to the fledgling CAF at Mercedes.) In fact, a perusal of the photo on page 64 of the hard cover 1975 CAF history book indicates that Col. Culpepper, even while coping with the unrelenting pressures of his daily duties at the Octagon, had providentially foreseen this exact possibility. He had specifically charged Bruno Genarlsky and Bill Syfrett to act as squad and brigade commanders of nocturnal scrounge and requisition units, should exigencies of the service require. This well thought out process resulted in a previously removed nose tire being carefully (it was the only one that would hold air) selected and returned to service. It possessed a knobby type tread pattern, providing some idea of its authenticity and vintage. Besides, look at the bright side, the new one we had installed at vast expense had been badly out of balance during the previous high speed taxi tests. And the old one appeared to have a lot more experience too. At least more experience than most of us did.
For example, Jack Kern had spent the previous months working on the airplane as the main contractor for the renovation. He had flown as a flight engineer on one before and he had enough confidence to come along with me. Pretty hard to not trust a mechanic who'll come along on the first flight of something he worked on. "Unh, wait a minute, we've got a problem, Jack doesn't have a FAA flight engineer license." "W-e-l-l, Roger, you've got one from your early days as a second officer on pistons at United, seems logical to me that the combination of you two guys would make everything legal." And combining experiences isn't all bad. After all, the B-29's gear and flap systems are the same as the B-17 I'd been flying since we bought it from Litton for the CAF in 1967. I'd flown R-3350s on DC-7s and was the chief pilot of a C-97 Stratocruiser squadron in the Air Guard and those two probably fly about the same. Speaking further of experiences, Darrell Skurich had probably experienced just about every aeronautical experience an experienced USAF fighter pilot and crop duster could experience and still be alive and, while you might think this amount of experience would be enough to convince him not to go, he was still willing to come along — just for the experience! "Mac" McCafferty had a plethora of experiences. He'd spent years in the USN and followed that by working on virtually every kind of farm implement made by almost every manufacturer including John Deere, International, Case, Massey-Harris, Gleaner and several others. Besides, he had made his presence essential by the act of saving all the used nuts, bolts, cotter keys and other AN hardware leftover during the process of getting the old bird ready for the ferry flight.
We had read the part of the flight manual that mentioned magnesium fires in the engines and the likelihood of only having about a minute before the wing burned off. Lacking both an intercom system between the front and rear compartments and a fire warning system I thought prudence dictated devising some sort of procedure to cover this eventuality. After taking another look at the date of repack on everyone's parachutes we divided the leftover nuts and bolts into two coffee cans. I gave one to "Mac" and one to "Lefty" after conducting accuracy tests on who could throw the can farthest and straightest through the bomb bay crawlway tunnel, the only connection between the front and rear of a B-29. The objective was that if the back half of the crew saw something really B-A-A-D while performing their duties as engine scanners (necessitating testing the manufacturer's return policy on the freshly packed parachutes) they would throw their can of bolts through the tunnel as hard as possible and then LEAVE! The same procedure would be used by the front end crew. The only difference being that if the back end crew hesitated overly long in leaving after receipt of the can of bolts from the front end, they would abruptly find themselves promoted to in-command status, we would have already left!
Now, a paragraph of seriousness in wanting to correct the most prevalent misstatement usually made in the retelling of this odyssey's history. This occurs in statements and books by various persons including CAF members. Usually they say something like "due to the highly secret nature of the naval installation the crew was prohibited from making a test flight". This is absolutely the reverse of the truth. The officials insisted on a test flight, I demurred as politely as possible. They again insisted and I finally had to make the point that as the aircraft commander I was charged with the responsibility of making this flight as safely and as responsibly as I possibly could. If I ever got the thing in the air I wasn't landing anywhere but in Harlingen as long as I still had mostly three engines. We finally agreed that they could launch a military Cessna 310 ahead of us as a chase plane and he could scan us from the bottom side after takeoff. This they did, we made one farewell circle of China Lake and left for Texas.
