Someone, somehow, some way, goofed, and I was recently invited to join that small group of pilots in the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) who regularly fly the world’s only remaining flyable B-29. I think they mistook me for someone else, but I’m not asking any questions! Ground school took place in Midland, Texas, last year, and several training rides and one check ride later, I was given the rare “Letter of Authority” giving me PIC privileges in the airplane (there is no such thing as a B-29 type rating, although the LOA requirements are very similar). I had the privilege of flying it to, and in, the giant “Wings Over Houston” airshow in late October, when we put 100 airplanes over the airport at the same time. I didn’t get to see it from where I was, of course, but I’m told it was “impressive.”
The word “awesome” is badly overused, but I cannot help but use it to describe the airplane, and the experience of flying it. It is not that is such a good airplane (it’s not), or that it flies well (it doesn’t), but the history! This is the WWII “Very Heavy Bomber,” the largest airplane used in WWII, and the one that did such yeoman service in the Pacific. Doolittle and his B-25s brought the war too the mainland of Japan first, but it was the B-29 that did so in a big way, first from China, then from Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. It is also the model that in the end dropped the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing the war to an abrupt end, saving millions of lives, both American and Japanese.
Of about 4,000 made, a few rest quietly in museums, never to fly again, one is under restoration (possibly to flying status) by Boeing volunteers in Wichita, while only “FIFI” labors on, touring the USA, and celebrating the men and women who contributed to the Allied victory in so many ways. It is a very real history lesson just to see her, to touch her, and to tour the cockpit, as thousands do every year.
To fly her gives me goosebumps.
You Always Remember Your First Time …
I remember the first time so well. It was July 28, 1997, and I was attending OSH. Randy Sohn was supposed to move the B-29 from Milwaukee to Dubuque, Iowa, but he had no way of getting to from Oshkosh to Milwaukee, or from Dubuque back to Oshkosh. His whining was so piteous, I finally took mercy on him, and said that if he could arrange to get my Bonanza out of OSH and back in, possibly during show hours, I’d help out. He knows everyone, and soon the Airboss agreed to the plan.
Randy has been the “Daddy Pilot” of the airplane since the beginning, for he was the one who ferried it out of dead storage in China Lake in 1971. (For his first-person account of the recovery, click here.) He has personally checked out every PIC since then, right up until very recently, when he turned the “lead pilot” position over to Charlie Tilghman, a retired Southwest Airlines pilot with much previous experience in the C-97, a very similar machine.
The night before, Randy mused, “John, it’s too bad someone else can’t fly your Bonanza, you could ride the jumpseat on the B-29 from Milwaukee to Dubuque.”
It really didn’t take me very long to come up with a solution to that!
Dr. Brent Blue happened to be there, so he was enlisted by the Shanghai method to fly my airplane around the triangle. I gave him a quick checkout on the way to Milwaukee (poor Randy riding the back seat with a doctor flying!), and Brent would have had to do a LOT worse not to pass!
There was a copilot in the left seat of the B-29, Randy was in the right, Mike Looney was the Flight Engineer, and three other crew members were in the back, for the CAF considers a crew of six “minimum crew” on this airplane. More on that later.
Right after takeoff, Randy crawled out of the right seat, and stuffed me in to get a little stick time. The words “ponderous,” “heavy,” and “clumsy” immediately came to mind. The airplane is a living, breathing demonstration of adverse yaw, for if you crank the ailerons over hard (the yoke rotates a full 180 degrees, for leverage), the nose sluggishly and ponderously swings the other way first, then the airplane sort of wallows around in more or less the desired direction. Rudder is needed. No, I mean RUDDER is REALLY needed, and lots of it!
With a hefty aileron input and a hard push on the rudder, the airplane will roll fairly briskly for such a large machine with absolutely no flight control boost of any kind, not even flying tabs. There is no subtlety of any kind when maneuvering this beast! It is the largest airplane I know of with no hydraulic boost, and no flying tabs.
