A Re­union of Icons


Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Randy Sohn

Paul Tib­bets’s 1976 Re­qual­i­fi­ca­tion on the B-29

It’s dif­fi­cult to know just where I should start retelling this story of many years ago. Prob­a­bly I should be­gin some­where back when the then-Con­fed­er­ate Air Force (CAF) brought Boe­ing B-29 #44-62070 to Har­lin­gen, Texas, from nearly 20 years of aban­don­ment on the desert at the U.S. Navy’s ord­nance test­ing fa­cil­ity at China Lake, Cal­i­for­nia. There, she had en­dured the desert’s ten­der mer­cies un­til we fi­nally ob­tained ti­tle to the relic. Ninety days of work on it made her air­wor­thy enough to ferry to her new home in Au­gust 1971. Of course, the ad­di­tion of the clas­sic war­bird rep­re­sented the cul­mi­na­tion of Lloyd Nolen’s vi­sion that the CAF’s col­lec­tion should in­clude one of each air­craft that had sig­nif­i­cantly par­tic­i­pated in World War II com­bat.

Sev­eral years later, largely due to the ef­forts of Vic­tor Agather and Se­na­tor Barry Gold­wa­ter in re­mov­ing the “no-fly” clause the U.S. Air Force (USAF) had im­posed as a con­di­tion of trans­fer­ring the bomber to us, we were able to fly her in our CAF ac­tiv­i­ties. We should also rec­og­nize that, at this time, this air­craft had not yet ac­quired a name. Af­ter we started the na­tion­wide sum­mer tours, the B-29 was named for Vic’s wife, Josephine “Fifi” Agather. Dur­ing prepa­ra­tions for our an­nual airshow in 1976, Lloyd felt that we should con­tact re­tired Brig. Gen. Paul Tib­bets, eas­ily the most note­wor­thy of ev­ery­one ever as­so­ci­ated with the B-29s. We in­vited him to Har­lin­gen to fly a B-29 once again. This re­union of the man and the ma­chine would rep­re­sent a truly re­mark­able story that the CAF could tell for many years to come.

Tib­bets Meets FIFI

Many peo­ple have heard that only one flight took place with Tib­bets. Ac­tu­ally, we made two flights with the air­plane: a train­ing sor­tie one morn­ing and an airshow flight the fol­low­ing af­ter­noon.

Lloyd wanted the train­ing flight to be thor­oughly doc­u­mented, so he made cer­tain that his premier pho­tog­ra­pher, Bill Crump, was with us. Ron­nie Garner and Ray Kirk­patrick were also along as the flight en­gi­neers. I’m fairly cer­tain that Vic made both flights. For­tu­nately, some of those old pho­tos are still in ex­is­tence and also some ac­counts say that Dick Rein­hart, a long­time friend and Min­nesota Air Na­tional Guard flight sur­geon, went along on the sec­ond flight. An­other friend, Roger Baker, who’d been with me on the orig­i­nal ferry flight, was also along. I can still re­call Roger’s ex­cla­ma­tion when he found out who was fly­ing the air­plane. “Wow, Paul Tib­bets him­self!”

Af­ter climb­ing up into the cock­pit, set­tling into the left-hand pi­lot’s seat and ad­just­ing it and the rud­der ped­als, Paul turned to me and qui­etly con­fided, “You know, Randy, I haven’t been in a 29 since I took the Enola Gay to Or­chard Field [now O’Hare In­ter­na­tional] back in 1949.” That may have been an at­tempt on his part to ab­solve him­self of any rust on his fly­ing abil­ity. How­ever, once we started the flight, I quickly be­came aware this was not so in this case. Paul flew it ex­tremely well and (my words here) “took to it like a duck to wa­ter.”

Light­ing the Fires

I’d imag­ine that most read­ers would find them­selves dis­ap­pointed to find how lit­tle the pi­lot ac­tu­ally does dur­ing the B-29’s start­ing process. Once he is­sues the or­der to the flight en­gi­neer (F/E) to “start en­gines,” no fur­ther ac­tions by the pi­lot are re­quired. The en­gi­neer per­forms all the

pro­ce­dures re­gard­ing count­ing prop blades, throt­tles, prim­ing, mix­tures, and all that other stuff. On four-en­gine air­planes, I’ve al­ways ad­vo­cated start­ing an in­board en­gine first, then the out­board, to as­sure that the per­son man­ning the fire­ex­tin­guisher cart on the ground will never have an en­gine run­ning be­hind him. That fire guard is in con­stant in­ter­phone com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the F/E dur­ing the start­ing process and he’s the one who can in­form the F/E that the area is “clear to start.” The F/E can vis­ually count the pro­pel­ler blades as he ro­tates the en­gine with the starter and, af­ter eight blades to per­mit him to check for a hy­draulic lock, turns the ig­ni­tion switch to “on.”