The rest, as they say, is history. For the flight log, one voltage regulator fire, one split oil pressure line on the engineer's panel and some crew dissension concerning navigational matters once we got back above Texas soil. I still say that for better part of an hour or more they didn't speak English as a native tongue under our flight path, "Lefty" says not so. We'll never know, who am I to argue, he's been flying over Texas as man and boy. 6 hours and 38 minutes later with all engines running we were home where we circled twice while Dick Disney came up to meet us with Milt Connell's SNJ. With Jack Purnell photographing from the rear seat they preserved Lloyd Nolen's and "Old Rednose's" image for posterity on our wing while flying over Harlingen in a rain shower. 2 Aug 71 — Mission complete — Collection complete!
A CBS television crew happened to be on the airport on another project and filmed the arrival. When they asked me during the arrival celebration how much pilot time I had in a B-29 I was able to look at my watch and nonchalantly reply, "six hours and thirty eight minutes".
Subsequently I figured out from flying the King Cobra and the Mustang, and a studious observation of fighter pilots, that it was a lot easier to get a one person crew (me) ready to go somewhere than six or more people so I made a swap with Dick Disney. I gave him the B-29 flight manual and he gave me a P-47 checkout. Dick got the training program described in the CAF history portion of this Dispatch set up and operating. On page 24 Chuck's last name is misspelled, it should be Bronson. Both he and Joe were both very helpful as FAA representatives over the years with the B-29 training programs we've conducted.
We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Sen. Barry Goldwater for his stalwart support and help in the nearly superhuman efforts Vic Agather had to go through with the USAF and bureaucracy to subsequently get the "no-fly" clause removed from this aircraft.
Happily, "Fifi" still soldiers on in CAF service. In 1978 she initiated the program now known as "Summer Tours" of various CAF aircraft by successfully (financially, that is) touring Dayton and St. Paul. At Oshkosh '89 I was able to take the Soviet crew from the gigantic Antonov 124 along with me in "Fifi" where I found that the aircraft commander, Vladimir Tersky, had flown the TU-4 "Bull" (Soviet copy of the B-29) over nineteen hours as a student test pilot.
Now, the disclaimers. Certain names have not been changed to protect the innocent, there are none. Immunity has been granted by the Chief Check Pilot and the Chief Check Pilot — Bombers. Also, I should mention that I have been informed by competent legal counsel that the statute of limitations has long ago expired
Best regards to all, see you in February — Randy
FROM: Col. R. L. Sohn — CAF Chief Check Pilot — Bombers
TO: Editor, CAF Dispatch 11 Jun 95 (8)
A few months ago when we were getting FIFI ready to go to Montreal you requested that I write some of my thoughts on "what it's like to fly FIFI on her 50th anniversary" for the next Dispatch. The word "unique" (according to Webster — one of a kind) would certainly apply to her, especially since the unfortunate demise of the "Kee Bird" in Greenland.
In the process of trying to decide on some sort of format for this article one probably couldn't go too far wrong in following the example that "Buddy Jo Freon" of the California Wing has used while expertly chronicling the history of his favorite (the famed P-51) for the Dispatch. On the other hand I may be handicapped somewhat by having flown the thing a fair amount over the last 24 years since the China Lake recovery expedition so I can't honestly say it's the best flying bomber.
Queen of the fleet? Undeniably! But this last of the completely muscle powered manually controlled aircraft could never be accused of easy handling flight control qualities. Boeing had experimented with a powered flight control system on the earlier model 307 Stratoliner. However, from the conversations I've had with those pilots it left something to be desired in the control regime, even for those aeronautically primitive times, and wasn't used on the essentially same B-17. Maybe you'll get some mail from retired TWA pilots about this and that's great, maybe we can share their input. Anyhow, rather than write this as a historian, I think I'll just try to share with the reader some impressions and observations, trying to provide a little bit of a "you were there" experience for them.
