Pelican’s Perch #56 Supplement:
Randy Sohn on the B-29

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FROM: Col. R. L. Sohn – CAF, Chief Check Pilot – Bombers

TO: Tina Stewart – Editor Dispatch, 15 Jan 94

Dear Tina,

I just received the Winter issue of the Dispatch, the publicationlooks better each issue. Sometime I should show you some of the CAF stuff I’vesaved 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 thetrip and the people. I thought I might add a few insights and corrections tomake things technically accurate.

In “Mail Call” Jack Myers mentions watching our activities at ChinaLake Naval Weapons Test Center while preparing “Fifi” for the trip toHarlingen. He mentions that records indicate the USN received several more B-29sthan were requested. I’d really like to know more about those records, we weretold at the time that the Navy had burned all the B-29 records since they werenot considered to be aircraft. That appears to be the reason the USN insistedthey didn’t have any B-29s in their possession.

Vic Agather, however, kept insisting that they must have because Roger Bakerhad seen them. Finding a B-29 was very important to the CAF, Lloyd Nolen’svision of a completed collection could only be satisfied with this acquisition.(I’ll leave for another time or story just exactly what was Roger doingon/over/in the vicinity of a secret military installation.)

In truth, everyone turned out to be partly right after all had been said anddone. The USAF had disposed of them in 1954 as “Government issued property- aircraft” and the USN had taken them on strength as “Governmentissued 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 theircomputer inventory lists as “targets.” They had silently slept forseventeen years, abandoned with controls unlocked, at the mercy of the wind andthe desert. As an aside, I once mentioned to our airline’s chief pilot, ArtHinke (USNR), how fortuitous it was that they were used as targets by the USNinstead of the USAF. Thusly allowing the CAF a choice of several relativelyunscathed airframes. I assume that observation will be good for several moreyears of salty inter-service comments in the Officer’s Club at Midland. (Youknow, now that I give the matter some thought, the check rides did seem to gettougher 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 whileat Randolph AFB) and after nine weeks of preparation, “Fifi” (yetunnamed) was ready to leave for her new home. In the CAF tradition of firstthings first, we purchased half a dozen spray cans, then masked and painted”CONFEDERATE AIR FORCE” on both sides in 117 heat just in case itmight be the only time we ever flew her. I think the USN was very happy to havesomeone else’s markings on this derelict.

As Mr. Myers says, the numerous weapons firing ranges surrounding China LakeNAS would become “hot” at 0800. The only communications was a portableVHF radio hastily jumper wired to a spare terminal on the flight engineer’spanel. With the only navigational gear being a B-16 wet compass Lloyd Nolenalways claimed was “last swung over the Yalu River.” I had an earnestdesire to “get gone.” We were all highly trained, motivated andequipped with freshly packed parachutes. We had spent a good portion of thenight pouring heavy weight non-detergent oil (only obtainable in quart cans inTrona “just up that there highway over the next mountain towards DeathValley”) into the 80 gallon tanks.

Serendipity had intervened and the night before I had finally obtained a copyof a flight manual for the B-29. In fact, a pre-flight picture hastily taken ofthe flight crew shows it in my hand while we impatiently watched the nose wheelchanging process. You can imagine the consternation the nose tire caused when itlet go during the pre-start checklist. Well, never fear, this intrepid CAFvolunteer recovery crew had faced problems like this before. We had proudtraditions of the corps to uphold. (Doubters may refer to early CAF recordsconcerning the trials and tribulations of one M. L. “Lefty” Gardnerwhile single handedly saving various WW II fighters from Yankee smelters andsuccessfully returning them to the fledgling CAF at Mercedes.) In fact, aperusal of the photo on page 64 of the hard cover 1975 CAF history bookindicates that Col. Culpepper, even while coping with the unrelenting pressuresof his daily duties at the Octagon, had providentially foreseen this exactpossibility. He had specifically charged Bruno Genarlsky and Bill Syfrett to actas squad and brigade commanders of nocturnal scrounge and requisition units,should exigencies of the service require. This well thought out process resultedin a previously removed nose tire being carefully (it was the only one thatwould hold air) selected and returned to service. It possessed a knobby typetread 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 beenbadly out of balance during the previous high speed taxi tests. And the old oneappeared to have a lot more experience too. At least more experience than mostof us did.