We somehow found Dubuque, and landed. Brent was flying my Bonanza alongside, and I thought we were tracking on him, while he thought we were leading. Oh well, all’s well that ends well, I guess. As soon as we shut down, the request came for a “media ride,” where the TV people climb in with all their gear, and tape a flight.
… In the Left Seat
Randy asked, “You wanna take the left seat?” Hoo, boy, who do I have to kill?
The flight was a blast. I’d had NO exposure to the airplane at all, the ride to Dubuque was the first time I’d been near it. Randy was talking me through, apologizing for sounding like a firehose, but actually, his comments were well-timed, and appropriate. Very quickly, he started talking less and less, and I began enjoying it more and more (there’s a connection there, somewhere). The local TV station had a crew on board, and one big camera was set up in the bombardier’s compartment, looking back at me. Look, Ma, I’m a TV star!
I can remember at first being a bit too busy with a new airplane for the significance of the flight to sink in. However, as things settled down, and we began beating up the city at 1,000′ agl, I rolled into a left turn, looked all around from that huge greenhouse, and every hair on my arms stood straight up. I got all choked up as I thought, “My God, Mrs. Deakin’s little boy Johnny is flying a B-29, and this is no dream!” Thanks, Randy, for a golden memory I’ll take to my grave.
When the flight was done, I entered it in my logbook, and figured that was it, an hour in a new and different airplane that I’d likely never fly again. I don’t really get emotional over airplanes, but that flight was extraordinary.
I was amazed last year to hear talk that I might get some training, and a checkout. It is the flagship of the CAF, very high-profile, and in years past, there has been a very long line of people wanting to fly it, some of them very well-qualified, and far better “connected” than I. As I’ve written here before, the CAF is finding it increasingly difficult to crew these airplanes, and that apparently includes the B-29! I am amazed.
There is ample history of the B-29 all over the Internet (search on “B-29”) so I shall not belabor that here. Besides, I’m not really very well-qualified on the history. All my attention has been on learning the airplane from a pilot’s standpoint. Some of the visitors who tour the airplanes know more than I ever could, and with those people, I’ll often let them take over the narration. I’m learning about it, but slowly.
N529B (I used to fly a Bonanza with that number in 1957) is a B-29B delivered in mid-1945, and thus never saw combat. It served in various roles with the USAF for years, then went into “final” storage with the Navy in China Lake, with all records getting lost. Vic Agather, an early member of the CAF, heard about it one day from a fellow who spotted it from the air in that highly secret area. He was part of the original design team on the airplane at Boeing in Renton, and had long been interested in acquiring one for the CAF fleet.
The military at first denied all knowledge of the airplane’s existence, but Vic persisted through his many contacts in the political arena, and eventually the whole thing came together. A CAF team spent six weeks getting it ready for flight, and Randy Sohn and crew took off. A local test hop was skipped, as Randy felt once they got it in the air, he wanted to make just one landing, and that back at CAF HQ, then in Harlingen, Texas. Randy had never been in one, but he had read the manual, and had also flown the C-97 and B-377, both of which have many things in common with the B-29. That single flight was probably somewhat more eventful than he relates, but they got the job done in fine style. The next several years were spent in restoration, and there was a lot to restore! When done, the airplane was given the name “FIFI” in honor of Mrs. Agather, and the huge letter “A” was painted on the tail in honor of Vic. Vic “went west” a few years ago, and today his son Neils is the leader of the B-29/B-24 Squadron, now based in Midland, Texas.
Strange in Many Ways
View from left waist blister
It’s a strange airplane in many ways. One saying is, “If you can taxi it, you can fly it.” Like most of the large nose-dragger WWII aircraft, the nose wheel is not steerable at all, it simply swivels at will, often unexpectedly, seemingly with evil intent. There is a large shimmy damper assembly, and while that is effective enough to prevent shimmy, it doesn’t help steering, at all.
Steering is by brakes and differential power, something of a lost art, these days. In fact, in one recent discussion, it turned out that many pilots now seem to believe there is something wrong with using differential power for taxiing! These are the folks who “grew up” with nose gear steering, or tillers, or rudder pedal nose gear steering, of course.