We've already discussed many times how FIFI was found and made ready for the ferry flight home in 1971. I had talked extensively with several former B-29 pilots at North Central Airlines about the characteristics and idiosyncrasies I could expect with this relic. In fact, I'd discussed with a couple of them (whose abilities I held in high regard) the possibility of accompanying me on this recovery of an artifact abandoned to the desert's tender mercies for the preceding seventeen years. This usually resulted in a hastily offered "Unh, Randy, I just remembered I've got an appointment, five minutes ago!" They probably remembered all too well the engine fires and overheating, the failures, the runaways and all those things that make good war stories — from a safe distance and time. Seriously, they'd done their part — for real — and now it was up to us to get the aircraft that would complete the CAF collection home in one piece. And really, how could you say "No" to Vic Agather after he'd put a small fortune of his own into seeing this project accomplished. Well, actually, now that I give the matter some thought, half of it belonged to Fifi (Mrs. Agather) but the esteem I hold for both of them would have made it impossible to turn either of them down.
So, there we were at China Lake NAS on an August morning with a hand held radio and a flight manual acquired only a few hours earlier, six of us finally ready and eager to be gone. Earlier, one whole day had been spent arguing with the Van Nuys FSDO over my absolute need for a six man crew to accomplish the mission safely and their equally strong conviction that three crew members were enough for the ferry. Like almost everything else about this aircraft, the FAA's knowledge of the unique fire problems of the B-29 and need for scanners was extinct. We'd spent the previous several days running and high speed taxiing it and were as sure as you could be of pulling the whole scheme off. Between the DC-7, the B-17 and the C-97 Stratocruiser, I'd flown the engines, the systems and the airframe. Looking at the bright side, once we got it in the air we'd probably have close to seven hours to discuss the landing. We were very intent on minimizing our ground operation time knowing that the B-29's engines were chronic overheaters. The ground temp at 0730 (after the last minute delay caused by the flat nosewheel tire) was already in the low 90s.
In retrospect, probably the most valid observance had been Pete Wahl's advice that the B-29 would have a tendency to track towards the left if all throttles were simultaneously advanced. He remembered a common technique had been to start the takeoff with the airplane pointed somewhat towards the right side of the runway. This allowed an earlier throttle application as you took advantage of the left turning tendency. FIFI strongly displayed this tendency and here it strongly resembles the P-51 in characteristics and rudder forces. In spite of full right rudder from the beginning we were past 100 MPH before I was able to use full throttles on the right side. I've often described the aircraft in political terms as having "leftist" tendencies from the beginning. Subsequently, we've worked on the rudder rigging and noticed improvement. You have to remember these airplanes were abandoned in the desert winds with the controls unlocked for many years. A definite raising of the nose to cause liftoff at approximately 120 MPH is required. Left to its own devices a B-29's nosewheel will remain on the ground, resulting in the mains levitating first, especially if 25º flaps is used instead of the normal 15º. After takeoff the most immediate requirement is to get as much airspeed for cylinder head cooling as possible — right now — by holding it down. This is done at the expense of altitude acquisition and is the exact opposite of everything we teach and hold sacred in today's turbine air carrier operations.
Now fast forward almost seven hours to the landing at Harlingen. Lloyd Nolen had met us over the field in "Rednose" to look us over from a tight wing position. I've always regretted not asking him to describe his feelings when he saw Confederate Air Force on the upper fuselage sides. We'd painted that with spray cans in 117º heat the day before, not knowing if we'd ever be permitted to fly the thing more than once. After a few circles we entered downwind and encountered another situation that caused an abrupt rise in adrenaline (at least mine). I called for gear down and assumed it would take about the same amount of time it does in a B-17 or C-97. Wrong! I turned base and both mains still weren't green. Visions of hand cranking or worse, a belly landing after coming that far, started to intrude on my thoughts. Finally we got the green lights and another characteristic became a known, along with the slow retraction (which we would have noticed if we hadn't been so busy on takeoff). This is a very similar situation to those of you that fly both the earlier Bonanza and the Baron as concerns the different rate of gear actuation between the two.
