I am terrified of flying. It’s not rational (are most phobias?), and it doesn’t matter how many times my mom reminds me that I regularly drive a Corvair, my year is ruined if a flight is in my future. With that being said, airplanes are fascinating and historically significant machines, so when our regional airport hosted a small airshow, I was more than happy to tour a couple of World War II-era bombers. In doing so, I was reminded that the title of Clinton Portis’s revisionist western does not apply to me at all, but is appropriate in defining the guys who had to fly these hulking bombers.
Dilettante that I am, I am entranced by older military aircraft. It’s a shame, however, that man’s greatest achievements often correspond with man’s ugliest impulses. My dad and I both contemplated the fact that these heroic machines were built to kill and destroy, but that fact ignores the myriad complexities of world politics and man’s incessant need for territorial domination. And it definitely ignores the fact that the kids who boarded these planes were total badasses, full stop. As a team member aboard this Boeing B-29 Superfortress named “FIFI” told me, “You’re an old man compared to the kids who manned this plane.” He’s right, of course. (By the way, the topic of war and who pays the price has never been covered more artistically than it was in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a literary classic involving bombers if there ever was one.)
The host and I discussed the guts it would take for a young man, or any man, to work a bomber crew. The quarters are tight, the level of danger astronomically high, and the chances of survival ludicrously low. The host rightfully said that we owe a lot to those young men, and I can’t disagree. One of the best accounts I’ve read of flying a bomber was, surprisingly, in Smokey Yunick’s autobiography titled Best Damn Garage in Town: My Life and Adventures. That yarn as a whole is bawdy and meandering, but the chapters on his days as a bomber pilot are completely captivating.
This is the front bomb bay of the B-29. The B-29 is famous and infamous as the plane that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945: both of those planes survive. The Enola Gay is owned by the Smithsonian
(but is not on display) and the Bockscar is housed at the National Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. “FIFI” on the other hand didn’t see much combat, which is likely why it is one of two B-29s that remain in operable condition.
The tunnel near the top of the bomb bay in the previous picture was used by the plane’s rear gunner, who had to crawl through it on his hands and knees to reach his command post.
This is the cockpit of the B-29. Pictures do not truly show how little space there is to “move about the cabin.”
This is the navigator’s station, one of many cramped, uncomfortable workspaces aboard a B-29.
The host explained that this hole in the bottom of the plane was sometimes used as an escape hatch. In an emergency, a crew member could lower the front landing gear, and the crew could (if they were able) jump through this hatch (with a parachute). This was the most “real” part of the plane to me, trying to reconcile my brain with being 20 years old, staring at this hatch, standing at the precipice of a small hole, watching the freezing cosmos whiz past the fuselage of my crashing plane, and knowing I had to jump. There wasn’t much to say.
The B-29 was powered by four Curtiss-Wright 18-cylinder twin-row supercharged radial engines (model R-3350). “FIFI” has been upgraded with more modern engines, a good idea considering that it flies many miles to shows.
Considering the relative incontinence of my fleet of vintage cars, the oil on the runway underneath each engine made me chuckle. The fight against leaks is never ending. A couple days after visiting the air show, Dad and I watched the crews start the bombers for their flight tours, and my wife and I returned the following day because I like watching old machinery do its thing. Each engine on the B-29 would emit a cloud of oil smoke as it started. I know little about radial engines other than what I’ve read, but what I’ve read is that oil drips down into the lowest cylinder (thanks, gravity) where it is burned on startup, which to me simply adds a little extra personality to the behemoth.
I took a variety of pictures of the bombers, so please see some random B-29 pictures before I discuss the B-24 Liberator.
To the layperson, the myriad instruments that keep a B-29 aloft are bewildering, but everyone on a bomber crew had his job, and he usually had to learn it quickly.
Also in attendance was a Consolidated B-24 Liberator, one of the most prolifically-manufactured warplanes ever. This was the plane that eventually was mass-produced by Ford Motor Company at its huge, contructed-for-this-purpose plant at Willow Run, near Ypsilanti, Michigan. After the war, Kaiser-Fraser bought the plant to build its automobiles, and General Motors eventually purchased it to build Corvairs, Novas, HydraMatic transmissions, and other things.
“Diamond Lil” was not, however, one of those planes, being built well before the Willow Run plant opened. Over 18,000 Liberators were eventually produced, and they (along with the Boeing B-17) were instrumental in winning the war in Europe.
The Liberator was a long-range bomber, but it was dwarfed by the more modern B-29. Apparently, bomber pilots often preferred the B-17 to the Liberator, but that may have been due to familiarity (as it was the first four-engine bomber). Some pilots also thought it was easier to fly than the B-24.
The Liberator was more “walkable” than the B-29, but you still have to watch your head. It was not built for walking upright.
Additionally, the cockpit is far more confining, lacking the large, open nose of the B-29. The high cowl seems to make visibility difficult.
Like the B-29, the Liberator used twin-row radial engines, although they were manufactured by Pratt & Whitney and had “only” 14 cylinders.
The planes at the airshow are owned by the “Commemorative Air Force,” which also brought along a couple of “trainers” and a beautiful P-51 Mustang (seen in the short clip above).
But the bombers (the B-29 coming in for a landing in the clip above) were the stars of the show, with their rumbling radial engines and hulking size.
I always feel a little lump in my throat when I see historic machinery that has done or will do great things, so I really enjoyed the airshow. The pride I felt in our national aviation history was tempered a little, however, by my concern that America might not be able to pull off an “Arsenal of Democracy” if it were necessary these days, in addition to the fact that the existence of so many majestic machines was the result of (and led to) so many tragic circumstances. That doesn’t diminish the fact that these planes were built and flown by some remarkable people who, in many, many cases, were the images of selflessness. If an airshow does nothing else, it can ask us to think about that every once in a while.