Dur­ing the years that I spent check­ing out pi­lots on var­i­ous air­planes, I’d found that ev­ery check­out process dif­fers in some re­spects. I’ve never been smart enough to write a “one-size-fit­sall” syl­labus or pro­gram for the flight ma­neu­vers that need to be ac­com­plished dur­ing their fa­mil­iar­iza­tion and check­out in a pi­lot new to the air­craft. I’ve found that ev­ery­one seems to be dif­fer­ent re­gard­ing what needs to be em­pha­sized and what he re­quires. Due to the traf­fic and winds, I’d de­cided to pro­ceed down to the air­port in Brownsville, Texas, for Paul’s take­offs and land­ings that morn­ing.

While fly­ing the short dis­tance to Brownsville, I had Paul do a se­ries of ap­proaches to stalls, steep turns, and var­i­ous ma­neu­vers. His abil­i­ties quickly con­vinced me that any fur­ther time spent on those type of ma­neu­vers would largely be wasted; he was well co­or­di­nated and did fine. I gave Paul a cou­ple of sim­u­lated en­gine fail­ures by re­tard­ing a throt­tle on one of the out­boards and hav­ing him demon­strate how he’d deal with it. While in­struct­ing on four-en­gine air­planes, I’ve

al­ways ad­vo­cated never to ac­tu­ally feather an out­board pro­pel­ler, just in case it couldn’t later be un­feath­ered/restarted. There­fore, I’ve al­ways sim­u­lated the fail­ure of an out­board and only do an ac­tual feather on an in­board. We did one of these full-feath­ered en­gine shut­downs and restarts, and by that time, it was nec­es­sary to be­gin de­scend­ing for the ap­proach and land­ing.

Put­ting It on the Run­way

I first demon­strated a land­ing. The rea­son was that ex­pe­ri­ence had shown me that most pi­lots would have a prob­lem align­ing them­selves with the run­way dur­ing their first at­tempt to land the B-29. On their first land­ing, nearly all would make their fi­nal ap­proach with the air­plane’s left main gear slightly off to­ward the left of the run­way, which (if con­tin­ued) would have re­sulted in a touch­down with that wheel in the grass. Doubt­less, this could be at­trib­uted to the B-29’s de­sign, which in­cluded many glass pan­els in the fuse­lage’s nose. I guess that al­most all pi­lots ini- tially have prob­lems de­ter­min­ing which win­dow to look through. In the end, I just told them to “not look through only one win­dow panel. Move your head around as a ‘shadow boxer’ would while look­ing through all of them.”

Look­ing back now, I be­lieve that Paul would not have ex­pe­ri­enced that par­tic­u­lar prob­lem since he’d pre­vi­ously flown the air­plane. We did sev­eral ap­proaches, land­ings, and go-arounds in var­i­ous con­fig­u­ra­tions, and they all sat­is­fied me as be­ing within our es­tab­lished cri­te­ria. Af­ter fin­ish­ing those, we re­turned to Har­lin­gen, where we did a sim­u­lated two-en­gine-out land­ing, and again, it was fine. Fol­low­ing the park­ing and en­gine shut­down, we en­gaged in an ex­ten­sive de­brief­ing of the many items and pro­ce­dures that had been cov­ered and per­formed dur­ing the train­ing pe­riod.

It’s Show­time

The next day, af­ter at­tend­ing a gen­eral brief­ing of all airshow pi­lots and air­crew mem­bers, our


flight crew again gath­ered for a quick roll call near the B-29’s nose­wheel. I re­mem­ber that the peo­ple on that flight in­cluded a pho­tog­ra­pher from a well-known Ja­panese mag­a­zine. I’m un­able now to re­call his name, only that he re­mained close to our left scanner’s side blis­ter/ win­dow dur­ing that flight. The CAF’s an­nual airshow was al­ready in progress, hav­ing been started by the al­ways pop­u­lar iconic “Tora! Tora! Tora!” group’s re-en­act­ment of the Ja­panese air raid on Pearl Har­bor.