For example, Jack Kern had spent the previous months working on the airplaneas the main contractor for the renovation. He had flown as a flight engineer onone before and he had enough confidence to come along with me. Pretty hard tonot trust a mechanic who’ll come along on the first flight of something heworked on. “Unh, wait a minute, we’ve got a problem, Jack doesn’t have aFAA flight engineer license.” “W-e-l-l, Roger, you’ve got one fromyour early days as a second officer on pistons at United, seems logical to methat the combination of you two guys would make everything legal.” Andcombining experiences isn’t all bad. After all, the B-29’s gear and flap systemsare the same as the B-17 I’d been flying since we bought it from Litton for theCAF in 1967. I’d flown R-3350s on DC-7s and was the chief pilot of a C-97Stratocruiser squadron in the Air Guard and those two probably fly about thesame. Speaking further of experiences, Darrell Skurich had probably experiencedjust about every aeronautical experience an experienced USAF fighter pilot andcrop duster could experience and still be alive and, while you might think thisamount of experience would be enough to convince him not to go, he was stillwilling to come along – just for the experience! “Mac” McCafferty hada plethora of experiences. He’d spent years in the USN and followed that byworking on virtually every kind of farm implement made by almost everymanufacturer including John Deere, International, Case, Massey-Harris, Gleanerand several others. Besides, he had made his presence essential by the act ofsaving all the used nuts, bolts, cotter keys and other AN hardware leftoverduring 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 inthe engines and the likelihood of only having about a minute before the wingburned off. Lacking both an intercom system between the front and rearcompartments and a fire warning system I thought prudence dictated devising somesort of procedure to cover this eventuality. After taking another look at thedate of repack on everyone’s parachutes we divided the leftover nuts and boltsinto two coffee cans. I gave one to “Mac” and one to “Lefty”after conducting accuracy tests on who could throw the can farthest andstraightest through the bomb bay crawlway tunnel, the only connection betweenthe front and rear of a B-29. The objective was that if the back half of thecrew saw something really B-A-A-D while performing their duties as enginescanners (necessitating testing the manufacturer’s return policy on the freshlypacked parachutes) they would throw their can of bolts through the tunnel ashard as possible and then LEAVE! The same procedure would be used by the frontend crew. The only difference being that if the back end crew hesitated overlylong in leaving after receipt of the can of bolts from the front end, they wouldabruptly find themselves promoted to in-command status, we would have alreadyleft!

Now, a paragraph of seriousness in wanting to correct the most prevalentmisstatement usually made in the retelling of this odyssey’s history. Thisoccurs in statements and books by various persons including CAF members. Usuallythey say something like “due to the highly secret nature of the navalinstallation the crew was prohibited from making a test flight”. This isabsolutely the reverse of the truth. The officials insisted on a test flight, Idemurred as politely as possible. They again insisted and I finally had to makethe point that as the aircraft commander I was charged with the responsibilityof making this flight as safely and as responsibly as I possibly could. If Iever got the thing in the air I wasn’t landing anywhere but in Harlingen as longas I still had mostly three engines. We finally agreed that they could launch amilitary Cessna 310 ahead of us as a chase plane and he could scan us from thebottom side after takeoff. This they did, we made one farewell circle of ChinaLake and left for Texas.

The rest, as they say, is history. For the flight log, one voltage regulatorfire, one split oil pressure line on the engineer’s panel and some crewdissension concerning navigational matters once we got back above Texas soil. Istill say that for better part of an hour or more they didn’t speak English as anative tongue under our flight path, “Lefty” says not so. We’ll neverknow, who am I to argue, he’s been flying over Texas as man and boy. 6 hours and38 minutes later with all engines running we were home where we circled twicewhile Dick Disney came up to meet us with Milt Connell’s SNJ. With Jack Purnellphotographing from the rear seat they preserved Lloyd Nolen’s and “OldRednose’s” image for posterity on our wing while flying over Harlingen in arain shower. 2 Aug 71 – Mission complete – Collection complete!

A CBS television crew happened to be on the airport on another project andfilmed the arrival. When they asked me during the arrival celebration how muchpilot time I had in a B-29 I was able to look at my watch and nonchalantlyreply, “six hours and thirty eight minutes”.

Subsequently I figured out from flying the King Cobra and the Mustang, and astudious observation of fighter pilots, that it was a lot easier to get a oneperson crew (me) ready to go somewhere than six or more people so I made a swapwith Dick Disney. I gave him the B-29 flight manual and he gave me a P-47checkout. Dick got the training program described in the CAF history portion ofthis Dispatch set up and operating. On page 24 Chuck’s last name ismisspelled, it should be Bronson. Both he and Joe were both very helpful as FAArepresentatives over the years with the B-29 training programs we’ve conducted.

