She squeaked and squalled, bumped and lurched. But Fifi, with the pull of Betty, Rita, Mitzie and Ingrid, made it off of the ground. Not bad for a 72-year-old.
Fifi is a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, and the other ladies are her engines. "Instead of calling them Engine 1 and Engine 2, we gave them names," said Don Boccaccio, the Commemorative Air Force crew leader. "And don't worry about the smoke."
Commemorative Air Force
Host: Arkansas Air and Military Museum
Planes: B-29 Superfortress Fifi, B-24 Liberator, P-51 Mustang, C-45 Expediter, T-6 Texan, PT-13 Steerman, T-34 Mentor
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today through Sunday
Where: The museum at Drake Field, 4290 S. School Ave., Fayetteville
Cost: $15 for adults, $10 for children ages 10 to 17, free for children younger than 10. Prices for rides vary, and rides should be booked online.
The crew flew the B-29 from Branson, Mo., to Fayetteville's Drake Field on Tuesday, setting her in place for the CAF Airpower Tour, which runs through Sunday. The tour is hosted by the Arkansas Air and Military Museum.
From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, the B-29 and other World War II-era aircraft from the Dallas-based organization are open for touring on static display. Rides in the aircraft carry their own price tags, according to which plane and which seat, and should be booked online.
"Built by Boeing at the Renton factory in Washington, B-29A serial number 44-62070 was delivered to the U.S. Army Air Force in Kansas in 1945," reads the website B20-Superfortress.com. "The plane went straight from the factory to a training squadron, not combat." Modified to a TB-29A standard, it served as an administrative aircraft.
"Fifi was one of almost 4,000 B-29s built," Boccaccio said. "She was born in July 1945, but the war had ended by then, so she saw no action."
But her sister planes did. The B-29s were used in the Pacific Theater of fighting later in the war, primarily to bomb Japan. "Five hundred at a time would fly in formation," Boccaccio said.
In fact, B-29s Enola Gay and Boscar dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. The Fifi's cabin includes a map of the Pacific signed by the navigator on the Enola Gay.
"One of the most technologically advanced airplanes of World War II, the B-29 had many new features, including guns that could be fired by remote control," reads the "Historical Snapshot" of the B-29 on the Boeing website. "Two crew areas, fore and aft, were pressurized and connected by a long tube over the bomb bays, allowing crew members to crawl between them. The tail gunner had a separate pressurized area that could only be entered or left at altitudes that did not require pressurization.
"The B-29 was also the world's heaviest production plane because of increases in range, bomb load and defensive requirements."
The B-29 was the biggest plane of World War II, with a wing span of 141 feet and 3 inches, said Allen Benzing, the pilot from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. "That's longer than the Wright brothers took on their first flight," he said. "They only flew 120 feet."
The B-29 Superfortress carried 40 500-pound bombs -- The Fifi carries 20 replicas -- "or one big atomic bomb," Benzing said. The Enola Gay and Boscar bombing bays were modified for the 10,000-pound, 10-foot long atomic weapons, code named "Little Boy" and "Fat Man," respectively.
The prize seat during Tuesday's 20-minute flight from Branson was Fifi's forward bombardier's seat, surrounded by nearly 360 degrees of windows. A Norden bomb sight -- which was super secret during the war, Benzing said -- was mounted in front of the jump seat. To the right was a sight for 50-caliber guns mounted above and below the aircraft.
The B-29 was the most technically advanced aircraft of its time, Benzing said. In addition to offering the first pressurized cabin, the guns accommodated for speed, altitude and temperature. "If that plane was flying, and you had to figure out on your own where to fire it, you would not hit it," he said. Bombardiers in the west-side, east-side and tail bubble turrets also operated guns remotely
Five General Electric analog computers (one dedicated to each sight) increased the weapons' accuracy by compensating for factors such as airspeed, lead, gravity, temperature and humidity, explains the Boeing website. The computers also allowed a single gunner to operate two or more turrets (including tail guns) simultaneously. The gunner in the upper position acted as fire control officer, managing the distribution of turrets among the other gunners during combat.
Designed for the high-altitude strategic bomber role, the B-29 wasn't that successful, Benzing said. So the aircraft was switched to low-altitude nighttime incendiary bombing missions.
After the war, B-29s were adapted for several functions, including in-flight refueling, antisubmarine patrol, weather reconnaissance and rescue duty, according to the Boeing website. The B-29 saw military service again in Korea between 1950 and 1953, with Fifi returned to active duty in 1953.
"[Fifi] was brought back to serve in the Korean War," Boccaccio said. "But the jet age was just beginning. By the war's end, production [of the B-29] had stopped."
The last B-29 in squadron use retired from service in September 1960, according to Boeing.
The Fifi had been scrapped in China Lake, Calif., and used for target practice by the Navy when the Commemorative Air Force (known then as the Confederate Air Force) found her and restored her to flying condition, Boccaccio continued.
"After long discussions with the Air Force and Navy, led by Dallas businessman and World War II Army Air Force veteran Vic N. Agather, the plane was rescued from the scrap yard," reads B29-Superfortress.com. "After three years of restoration, the B-29 was christened FiFi in honor of Agather's wife, Josephine 'Fifi' O'Connor Agather, in late 1974."
Dozens of B-29s remain as static displays, but only one other, Doc, based in Wichita, Kan., flies today, Boccaccio said.
Today, it costs $10,000 an hour to operate Fifi, Boccaccio said. "For 45 minutes in flight, the Fifi drinks 100 gallons of gas per engine. And a one-hour flight takes 100 hours of maintenance -- it's probably the best maintained airplane flying. "
The all-volunteer crews of the Commemorative Air Force make 30 to 35 tour stops a year, but consider the once-in-a-lifetime experience worth it.
"We all love airplanes," Boccaccio said. "And Fifi is iconic. This is my hobby and my passion. This is my vacation.
"We want to show people how to remember what World War II was all about. It's front-row seating up there."
Matt Younkin of Siloam Springs, the co-pilot of Tuesday's flight, likes to hear the stories.
"It's just the history behind the aircraft and what it did during the war, we like to share it with people. I like to hear the veterans' memories, as well as the people state-side who built the planes (some were built in Wichita), whose parents and grandparents flew the planes. You hear the stories and see such emotion."
With the B-29 fleet based at Tinian, in the Mariana Islands, the 11-man crews would fly 13- to 15-hour nonstop missions to drop bombs on Tokyo, Boccaccio said.
"And the gunners might have been 18 years old, and their senior staff -- the pilots -- were 23. There were a lot of losses.
"I think what really affects me is those 18- to 20-year-olds who left at 8 a.m. and came back at 9 p.m. and were being shot at. Every time I fly, I get emotional.
"Could 18- to 19-year-olds do it today? The right kids would step up."
NAN Our Town on 09/21/2017
Print Headline: Front row seat