The perspective from the pilot's seat deserves mentioning . Some pilots have more trouble than others with the all-glass nose in front of them. Many pilots attempting their first landing in FIFI have had trouble getting it on the runway centerline. This in spite of telling them several times during the final approach that they are lined up with the left gear out in the grass to the left of the concrete. Normal landings can be made with either 80% or full flaps. The aircraft has more of a tendency to land nosewheel first with full flaps and in fact, the first landing at Harlingen occurred this way. We used to do our short field landings this way with the C-97s, touching down precisely where we desired, although the USAF certainly viewed it with a jaundiced eye. With 25O of flaps as normally used in a crosswind it's fairly easy to strike the tailskid bumper. Any scrape marks on this heavy iron forging requires a round of beer for the crew! Threshold speed varies with weight but a good average is 120 MPH. Some like to use two hands for landing, relying on the engineer to promptly set the manifold pressure called for by the pilot. Others prefer controlling the throttles themselves. The really important thing is to make the airplane assume the attitude the pilot wants for landing, regardless of the control forces required. A moderate amount of elevator trim applied prior to the roundout is helpful. Some later B-29s had reversible props, however, this was pretty much a mixed blessing considering the lack of nosewheel steering. The brakes are powerful and are typically delayed to take full advantage of the runway length, minimizing expense and wear. Brakes currently cost a lot, tires cost (each) around a couple thousand. It might be noted here that the only hydraulic units on the aircraft are the brakes, powered by a small electric motor driving a hydraulic pump. This is the reason for the small auxiliary power unit (APU) being available for taxiing, takeoffs and landings as the aircraft generators fall off line at lower RPMs.
Some mention was made above of the flight engineer on this aircraft. This person is arguably the most important member of the crew and, in truth, is the only member of the crew requiring a specific professional rating on their FAA certificate. Pilots do not possess a FAA type rating for the B-29 on our certificate, instead we operate with a separate FAA Letter of Authorization. This is because no B-29 was ever civil type certificated, leaving us to operate in the Experimental category. The engineer reached the apex of his art on this aircraft along with others of this vintage such as the B-50, the C-97 Stratocruiser and the Lockheed Constellation. The B-29 engineer's seat is particularly difficult for a pilot acclimated individual because all throttles, mixtures and controls are arranged 4-3-2-1, the theory being that the levers are arranged in the same order as the engines for a person seated backwards. In addition, the mixtures are moved to the rich position by pulling and to idle cut-off by pushing. Vic Agather, who was there at the beginning, has said that by the time they flew the second prototype they realized that the backwards seat was a mistake. It should have been sideways but the whole program was on such a rush basis that there simply wasn't time to change it.
Right at the beginning in 1971 we chose to disable the alternating current (AC) electrical systems since it is rather nonessential for our limited purposes. Obviously, doing so has removed the normal turbo supercharger control capability from this aircraft. We do find ourselves somewhat limited in altitude and higher weight takeoff capabilities due to this lack but the economic compromise seems worthwhile. I did make one takeoff from Carswell AFB with turbos operating, probably in the late seventies. We had found free gas and it seemed too good of a deal to pass it up. Loaded to the gunnels with over 6000 gallons we set the turbo wastegates before start using the emergency direct current (DC) control system and then took off with full power. After takeoff the engineer opened the turbo gates with this system and we then proceeded back to Harlingen with our booty.
This seems like an appropriate time to devote some attention to a few of the memories and anecdotes experienced over the years while displaying this machine to a nationwide audience. The most important thing I didn't know but learned from listening to hundreds of people is that the wartime B-29 program involved a vast, yet little known, cottage manufacturing effort. Many people have related to me their small part in a program that was immense and complicated and whose successful completion depended upon a multiplicity of small parts arriving at any one of four different factories — and fitting perfectly! The Cornelius brothers, who had been making beverage and bar service equipment, suddenly found themselves developing and manufacturing the tiny air compressors used for powering the bomb bay doors. Propeller blades were manufactured in the Hippodrome on the Minnesota state fairgrounds. A pipe organ company had experience in controlling air precisely through air valves so — who better to design and build the bomb bay door actuators.
The USN burned the records and logbooks, however some of her history still surfaces in bits and pieces from time to time. A former USAF mechanic wrote me that he had been the crew chief on tail #33 at Randolph AFB, his friend was the crew chief on #31 (FIFI). This was during the period when they were being used to practice bomb Matagorda Island. He said that many Mustang engines were used up trying to catch the B-29s at high altitudes. It is also true that a B-29 will turn rather rapidly when rudder (in prodigious amounts) is used in conjunction with full aileron. This was the technique used to duplicate Paul Tibbets quick right turn when we were filming "The Enola Gay Story" around 1980.