We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Sen. Barry Goldwater for hisstalwart support and help in the nearly superhuman efforts Vic Agather had to gothrough 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 sheinitiated the program now known as “Summer Tours” of various CAFaircraft by successfully (financially, that is) touring Dayton and St. Paul. AtOshkosh ’89 I was able to take the Soviet crew from the gigantic Antonov 124along 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 theinnocent, there are none. Immunity has been granted by the Chief Check Pilot andthe Chief Check Pilot – Bombers. Also, I should mention that I have beeninformed by competent legal counsel that the statute of limitations has long agoexpired

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)

Dear Tina,

A few months ago when we were getting FIFI ready to go to Montreal yourequested that I write some of my thoughts on “what it’s like to fly FIFIon her 50th anniversary” for the next Dispatch. The word “unique”(according to Webster – one of a kind) would certainly apply to her, especiallysince the unfortunate demise of the “Kee Bird” in Greenland.

In the process of trying to decide on some sort of format for this articleone probably couldn’t go too far wrong in following the example that “BuddyJo Freon” of the California Wing has used while expertly chronicling thehistory of his favorite (the famed P-51) for the Dispatch. On the other hand Imay be handicapped somewhat by having flown the thing a fair amount over thelast 24 years since the China Lake recovery expedition so I can’t honestly sayit’s the best flying bomber.

Queen of the fleet? Undeniably! But this last of the completely musclepowered manually controlled aircraft could never be accused of easy handlingflight control qualities. Boeing had experimented with a powered flight controlsystem on the earlier model 307 Stratoliner. However, from the conversationsI’ve had with those pilots it left something to be desired in the controlregime, even for those aeronautically primitive times, and wasn’t used on theessentially same B-17. Maybe you’ll get some mail from retired TWA pilots aboutthis and that’s great, maybe we can share their input. Anyhow, rather than writethis as a historian, I think I’ll just try to share with the reader someimpressions and observations, trying to provide a little bit of a “you werethere” experience for them.

We’ve already discussed many times how FIFI was found and made ready for theferry flight home in 1971. I had talked extensively with several former B-29pilots at North Central Airlines about the characteristics and idiosyncrasies Icould 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 onthis recovery of an artifact abandoned to the desert’s tender mercies for thepreceding seventeen years. This usually resulted in a hastily offered “Unh,Randy, I just remembered I’ve got an appointment, five minutes ago!” Theyprobably remembered all too well the engine fires and overheating, the failures,the runaways and all those things that make good war stories – from a safedistance and time. Seriously, they’d done their part – for real – and now itwas up to us to get the aircraft that would complete the CAF collection home inone piece. And really, how could you say “No” to Vic Agather afterhe’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 itimpossible to turn either of them down.

So, there we were at China Lake NAS on an August morning with a hand heldradio and a flight manual acquired only a few hours earlier, six of us finallyready and eager to be gone. Earlier, one whole day had been spent arguing withthe Van Nuys FSDO over my absolute need for a six man crew to accomplish themission safely and their equally strong conviction that three crew members wereenough for the ferry. Like almost everything else about this aircraft, the FAA’sknowledge of the unique fire problems of the B-29 and need for scanners wasextinct. We’d spent the previous several days running and high speed taxiing itand were as sure as you could be of pulling the whole scheme off. Between theDC-7, the B-17 and the C-97 Stratocruiser, I’d flown the engines, the systemsand the airframe. Looking at the bright side, once we got it in the air we’dprobably have close to seven hours to discuss the landing. We were very intenton minimizing our ground operation time knowing that the B-29’s engines werechronic overheaters. The ground temp at 0730 (after the last minute delay causedby the flat nosewheel tire) was already in the low 90s.

In retrospect, probably the most valid observance had been Pete Wahl’s advicethat the B-29 would have a tendency to track towards the left if all throttleswere simultaneously advanced. He remembered a common technique had been to startthe takeoff with the airplane pointed somewhat towards the right side of therunway. This allowed an earlier throttle application as you took advantage ofthe left turning tendency. FIFI strongly displayed this tendency and here itstrongly resembles the P-51 in characteristics and rudder forces. In spite offull right rudder from the beginning we were past 100 MPH before I was able touse full throttles on the right side. I’ve often described the aircraft inpolitical terms as having “leftist” tendencies from the beginning.Subsequently, we’ve worked on the rudder rigging and noticed improvement. Youhave to remember these airplanes were abandoned in the desert winds with thecontrols unlocked for many years. A definite raising of the nose to causeliftoff at approximately 120 MPH is required. Left to its own devices a B-29’snosewheel will remain on the ground, resulting in the mains levitating first,especially if 25 flaps is used instead of the normal 15. After takeoff themost immediate requirement is to get as much airspeed for cylinder head coolingas possible – right now – by holding it down. This is done at the expense ofaltitude acquisition and is the exact opposite of everything we teach and holdsacred in today’s turbine air carrier operations.

