What’s up Doc?

I am too young to remember World War II. I came along in 1951 well after Dad had taken a dunking in the vast Pacific when his Destroyer (Brownson) was blown apart by Japanese pilots in some minor battle. However, I have always marveled at the war effort and the machines that the United States turned out that turned the tide and won a war. I am awe struck by the rapid growth of engineering, the “tricks” that made that era’s technology work, and the blistering pace of production. As a pilot I have long marveled at the aircraft designed and built in short order as a necessity for winning a horrible world war. The need for these machines many times outweighed, to a degree, their practicality and many designs were simply too far “out there” to ever make production. Still, the magnificent machines that were developed fascinate me.

Recently a pilot buddy of mine sent me a video describing the painstaking, meticulous work that has been on-going for some time and has resulted in the second of the only two flying B-29 Super Fort’s in the world reclaiming it’s place in the skies over the U.S.. Everyone I know identifies the name “Enola Gay” properly as the B-29 that dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima and broke the will of the Japanese. Nearly every pilot I know knows that the only surviving flying example of the mammoth aircraft that performed this feat was “Fifi”; a B-29 Super Fortress, which is maintained and operated on a flying history tour from coast to coast every year by the Commemorative Air Force. All that changed in July of 2016 when “Doc”, a freshly restored Super Fortress took to the skies over Wichita.

I pass along the rebirth of history for you, please enjoy “Doc”

Historians tell us that there were just short of 4000 of these majestic flying machines built by Boeing aircraft company, and that the Army Air Corps drafted it’s specifications for a new long range “super bomber” in December of 1939. Boeing had been in the design phases of a long range bomber concept since 1938. Competition between Consolidated Aircraft, Lockheed, and Douglas ramped up but Boeing presented its design option early in 1940! Douglas and Lockheed fell along the wayside and Consolidated was allowed to continue its design work as a possible backup for the Boeing bomber. Boeing received an order for two flying prototypes and a third static prototype on August 24 of 1940. The order was revised to include the third aircraft as a flying prototype on December 14th, 1940. My Lord, how fast this country can move when it wishes to! Less than two years later, the first Super Fortress Flight was made out of Boeing Field in Seattle on September 21st, 1942.

The Super Fort was a leap forward in technology for the time with a pressurized cabin and a remotely operated fire control system that allowed control of the four gun turrets via analog computer system. A single gunner could operate two or more turrets at one time. Each turret was fitted with two browning .50 Caliber machine guns.

Originally fitted with Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone radial engines, the aircraft was fraught with engine problems from the beginning. Failures and fires were prevalent. The second prototype flew approximately 90 days after the first flight but an engine fire cut the flight short. On February 18th, 1943 the second prototype flew again and this time crashed as a result of an engine fire. This crash killed all on board. Production changes were happening at a frantic pace and mistakes were made and corrected so rapidly that by 1944 many aircraft were flown directly from the manufacturing plant to a maintenance facility charged with making alterations . . . to brand new aircraft! Engine problems persisted and only when the switch was made to Pratt & Whitney R-4360 “Wasp Major” engines did reliability improve.

The Super Fort was manned by an eleven man crew, carried 8 or 10 .50 caliber machine guns (early models had a 20 mm cannon in the tail as well) and hauled 20,000 pounds of bombs aloft. Its wingspan was 141 feet 3 inches and it was 99 feet long. Empty weight was 74,500 pounds; combat takeoff weight was in excess of 135,000 pounds! It cruised at 190 Kts and had a service ceiling of 31,850 Feet. (Above most fighter’s capabilities and out of reach from the ground) All this machinery was made in America at an estimated cost of about $640,000.00 a copy.

Some pilots I am sure, can identify with me when I say that I have always felt like I was born too late. To have been alive to see such magnificent flying machines in numbers would have been a thrill. It saddens me to think that my children and grandchildren may never have the opportunity to see the aircraft and other mechanical marvels spawned by the worst of times in our history. They may never again see, touch, or hear the majestic machinery, born of our resolve and innovation that helped to assure that America remained “the land of the free.” Thanks to the efforts of the Commemorative Air Force and the folks at Doc’s Friends for preserving these noteworthy pieces of American history so that future generations may have some knowledge of the people and machines that have helped to make America the greatest nation in the world.

For years she was the only flying example of a Super Fort. “Fifi” has now been joined by a second B-29.

Please enjoy a look at “Fifi.”

 

 

*Doc Photo Credit: Business and Commercial Aviation

*Fifi Photo and Video Credit: Commemorative Air Force

*Doc Video Credit: CBS News

 

Tom Speerstra

Author: Tom Speerstra

Tom Speerstra has had an enduring love affair with aviation for over 40 years. Countless adventures have been enjoyed flying students, people, paper, and parcels in everything from Champs to Citations. He has held positions as both Chief Pilot and Director of Operations for Part 135 carriers and holds an ATP, MEII, SES ratings and a Citation type rating. Tom makes his home in Michigan with his wife Elizabeth and the two dogs Hess and Pappy.

1 Comment

  1. Susan Van Liere Susan Van Liere says:

    Very interesting story. I consider myself fortunate to have witnessed Fifi in flight several times at Airventure. It is quite a sight to be up close and personal watching her lumber in slow and dirty on short final!