A Reunion of Icons
PAUL TIBBETS’S 1976 REQUALIFICATION ON THE B-29
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.
The next day, after attending a general briefing of all airshow pilots and aircrew members, our
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.”
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
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.
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)