That still doesn’t make it easy, for the brakes are the old “Hayes Expander Tube” brakes, with a rubber bladder that expands with hydraulic pressure to push several dozen asbestos friction blocks against the inside of the steel brake drum. There is a LONG hydraulic line from the brake pedals to the wheels, and that probably causes some of the agonizing delay from when you push the pedal to actual braking effect. The brakes themselves are excellent for that time in history, but they are sensitive and grabby, taking a long time to get used to. Beginning pilots in the B-29 irritate the back-end crews no end, because the herky-jerky that results at the end of that long lever arm is quite uncomfortable. I’m getting better with them, but still have a ways to go because they’re still climbing out with new bruises. Differential power is not easy to use either, because the throttle linkages are sloppy, there are three throttles on the same cable, and the engines respond somewhat more slowly than, say, the R-2800.
To taxi the airplane smoothly, it takes tremendous anticipation, and brake and power input long before the turn is needed. Then the recovery from the turn must start somewhere between 45 and 60 degrees before the desired heading. First the pilot must squeeeeeeeeeze the brakes gently, then a bit more, then sense when that’s enough, and hold that, waiting for the pressure to arrive at the wheel.
More often than not, it will be too much, the airplane will jerk, and the tendency is to release all pedal pressure, forcing the hapless trainee to start the process all over again, while the airplane merrily swings through the desired heading, toward the buckwheat. The brakes also squeal loudly, so that everyone on the airport knows how clumsy the pilot is. For that matter, there is no chance of getting away with anything, the airplane draws a LOT of attention, and every landing is scrutinized by a cast of thousands, complete with video by the local TV stations.
(Hey, John, wanna review that last landing, I taped it?” “NO!” And people wonder why I’m testy.)
It is a real problem taxiing into a new ramp, where the ground marshallers are not familiar with the problems in taxiing. They usually expect instant response from the nose gear steering to their hand signals, and that’s simply not possible. I wish they’d just put one person (plus wing-walkers) where they want the airplane to end up, arms up and out, indicating, “I want you here, facing me.” Then we can put the airplane there with pretty fair accuracy.
View from the Front Office
Visibility isn’t very good, a surprise when you first see that big greenhouse.
The window frames are fairly wide and beefy, and the heavy glass windows are on the small side. One of the major features of this airplane was that it was pressurized (and air-conditioned), and that explains the small windows and heavy frames. The pilots also sit back deep in the cockpit, slightly behind that last window, so they must lean forward to see just a little of the outboard engine.
Boeing apparently didn’t think to align any of the windows for better pilot visibility, for there is always a window frame directly in the way, no matter what you want to see. I guess they figured pilots were like Superman, with X-ray vision. New pilots tend to duck, bob, and weave, or they’ll stretch their necks to get a little better angle. With a few hours in the airplane, the “hinder factor” tends to drop, and pilots just make the best of it, sort of looking right through the frames. (Hmm, maybe we ARE Supermen?)
The wheelspan is 38 feet, and the way the airplane tends to wander, 50-foot-wide taxiways can be a real chore. But even worse, the inboard props only clear the ground by about 14 inches, and the outboards by about two feet. The airplane can rock a bit, side-to-side, so there’s very little room for error on landing, and at many airports, the signs, runway lights and other obstructions are really critical for this airplane. We sometimes have to taxi out on only the inboards, and after landing, we often have to stop on the runway, shut down and secure the outboard engines, then “X the props” for maximum ground clearance. We save the flaps for last, just before taking the runway for takeoff, as they block the scanners’ view from the waist blisters. We want them to see the landing gear and obstructions that might be hit by the outboards. Inflight, we also extend the gear first, so the scanners can see that it’s properly down, confirming the lights. Once the landing is done, we pull the flaps up to increase visibility, again.