Now fast forward almost seven hours to the landing at Harlingen. Lloyd Nolenhad met us over the field in “Rednose” to look us over from a tightwing position. I’ve always regretted not asking him to describe his feelingswhen he saw Confederate Air Force on the upper fuselage sides. We’d painted thatwith spray cans in 117 heat the day before, not knowing if we’d ever bepermitted to fly the thing more than once. After a few circles we entereddownwind and encountered another situation that caused an abrupt rise inadrenaline (at least mine). I called for gear down and assumed it would takeabout the same amount of time it does in a B-17 or C-97. Wrong! I turned baseand both mains still weren’t green. Visions of hand cranking or worse, a bellylanding after coming that far, started to intrude on my thoughts. Finally we gotthe green lights and another characteristic became a known, along with the slowretraction (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 earlierBonanza and the Baron as concerns the different rate of gear actuation betweenthe two.

The perspective from the pilot’s seat deserves mentioning . Some pilots havemore trouble than others with the all-glass nose in front of them. Many pilotsattempting their first landing in FIFI have had trouble getting it on the runwaycenterline. This in spite of telling them several times during the finalapproach that they are lined up with the left gear out in the grass to the leftof the concrete. Normal landings can be made with either 80% or full flaps. Theaircraft has more of a tendency to land nosewheel first with full flaps and infact, the first landing at Harlingen occurred this way. We used to do our shortfield landings this way with the C-97s, touching down precisely where wedesired, although the USAF certainly viewed it with a jaundiced eye. With 25O offlaps as normally used in a crosswind it’s fairly easy to strike the tailskidbumper. Any scrape marks on this heavy iron forging requires a round of beer forthe crew! Threshold speed varies with weight but a good average is 120 MPH. Somelike to use two hands for landing, relying on the engineer to promptly set themanifold pressure called for by the pilot. Others prefer controlling thethrottles themselves. The really important thing is to make the airplane assumethe attitude the pilot wants for landing, regardless of the control forcesrequired. A moderate amount of elevator trim applied prior to the roundout ishelpful. Some later B-29s had reversible props, however, this was pretty much amixed blessing considering the lack of nosewheel steering. The brakes arepowerful 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 unitson the aircraft are the brakes, powered by a small electric motor driving ahydraulic pump. This is the reason for the small auxiliary power unit (APU)being available for taxiing, takeoffs and landings as the aircraft generatorsfall off line at lower RPMs.

Some mention was made above of the flight engineer on this aircraft. Thisperson is arguably the most important member of the crew and, in truth, is theonly member of the crew requiring a specific professional rating on their FAAcertificate. Pilots do not possess a FAA type rating for the B-29 on ourcertificate, instead we operate with a separate FAA Letter of Authorization.This is because no B-29 was ever civil type certificated, leaving us to operatein the Experimental category. The engineer reached the apex of his art on thisaircraft along with others of this vintage such as the B-50, the C-97Stratocruiser and the Lockheed Constellation. The B-29 engineer’s seat isparticularly difficult for a pilot acclimated individual because all throttles,mixtures and controls are arranged 4-3-2-1, the theory being that the levers arearranged in the same order as the engines for a person seated backwards. Inaddition, the mixtures are moved to the rich position by pulling and to idlecut-off by pushing. Vic Agather, who was there at the beginning, has said thatby the time they flew the second prototype they realized that the backwards seatwas a mistake. It should have been sideways but the whole program was on such arush 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 limitedpurposes. Obviously, doing so has removed the normal turbo supercharger controlcapability from this aircraft. We do find ourselves somewhat limited in altitudeand higher weight takeoff capabilities due to this lack but the economiccompromise seems worthwhile. I did make one takeoff from Carswell AFB withturbos operating, probably in the late seventies. We had found free gas and itseemed too good of a deal to pass it up. Loaded to the gunnels with over 6000gallons we set the turbo wastegates before start using the emergency directcurrent (DC) control system and then took off with full power. After takeoff theengineer opened the turbo gates with this system and we then proceeded back toHarlingen with our booty.