What evolved into the summer tours of the CAF's aircraft, along with those of many other museums, all started in 1978 when Vic Agather asked if I could arrange some sort of mini-airshow involving the B-29. His idea was to minimize the flying (and associated expense) and just make the airplane available to the public. I still recall the elation I felt when George Wedekind of the Dayton Airfair agreed to underwrite $3000 of the anticipated $7000 gasoline costs if we'd stop in Dayton on the way to St. Paul. In a frantic month and a half I approached several TV and radio stations here in the Twin Cities to try and make this idea work. I also remember being so unprepared for the obvious question regarding more information that I blurted out our home telephone number during a TV interview. There simply wasn't any other number available, good bye to tranquillity for the next month. Phillips Petroleum also had some questions in a telephone call to my home phone from their Bartlesville billing office concerning whether I had really intended to put several thousand dollars of av-gas on my 66 charge card! Oh well, all's well that ends well, from this has sprung the annual Southern Minnesota Wing's Downtown St. Paul Airport show, along with all the other tours mentioned above.
A rather vivid memory is Oshkosh 89. When we arrived we saw a gigantic Soviet Antonov AN 124 towering over everything on the show ramp. A compressed history of the ensuing details would show that during one of the afternoon airshows the Antonov landed and then, during reversing, displayed the American flag from the co-pilot's side window. This was extremely impressive to the crowd since, at that period in history, relations between our two nations had only shown the beginning of a thaw in their historical confrontation. A short while later I happened to be involved in a discussion with Bob Hoover on another matter when the perfect idea of how we could suitably respond suddenly occurred to me. If I could find a Soviet flag we could then display both the American and the Soviet flags to the crowd while giving the Soviet crew a ride on the biggest U. S. showplane there! The only problem was how to get immediate General Staff approval since I knew that surely someone, somewhere, would be bound to object. I'll always remember Bob's quiet statement as I contemplated the impossibilities of ever dealing with the logistics and obaining their approval in time. He said, ". . so sometimes you just need to act on your instincts, otherwise you'll rue the day forever, wishing that you had!" So, on an impromptu basis we issued the invitation, Mike Heuer of the International Aerobatics Club came up with the only Soviet flag within several hundred miles and we flew the show. I let Vladimir Tersky, aircraft commander of the Antonov, fly FIFI and I couldn't figure out for the life of me why he could almost make this airplane talk after only a few minutes at the controls. Later the interpreter explained to me that we were more alike than I knew. Vladimir's age, experiences and background almost matched mine, word for word. While he was a student at the Russian equivalent of our Edwards test pilot school his instructor had given him his class assignment — to test the Russian copy of the B-29. He had spent 19 hours flying the Tupolev TU 4 "Bull". As Paul Harvey says, "now you know the rest of the story!" We finished with the airboss requesting a taxiing parade lap up and down the runway in front of the crowd (even delaying the missing man formation) while displaying flags of the two nations from the cockpit windows. The subsequent offer to come along with my new friend while we flew the gigantic Antonov in the next day's airshow was the icing on the cake!
In the pits at the Reno races it's pretty common to see blackboards with chalked answers to the most commonly asked questions of the day by passerbys. If I were to do the same it'd probably look like this...
Greatest thrill? — flying with and requalifying Paul Tibbets at Harlingen in 1976 and watching this pro take to the B-29 like a "duck to water". Paul hadn't been in a 29 since flying the "Enola Gay" at Orchard Field, Chicago in 1949.
Greatest disappointment? — that Eddie Allen, famed Boeing test pilot, didn't survive the B-29 test program during the war years so I could have talked to another one of my heroes.
Most common misconception? — that the Seattle crash that killed Eddie and his crew aboard the second prototype was caused by an engine fire. Very few people realize that a testing manometer line installed in the wing leading edge was involved with ignited fuel vented from the wing fuel tank.
Randy Sohn, #308
P.S. I know, I know! It's Buddy Joffrian but the first time Clay Lacy told me over the phone that they'd meet us at March AFB when we interviewed Gen LeMay it sounded the other way to me. Anyway, he writes great stuff about aviation history!