The “back-end crew” consists of a scanner on each side, and an APU operator. The APU is an old gasoline-powered generator, which will supply the electrical power to run the entire aircraft, and it helps the batteries during engine starts.
There is often a headache over this with the FAA, because they find a line in the old manuals about the “minimum crew” being two pilots and a flight engineer, and the FAA wants “essential crew only” during airshows. We have a real battle explaining to them that our back-end crews ARE essential, and this has been proven many times. For one thing, there are no fire detectors on the engines (mercifully, there are extinguishers), and the only way we can know there is an engine fire is when the scanner spots the smoke and fire.
Scanners also watch the wings, engines, and landing gear for leaks of any kind, or other abnormalities. The airplane is simply a deathtrap without the scanners.
The APU operator is necessary because that unit is started and stopped several times per flight, and we do not want the scanners diverting their attention during that time. The APU also needs someone to monitor its operation, as there is always the risk of fire, loss of oil pressure, fuel leaks, overheat, etc.
(The “Kee Bird” would probably be flying today, if they’d had someone in the back end.)
During the 2000 season, the B-29 had a major engine fire on takeoff from Tulsa. Only the quick notification by the right scanner, and quick action by the crew saved the day, and the airplane. A landing was made within 90 seconds. For that flight, the crew got the CAF’s highest pilot award, the Distinguished Flying Award.
There are wartime documentary films showing wings being burned off in less than 60 seconds, with a fully-developed fire, which is like a cutting torch. There’s a good reason the better modern airplanes have pod-mounted engines!
After the fire, the airplane was down for the rest of the year, and flew again only because the American Airlines maintenance people in Tulsa volunteered thousands of hours of free labor to get her going again. Some would come to work early, put in a few hours, then go to work, then come back and work far into the night on the old relic. So many good people put in so many hours to “Keep ’em flying,” many without ever even getting a ride. Makes me feel like an imposter when I show up, fly, and go home. I try to show up a day or two early, or stay a day or two after a move, but most of the time, I’ve got other commitments, and cannot spare the time.
The real heros of the inflight operation are the Flight Engineers. Pilots have the flight controls, flight instruments, and radios, but just about the only engine stuff up front is two dual tachometers, and two dual manifold pressure gauges on the left panel. Pilot workload is very light, while the FE looks like an old-time organist, constantly twiddling, constantly moving, reaching high, reaching low, not an automatic function anywhere. Watching a newbie FE in training brings to mind the old saying, “The faster I go, the behinder I get.”
Pilots also have throttles up front, one set outboard of each seat, but they are rarely used. The FE starts the engines, then warms them up while the pilots rest. When the oil temps are up to 40C, the pilot may add a bit of power to start moving, but I’ll usually just call, “Engineer, breakaway power, please.” Or, “Engineer, RPM 1100.” He’ll repeat the call, and do it. For tight maneuvering, I might call “Pilot’s throttle on #4,” but that’s rare, too.
In this picture, note the open hatch to the left of the FE, and the emergency escape hatch open to the forward bomb bay. Guess who will be “first out!”
Boeing blew it badly on the design of the FE panel, and according to Vic Agather (who was at Boeing Renton at the time). They knew it by the time the third airplane rolled out. By then it was too late for a redesign, the airplanes were needed too badly. Some dimwit decided to put the FE behind the copilot – facing backwards! The FE pushes the throttles away from him for “more,” so they move towards the aircraft rear. Pilots are very nearly prohibited from occupying the seat, because as you face the FE panel (backwards), #1 throttle is on your right (airplane left), and #4 is on the left (airplane right). If someone said “gimme more throttle on #4, the pilot will instinctively push the #1 throttle. Or will he pull it. I get SO confused…
The mixtures are not only “backwards” in the same manner, but the FE must pull them towards himself, and down – for full rich! This one can’t be blamed on Boeing, that’s a Wright idiosyncrasy. Push for idle cutoff, pull for rich! Egad. Wonder how many accidents THAT caused!