This seems like an appropriate time to devote some attention to a few of thememories and anecdotes experienced over the years while displaying this machineto a nationwide audience. The most important thing I didn’t know but learnedfrom listening to hundreds of people is that the wartime B-29 program involved avast, yet little known, cottage manufacturing effort. Many people have relatedto me their small part in a program that was immense and complicated and whosesuccessful completion depended upon a multiplicity of small parts arriving atany one of four different factories – and fitting perfectly! The Corneliusbrothers, who had been making beverage and bar service equipment, suddenly foundthemselves developing and manufacturing the tiny air compressors used forpowering the bomb bay doors. Propeller blades were manufactured in theHippodrome on the Minnesota state fairgrounds. A pipe organ company hadexperience in controlling air precisely through air valves so – who better todesign and build the bomb bay door actuators.

The USN burned the records and logbooks, however some of her history stillsurfaces in bits and pieces from time to time. A former USAF mechanic wrote methat he had been the crew chief on tail #33 at Randolph AFB, his friend was thecrew chief on #31 (FIFI). This was during the period when they were being usedto practice bomb Matagorda Island. He said that many Mustang engines were usedup trying to catch the B-29s at high altitudes. It is also true that a B-29 willturn rather rapidly when rudder (in prodigious amounts) is used in conjunctionwith full aileron. This was the technique used to duplicate Paul Tibbets quickright 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 ofmany other museums, all started in 1978 when Vic Agather asked if I couldarrange some sort of mini-airshow involving the B-29. His idea was to minimizethe flying (and associated expense) and just make the airplane available to thepublic. I still recall the elation I felt when George Wedekind of the DaytonAirfair agreed to underwrite $3000 of the anticipated $7000 gasoline costs ifwe’d stop in Dayton on the way to St. Paul. In a frantic month and a half Iapproached several TV and radio stations here in the Twin Cities to try and makethis idea work. I also remember being so unprepared for the obvious questionregarding more information that I blurted out our home telephone number during aTV interview. There simply wasn’t any other number available, good bye totranquillity for the next month. Phillips Petroleum also had some questions in atelephone call to my home phone from their Bartlesville billing officeconcerning whether I had really intended to put several thousand dollars of av-gason my 66 charge card! Oh well, all’s well that ends well, from this has sprungthe annual Southern Minnesota Wing’s Downtown St. Paul Airport show, along withall the other tours mentioned above.

A rather vivid memory is Oshkosh 89. When we arrived we saw a gigantic SovietAntonov AN 124 towering over everything on the show ramp. A compressed historyof the ensuing details would show that during one of the afternoon airshows theAntonov landed and then, during reversing, displayed the American flag from theco-pilot’s side window. This was extremely impressive to the crowd since, atthat period in history, relations between our two nations had only shown thebeginning of a thaw in their historical confrontation. A short while later Ihappened to be involved in a discussion with Bob Hoover on another matter whenthe perfect idea of how we could suitably respond suddenly occurred to me. If Icould find a Soviet flag we could then display both the American and the Sovietflags 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 Staffapproval since I knew that surely someone, somewhere, would be bound to object.I’ll always remember Bob’s quiet statement as I contemplated the impossibilitiesof 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’llrue the day forever, wishing that you had!” So, on an impromptu basis weissued the invitation, Mike Heuer of the International Aerobatics Club came upwith the only Soviet flag within several hundred miles and we flew the show. Ilet Vladimir Tersky, aircraft commander of the Antonov, fly FIFI and I couldn’tfigure out for the life of me why he could almost make this airplane talk afteronly a few minutes at the controls. Later the interpreter explained to me thatwe were more alike than I knew. Vladimir’s age, experiences and backgroundalmost matched mine, word for word. While he was a student at the Russianequivalent of our Edwards test pilot school his instructor had given him hisclass assignment – to test the Russian copy of the B-29. He had spent 19 hoursflying the Tupolev TU 4 “Bull”. As Paul Harvey says, “now youknow the rest of the story!” We finished with the airboss requesting ataxiing parade lap up and down the runway in front of the crowd (even delayingthe missing man formation) while displaying flags of the two nations from thecockpit windows. The subsequent offer to come along with my new friend while weflew 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 withchalked answers to the most commonly asked questions of the day by passerbys. IfI were to do the same it’d probably look like this…

Greatest thrill? – flying with and requalifying Paul Tibbets at Harlingen in1976 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 OrchardField, Chicago in 1949.

Greatest disappointment? – that Eddie Allen, famed Boeing test pilot, didn’tsurvive the B-29 test program during the war years so I could have talked toanother one of my heroes.

Most common misconception? – that the Seattle crash that killed Eddie andhis crew aboard the second prototype was caused by an engine fire. Very fewpeople realize that a testing manometer line installed in the wing leading edgewas 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 toldme over the phone that they’d meet us at March AFB when we interviewed Gen LeMayit sounded the other way to me. Anyway, he writes great stuff about aviationhistory!