We were sched­uled to fly sev­eral acts dur­ing the show; our first one was to do a fly­over with the B-29 lead­ing a V for­ma­tion of the two other heavy bombers in the CAF’s fleet: the B-17 and the B-24. Then, as the con­clud­ing event of the airshow (as it also had been in WW II), we flew the Hiroshima reen­act­ment. Col. Ed­die May, the airshow’s pub­lic-ad­dress-sys­tem an­nouncer, took ad­van­tage of the brief mo­ment that the show lacked any aerial ac­tiv­ity to de­liver a ver­bal de­scrip­tion of the up­com­ing event and how it had changed world his­tory.

Ob­vi­ously, we made this pass alone, just one air­craft mak­ing a sin­gle north to south over­head pass above the airshow. As we over­flew the airshow area, a mil­i­tary prac­tice “shaped-charge” smoke bomb was det­o­nated on the air­port’s sur­face across from the run­way. It re­sulted in a mush­room-shaped puff of white smoke that then rose into the at­mos­phere. We con­tin­ued across the air­port and then en­tered a left turn when we were past the end of the run­way. I can still re­mem­ber lean­ing across the cock­pit to­ward Paul while look­ing past him at that ris­ing col­umn of white smoke at the air­port. I asked Paul if that was how it had re­ally looked; he replied out of the side of his mouth with­out turn­ing to look at me, “Good grief, no!”

The Me­dia Makes Hay

Within a few days, that fi­nal act of the show re­ceived a great deal of at­ten­tion in the news­pa­pers, on TV and in ra­dio broad­casts, and in

other me­dia. I re­call get­ting a phone call from a United Air­lines crewmem­ber who was in Manila at the time. He told me that the in­ci­dent had been pub­lished in the lo­cal news­pa­per. All kinds of other com­mu­ni­ca­tions were sent to

CAF head­quar­ters in Har­lin­gen. At that time, I was as­tounded that a reen­act­ment of that WW II mo­ment in his­tory would pre­cip­i­tate such a world­wide com­mo­tion.

Af­ter giv­ing thought to the en­su­ing up­roar af­ter the bomb act, we de­cided that prob­a­bly as much of a sober­ing ef­fect could be evoked by a B-29 fly­over at traf­fic-pat­tern alti­tude with our bomb-bay doors open, thus pro­vid­ing the au­di­ence the op­por­tu­nity to stare up­ward into what I’d de­scribe as “eter­nity.” When per­form­ing that act, I’d usu­ally get up a good “head of steam” and then slightly re­tard the throt­tles


while call­ing for the rpm to be re­duced to ap­prox­i­mately 1,600 or so, which makes it very quiet dur­ing that pass over­head.

Hol­ly­wood Wants a Faster Turn

In 1980, the film com­pany Vi­a­com de­cided to make a movie of Paul’s life and the B-29: Enola Gay: The Men, the Mis­sion, the Atomic Bomb. The film­mak­ers uti­lized both FIFI and an un­fly­able

B-29 on the ramp at Tuc­son, Ari­zona, dur­ing the film­ing. Pa­trick Duffy starred as Paul.

One of our long-time mem­bers, Joe Davis, had made a dummy dis­play bomb that was used in the movie. The film­mak­ers filmed it be­ing dropped in flight from FIFI some­where near Tuc­son over the desert. Dur­ing the later stages of mak­ing that movie, Clay Lacy, who was film­ing from his Astro­vi­sion Lear­jet, called to

in­form me that peo­ple at Vi­a­com were frus­trated be­cause they were un­able to film FIFI mak­ing a rapid turn. Clay said that they re­ally needed me to come out and “quicken up” that turn for the movie be­cause the guy fly­ing it (one of our vol­un­teers) was in­sis­tent upon mak­ing only well-co­or­di­nated turns. He con­vinced me that it wouldn’t take long to ac­com­plish the task, and I was soon Cal­i­for­nia bound.

I re­mem­bered that Paul had told me, dur­ing one of our con­ver­sa­tions, how he’d made that sud­den turn with the Enola Gay in an ef­fort to avoid the ef­fects of the blast. I went out to Bur­bank, Cal­i­for­nia, where FIFI was lo­cated and, with Clay film­ing from above, made a bomb run on the coastal city of San Luis Obispo, Cal­i­for­nia, in the af­ter­noon. The sun was be­hind us on that af­ter­noon’s east­erly run, which matched

the sun in the morn­ing be­ing be­hind the bombers at Hiroshima. I made the turn ex­actly as Paul had told me, used full aileron and an un­co­or­di­nated full rud­der. With­out the in­put of full rud­der, the air­plane will pon­der­ously en­ter a bank—but far too slowly! With full rud­der, it acts much as if you’d sawed off a wing it en­ters a steep bank and turn so rapidly. I did this that day, and Clay ra­dioed me from his film­ing po­si­tion above us: “That was great. The direc­tor says it was fine—all done.”