Props? Another strange setup. There are no cables running from the cockpit to the prop governors. Props are controlled by four electrical switches arranged in a row that runs fore and aft at the FE station, side-to-side on the pilot’s pedestal. As I recall, the FE pulls them to his left to reduce RPM, right to increase. That drives small DC motors (“step-head motors”) on the prop governor which adjust speeder spring compression within the governor, just as a cable system and pulley would. The props themselves are the usual Hamilton-Standard constant-speed, full-feathering “Hydromatics” (with no reverse). Each feathering pump has its own small reservoir of oil, only enough to feather once, unfeather, then feather again. That’s all she wrote, for feathering.
There are also prop control switches on the central pedestal, with a transfer switch to select whether the FE has control, or the pilots. Another bit of trivia on the prop systems are the “HI/LO Lights.” There are three sets of these, four on the left pilot panel, four on the right pilot panel, and four at the FE panel. Each light comes on when the prop governor is calling for full takeoff RPM, OR at minimum governing RPM, at 1200. In between those governor settings, the lights are extinguished. The question then becomes, “How do you know if a light is telling you that you have maximum or minimum RPM?” You usually keep track of it, but if you think it’s set for high RPM, you toggle all four switches towards HI RPM, and if there’s no change, you’re right. Some folks are even more anal, and will momentarily toggle them to LO RPM, watch the lights extinguish, then back to high RPM and wait for the lights to come on again. It takes about 15 seconds to go from “HI lights” to “LO Lights” on most of these systems, but it seems a bit longer in the B-29. I haven’t timed it, yet.
There is a set of control switches at the pilot station (picture at right), with a transfer switch, but I’ve not seen it used, yet.
The rest of the FE panel is a hodgepodge of instruments and switches, arranged without the slightest thought to human ergonomics. The seat isn’t adjustable in any way, and it’s quite uncomfortable. We don’t operate the pressurization system, and with no vents, the airplane is insufferably hot inside, unless it’s very cool outside. The FE usually just takes the big emergency hatch out and leaves it out for flight, so he has a huge draft going out past him, giving him the “benefit” of all dust and debris and all the smells generated inside the aircraft. One can only imagine…
The FE starts the engines, and advises the pilots when the oil temperature is 40C, the minimum temperature to exceed 1,000 RPM. The first order of business is to test the emergency brakes (hydraulic) by pulling back on the two big red levers at the front of the central pedestal (picture at right). Then the pilot calls for “breakaway power,” and the FE will set that. If the airplane doesn’t move with the levers pulled, and then does move with the levers released, it is assumed they work. The FE then hits a switch to recharge the brake accumulator to its maximum. The pilot then tests the normal braking, a completely separate system.
When reaching the runup area, the pilot calls and sets the parking brake, and is free to chat, set radios, or discuss the departure, while the FE does the entire runup. Props are cycled, there’s a power check for each engine, a mag check, and four engines take a little time. We do not check the feathering system, as that would use oil from the feathering reservoir, leaving us less for an actual emergency.
Once the runup is complete, a few more checklist items are run, and we’re ready.
Cleared for Takeoff
The takeoff roll is the one time when the pilot flying must handle the throttles, because differential power is MANDATORY. The rudder is ineffective to about 40 MPH (all speeds are in MPH, not knots), and a good crosswind can require differential power to much higher speeds.
In wartime, with heavy bomb and fuel loads, it was absolutely necessary to hold in position, run the engines up to max power (and then some!), then release the brakes. But the B-29 wants too pull to the left so badly, they found it helped to park the airplane on the extreme left corner of the runway, heading across the runway to the right. Once the brakes were released, the airplane would pull left, and with a little luck, might end up somewhere close to the runway heading, without having to pull power off an outboard for directional control. These were not 200-foot-wide runways, either!
We don’t have those loads today (normal weight is just under 100,000 pounds) and it’s sufficient to “lead with the left” (throttle), to just keep it straight. More or less.
