Jeff Jardine

June 2, 2014

Jeff Jardine: Only flying B-29 in Modesto for tours, flights

There are opportunities, and then there are really rare opportunities. The latter is going on Tuesday and Wednesday on Modesto Airport’s general aviation side where Fifi – the only B-29 Superfortress still flying – is visiting Modesto.

There are opportunities, and then there are really rare opportunities.

The latter is going on Tuesday and Wednesday on Modesto Airport’s general aviation side where Fifi – the only B-29 Superfortress still flying – is visiting Modesto and is open to the public for tours and rides as part of the Commemorative Air Force’s Airpower History Tour.

Modesto’s Central California Valley Squadron invited the Texas-based World War II-era bomber crew to stop in Modesto during a trip that included visits to Arizona, Southern California and Salinas, with Sacramento and Napa next up before the plane heads to the Seattle area.

Fifi basically is the same type of plane as the Enola Gay and exactly the same as the Bockscar, the B-29s that dropped atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945 to end World War II. Delivered to the Army Air Corps in July 1945, Fifi never saw combat, and survived being scrapped only because it was used as a training plane for B-29 crews during the Korean War, pilot Mark Novak said.

The Commemorative Air Force had been trying to get hold of one of virtually every type of military plane, but tried for nearly two decades to secure a Boeing B-29A. The Enola Gay went to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. (I saw the nose of it there in 1998), and the restored plane is now a museum piece in Chantilly, Va. The Bockscar went on display in 1961 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Other B-29s went either to museums – Atwater’s Castle Air Museum displays a B-29 – or to the scrap heaps.

So it appeared the Commemorative Air Force folks were out of luck. But they continued to contact Air Force officials anyway, and one day got their big break.

“They said, ‘We don’t have any,’ ” Novak said. “They belong to the Navy.”

A call to the Navy turned up one. It sat baking at the edge of the naval weapons air station at China Lake in the Mojave Desert, used as a marker denoting the border of the gunnery range. It took Commemorative Air Force volunteers roughly two months to get Fifi airworthy again. The plane is named for the wife of the man who spearheaded the acquisition. It has never been completely restored, Novak said, just repaired, maintained and made available to Commemorative Air Force groups all over the country. The plane is a piece of American military history that brings the roaring engines to life and enables people of this generation to see firsthand the kinds of machines that won the war.

“That’s why we do it,” Novak said. “Exhibit, remembrance and education. We fly the plane because otherwise it would sit in a museum. Ten percent of the people would get to see it. And we give 100 rides a year, 10 passengers at a time, meaning that 1,000 people get to ride and enjoy the experience.”

Thousands upon thousands of others get to tour the plane on tarmacs across the country. The Norden bombsight – the device that gave American planes unrivaled accuracy during daytime bombing runs – is still mounted and visible in the nose of the plane, and the bomb bays contain 20 500-pound bombs the plane was built to drop. (Don’t worry: They don’t have warheads.) And the plane was the first bomber with pressurized compartments and a tunnel connecting the front and rear areas of the plane above the bomb bay.

Fifi tours with a crew of more than a dozen people, not including advance man and grounds crew member Rocky Smith, who drives ahead to each site to set up the traveling concession shop that generates revenue to help keep the bomber flying.

Bob Kirby, one of the maintenance crew members, flew in the plane the day that Dutch Van Kirk, navigator on the Enola Gay, came aboard for a ride a few years ago in Oshkosh, Wis.

“It was an honor to have him aboard,” Kirby said. “And Paul Tibbets (the Enola Gay’s pilot, who died in 2007) also has flown this plane. He was a great supporter of the CAF.”

Novak, Fifi’s pilot, said another B-29 also escaped the Mojave Desert sun and is under restoration in Wichita, Kan. Dubbed “Doc,” it could be airworthy by the summer’s end. But for now, Fifi is the only one flying.

Modesto got the opportunity to host the plane after an official from a new chapter in Sacramento called the Central California Valley Squadron’s Glenn Mount to ask if the Modesto squadron could sent a plane north when Fifi visited Sacramento on its West Coast swing. Mount couldn’t believe that Modesto, with Northern California’s largest squadron membership (56), also wasn’t on the tour itinerary.

“What are we?” he joked. “Chopped liver?’

So he emailed his Commemorative Air Force cohorts in Texas. The next morning, Mount received a reply. Modesto joined the tour, and Fifi pulled up at the tarmac shortly before noon Monday.

The rest, you might say, is history – and a very rare opportunity.

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