Sev­eral years later, Paul was to ap­pear at a lo­cal air­port in St. Paul, Min­nesota, to sign copies of his book, The Tib­bets Story. I made the short drive to say hello. As I neared his ta­ble, he looked up and mo­tioned me to come over be­hind him. He reached un­der the ta­ble, grabbed a new book, wrote a line in it, and then handed it to me. He’d writ­ten on the front page, “Here’s to the guy who checked me out in the B-29” and then au­to­graphed it. He then glanced at his watch and said, “Randy, I’m get­ting hun­gry. Let’s go next door to the restau­rant and get some­thing to eat.”

The two of us were in a sep­a­rate room, eat­ing lunch and just talk­ing about some of those long-gone days. I gazed for sec­ond time at the book that he’d given me and said to him, “Paul, you know, that’s BS. I never checked you out in the B-29. All I did was re­qual­ify you.” He chuck­led and said, “Randy, you tell the story and I’ll swear to it!”

While we were eat­ing, a lo­cal guy walked past and looked through the door at us. I was later told that, not know­ing ei­ther one of us, he’d lis­tened for a short pe­riod and then asked an­other per­son that knew us, “Are those two guys in that room mad at each other?”

“Don’t think so. Why?”

“Well, they were yelling at each other!”

“Oh, yeah. Well, nei­ther one of them hears very well, and they’re just talk­ing with each other.”

Sev­eral years ago, Paul and his grand­son, now a USAF bri­gadier gen­eral about to get his sec­ond star, vis­ited us at the CAF Mid­land Airshow, and we had a chance to re­new our ac­quain­tance in the B-29’s cock­pit while talk­ing about the “old days.” I have a photo of those two in the pi­lots’ seats of FIFI. Paul IV tells me that it is his fa­vorite photo of the two of them to­gether. He added that it’s also the photo of his grand­fa­ther that he likes to show the au­di­ence dur­ing the many speeches that he gives each year. In it, it’s ob­vi­ous the ad­mi­ra­tion and re­spect the grand­fa­ther has for the grand­son.

And a grand tra­di­tion of ser­vice to their coun­try is car­ried on.

Paul Tib­bets, in the pi­lot’s seat, re­ceives in­struc­tions from Randy Sohn dur­ing his re­qual­i­fi­ca­tion flights in 1976. (Photo by Bill Crump)

The B-29’s all-glass nose makes it dif­fi­cult for new B-29 pi­lots to keep the air­plane aligned on fi­nal ap­proach. (Photo by Bill Crump)

With 8,800hp push­ing her, the B-29 could reach 350mph in a max­i­mum ef­fort. Its nor­mal in­ter­nal tank­age gave a to­tal range of ap­prox­i­mately 3,200 miles. “Sil­ver­plate” nu­clear-ca­pa­ble B-29s had their tur­rets re­moved for speed and ef­fi­ciency. (Photo by Bill Crump)

The au­di­ence at Ex­per­i­men­tal Air­craft As­so­ci­a­tion’s AirVen­ture 2017 was the first in sev­eral gen­er­a­tions to see two B-29s in the air, when “Doc” (top), hav­ing been res­cued from China Lake and re­stored, joined FIFI. (Photo by Scott Slocum)

Above: This is the ac­tual air­craft in which Paul Tib­bets sat when over Hiroshima on Au­gust 6, 1945. This is where his­tory was made. (Photo by Brian Sil­cox) Left: The 2,200hp Wright R-3350 had se­ri­ous teething prob­lems in com­bat. (Photo by Brian Sil­cox) Be­low: The flight en­gi­neer con­trolled and mon­i­tored many com­plex sys­tems. (Pho­tos by Brian Sil­cox)

Above left: The bom­bardier’s con­trol panel was lo­cated just to the left of his po­si­tion at the bomb­sight. (Photo by Brian Sil­cox) Above right: The tail-gun­ner po­si­tion in a B-29 was much roomier than in other WW II bombers. (Pho­tos by Brian Sil­cox)

Above: The space be­tween the pi­lot and copi­lot made it easy for the bom­bardier to climb down into his “of­fice.” (Photo by Brian Sil­cox)

The B-29 flew all her mis­sions in the Pa­cific The­ater, most of them cov­er­ing im­mense dis­tances. (Photo by Scott Slocum)

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