Once up around 90 or so, the non-flying pilot calls that speed, the flying pilot crosschecks it, and then lifts the nose a little, to full extension of the nose gear shock strut, or just a bit more. This attitude is held to about 170 MPH. The airplane will lift off around 120, and accelerate more than it climbs. CHTs can get fairly hot, so we go for maximum cooling airflow very early, and a very flat departure path. Those dreadful footless jet pilots have a tough time overcoming their training to pull the nose to an obscene angle for liftoff.
The pilots are not really aware of just when the airplane lifts off, except that there will be a sudden funny “loose” feeling as the tires no longer track the runway. The vertical speed indicator is no help, it’ll show zero, or even a bit down. It’s a kind of queasy feeling, as if you suddenly rolled onto a big patch of ice. With any crosswind, the drift will also start, of course. Wheel brakes are applied to stop the wheels, and the flying pilot will call for the gear. This is a small, guarded switch on the pedestal between the pilots.
Each gear leg has its own heavy-duty electric motor for extension and retraction, a Boeing design on the 307, B-17, and B-377. The one limitation is that you must not reverse the switch during the operation, for the instant reversal will damage the system. If a reversal is needed, first the pilot must put the switch in the center “OFF” position, wait a few seconds, THEN move it to the “other” position.
As soon as the gear switch is selected to “UP,” the flaps may be retracted. They are also electrical, and take some time. As soon as that’s done, the pilot will usually call for “Climb One,” a fairly high climb setting. The FE sets that, of course.
Shortly after takeoff, the pilot will call for the APU operator to take it off-line, cool it down (by low RPM), and then shut it down until a landing is imminent. The only real reason for the APU is to supply electrical power for the hydraulic pump that pressurizes the small hydraulic system, which is used only for brakes and emergency brakes.
There are six huge engine-driven driven generators (two on each outboard, one one each inboard) that are more than capable of running all the electrical items, even all at once, but on the ground there isn’t enough RPM to excite them, and without the APU, the battery would run down quickly. With no electrics, you’ve got no hydraulics, no brakes, no emergency brakes.
When reaching altitude, the pilots will lower the nose to accelerate to cruise speed (about 200 MPH), then call to the FE, “Cruise ’em up,” He’ll repeat, “Cruise ’em up,” and do all the necessaries, like MP, RPM, mixtures, cowl flaps, oil coolers. Did I mention RPM? As any multi-engine pilot can attest, synchronizing the engines to avoid “The Beat,” is an ongoing task. With four engines, it’s REALLY fun, and pilots take great pleasure in harassing the FE with, “Geez, can’t you sync ’em up any better than that?”
That invariably unleashes a torrent of abuse from Mike Looney, who is not shy in voicing his (mostly negative) opinions about pilots, their heritage, ancestry, and what he hopes their future holds. The trick in the B-29 is for the FE to look out the hatch on his left (airplane right) and sync #3 and #4 by looking at the strobe effect between them. #4 prop is slightly aft of #3, so from the FE’s seat, the tips overlap a bit. Then the poor FE peeks out through a porthole to his right and aft (airplane left), and repeats the process for #1 and #2.
Only trouble is, 1&2 are now running at a slightly different RPM than 3&4, and that will for sure produce a strong beat! In earlier days, the FEs would have to guess which pair to adjust, tickle one prop switch for the shortest possible time, then go through the synchronization process with the prop next to it. Someone finally got the bright idea of installing a “syncroscope” hooked to #2 and #3, making it a bit easier to do the “across the airplane” sync. So now the FE can synch two engines, sync the third engine to the first two with the scope, then sync the last engine visually.
Are we having fun, yet?
Well, the pilots are, but remember the gorilla playing the pipe organ.
First Pressurized Bomber
In wartime, the B-29 was capable of flight up to 40,000 feet, at speeds of up to 350 MPH (true airspeed). This was its best defense, for fighters of that day could barely get that high, and few could catch it, even if they were already up there and waiting. Only the heaviest of antiaircraft weapons could reach it, but the enemy had plenty of those.
The crew enjoyed, for the first time in a bomber, full pressurized comfort. The nose and the cockpit were pressurized, but they had to have a large bomb bay that was not pressurized, or they would have had to de-pressurize to drop their loads. So the B-29 had a long tunnel over the bomb bays (two of them) so that crews could skinny back and forth between the front end and the back, with both areas and the tunnel pressurized. Skinny is the operative word. Every time I threaten to try it, they block me. No, they don’t care if I get stuck, they say they just don’t want to cut it open to rescue me. No respect, at all.
The bomb bay doors are operated pneumatically, the only pneumatics on the airplane. They open and close VERY fast, and are very dangerous on the ground, with the system running. They are rarely opened in flight on FIFI, for there are huge tool boxes and supplies winched up inside, and the rear bomb bay has a floor to carry parts. For the rare show that needs the bomb bay open, all that stuff must be unloaded and stored in a safe place. One way to make the FEs really sick is to mention within earshot that “This show wants the bomb bay open.” Oh, the whining! MOST satisfying.
In years past, the CAF used to simulate the Atom Bomb attack. FIFI would fly over the show, and the pyro guys would light off a huge blast, with a perfect mushroom cloud. But someone decided that was too politically incorrect, and we don’t do that, anymore.
But it is still very impressive to do a maneuver that Randy invented. He used to dive from a few thousand feet, and pass directly over the crowd at 1,000 agl. Just before arriving over the airport, he’d call for a very low RPM, making the airplane almost ghostly silent as it coasted over the people with the doors fully open. Looking up into that huge maw is looking into eternity.
The B-29 was also the first airplane to have a central fire control system. Two waist gunners and a nose gunner controlled all the .50 Caliber machine guns on the airplane (except for the tail gunner, who had a conventional weapon, in his own separate pressurized compartment).
This is a left seat pilot’s view of the nose gunsight, tucked out of the way on the right side of the bombardier’s compartment. This was its normal position when not needed, or when the bombardier was busy with his primary job, using the Norden bombsight.
(The B-24 and B-29 operated by the CAF both have authentic Norden bombsights, once the most secret device in the US arsenal.)
The gunners would aim their sights at the enemy, putting the crosshairs right on the target. The central fire control system would select the proper guns to use, sometimes selecting more than one if the fields of fire overlapped, and another gun was available. This amazing system automatically allowed for the effects of different airspeeds, angles, air temperature and other factors, and the guns would lead and lag as needed to put the fire into the enemy. Remarkable devices, in those days before computers!
But we “modern” B-29 pilots only fantasize about this stuff, as we get lost while ferrying the huge aircraft between tour stops. Hey, getting lost is still good B-29 time, and I’m already up to 26 hours in the logbook!
In good weather, I’ll fly stop-to-stop at 1,500′ or so, giving people on the ground a good view (and watching out for tall towers!) One can only wonder at the thoughts of people who see us. The older folks will recognize it, and may not believe what they’re seeing, while the younger ones will wonder, “What is THAT?” We also usually “beat up the city” on arrival, flying at 1,000′ or so above it. That makes plenty of noise, and often attracts more people to the airport for the week it will there. Great publicity, something we need desperately.
I get a big charge out of talking to ATC. If we sandbag ’em, and call in with “Boeing 529B,” they’ll ask, “What kind of Boeing?” We’ll answer, and there will be a long silence. Then, “You mean the WWII bomber????” “Yep.” “Hey, how about a low pass?”
Or, we might call in with, “Superfortress 529B.” Another long silence, followed by questions. When we’re landing, the tower might clear an airliner for takeoff, only to get, “Uh, tower, we’d like to hold short, and watch the inbound land?” Radio discipline often just goes to hell in a handbasket when we’re around.
Descent and Landing
A few minutes out, we’ll call for the “In-Range” checklist, the APU is fired up for warmup, the approach is discussed in the usual fashion, and the fantasies stop.
We slow to less than 180 MPH, extend the gear, and then “Flaps 15,” followed later with “Flaps 25,” and finally, “Flaps full.” 140 or so is a comfortable pattern speed, and we’ll slow that to about 120 over the threshold.
Since the FE doesn’t have enough to do, we call on him to adjust the power settings in the pattern, and on final.
“Manifold Two Four!”
“Roger, Manifold two four.”
There might be a dozen calls like that on the final. I once called for “Manifold two six and a half,” but Mike never turned a hair, he read it back as 26.5, and set 30. I decided not to further mess with his mind, he’s the guy with the throttles!
I’d never done this, and it took me a few landings to get used to calling for a manifold pressure, instead of just setting it. It does free up both hands for that big yoke, an advantage.
Somewhere around 400′, we’ll call, “High Lights, please,” and the FE will toggle those prop switches towards “HI” until the lights come on.
“Roger, manifold twenty.”
“Roger, manifold fifteen.”
“Close throttles slowly (or fastly).”
“Roger, throttles slowly.”
There’s a real illusion from this airplane that gives a lot of people trouble the first few times. It is VERY easy to line up on final well off to the left side of the runway (right side if flying from the right seat), and this illusion continues right on down to the flare! I’ve seen people literally try to land in the grass, have the instructor take it away from them, plant it on the runway, and never realize what they almost did! Perhaps because of my time in the C-46 and 747, I didn’t have that problem, hitting the center of the runway was no problem at all. The operative word here is “hitting.” Some of my early landings definitely qualified as “hitting.” You can tell when you make a good landing, the tires squall loudly (like an old coon hound) over a long period of time, seems like seconds. But when you, ah, er, “land abruptly,” they squall even louder (in protest?), but for a much shorter period. I’m trying to convince everyone that short, loud squalls are good, but it’s heavy going.
Once you’re on the runway, there are several things you miss immediately. You can’t use brakes, you’ll flat-spot a tire (and you buy it). There are no spoilers to put weight on the wheels, or produce drag. There is no reverse! Later versions of the superb Wright R-3350 had it, but not these. There is nothing to stop the airplane but some air resistance, so she rolls. And rolls. And rolls some more, eating runway like there’s no tomorrow, finally getting down to a speed where the brakes will work, without slipping the tires.
6,000′ is the normal minimum runway, with down to 5,000′ authorized for “named pilots.” Remember, it’s a priceless antique, the only one of its kind in the world. Never forget that.
The CAF B-29 and B-24 usually travel together, touring the Eastern USA one year, the Western USA the next. Once on the ground, the area is cordoned off, and a small admission fee is charged to enter for a closer examination, even touching the airplanes. Many older men do so, with reverence. Cockpit visits are available for a further donation of $5 per person. This is the only way we can feed these birds, with the B-29 consuming 400 gallons an hour, the B-24 200.
Cockpit “tours” are not easy. It’s usually unmercifully hot, and one must climb a near-vertical ladder in the nose wheel well, about 10 feet up to the main deck. Once in, we crowd about 10 adults to the aft cockpit compartment, then we close the hatch they entered through, and they can walk forward over the hatch. Some like to sit in the pilot’s seat, some in the bombardier’s seat, and some just stand and listen as we talk about the airplane, and answer questions. We have to move that along, because ten at a time is not much revenue. I hate to spend less than ten minutes per group. With five minutes for unloading and reloading, that’s a fifteen minute cycle, $50 each, $200 an hour, which may or may not pay for the fuel to get there, but not for engine overhauls, at up to $135,000 each.
A small group of die-hard volunteers travel with the airplanes, often for weeks or months at a time. Some of them are WWII veterans; a couple have actual wartime experience in the airplane. It’s a hard job, and without such people, the airplanes would be in a museum somewhere, never flying again. They are almost always short-handed, and could use a little help, so if these airplanes ever show up at your airport, please volunteer to help in any way you can. Go get ’em a hamburger, or a cold drink, chances are they haven’t been away from the airplane all day. If nothing else, toss a little extra money in the pot, to “Keep ’em flying.”
Be careful up there!
Editor’s Note: Don’t miss Randy Sohn’s first-person account, found here.