Two summers ago, when the world’s remaining airworthy B-29 Superfortress landed in Modesto, Glenn and Mary Mount found themselves in awe of the old World War II-era bird named Fifi.
Long before they retired from their careers with the Modesto Irrigation District, the Mounts joined the local chapter of the Commemorative Air Force, a nationwide nonprofit organization that acquires and restores old military aircraft to promote military aviation history. The Mounts worked hard to bring Fifi to town for a three-day stay in 2014. It drew an array of visitors from military veterans to families with young children fascinated by the big aircraft. They got a close look, inside and out, and – for a price – a ride in the same type of plane that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II.
Fifi, a C-45 cargo companion named Bucket of Bolts and a P-51 Mustang dubbed Man-O-War travel together across the country as flying museum exhibits. As the crews ended their visit in Modesto, they recruited the Mounts to join them.
Really? Seriously? Fly around for weeks on end in a B-29? They didn’t need to ask twice, nor did the Mounts need time to mull it over. It was like the scene in the movie “Cocoon,” when the aliens invited the retirees to join them, except in an FAA-approved aircraft on a great adventure – not in a UFO and in search of eternal life.
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“I gotta tell you ... ,” Glenn Mount said.
Completing the sentence in that case wasn’t necessary. Of course, they’d love to soar off into the wild blue yonder inside a piece of history.
They signed on, began training and were on board by the year’s end. They traveled with Fifi for 16 weeks in 2015 and easily will do the same number or more this year. They are now on a tour that includes stops in Aurora, Ill., Dubuque, Iowa, and Janesville, Wis.
Based in Fort Worth, Texas, Fifi will return to Modesto for another riding and viewing opportunity Sept. 21-25.
And Sunday, Glenn Mount will serve on the crew aboard Doc, which will become the second flying B-29 when it takes off from a base in Wichita, Kan., for the first time since 1956.
“Yours truly, selected for the first flight,” he said proudly.
Like Fifi, Doc was built during World War II and retired from service in the 1950s. Both were used for training, and neither flew actual bombing missions.
“That’s why they were in good shape,” Glenn Mount said.
That’s even after more than a decade sitting on the desert floor at China Lake, where they were used for target practice by the U.S. Navy until being rescued and eventually restored. Fifi returned to flight in 1973.
The histories of these planes fascinated the Mounts. But it didn’t take long after joining the Fifi crew for their feelings to shift.
“Initially, the draw was to the aircraft,” Glenn Mount said. “But the draw that keeps Mary and I coming back are the people. The stories we hear are amazing.”
Stories like the one about a man who brought his 94-year-old father – a bombardier in a B-29 during World War II – aboard.
“We put him into the bombardier’s seat and he was just zipping off things about it,” Glenn said.
Before they left, the son approached Mount with tears in his eyes.
“The dad didn’t know he’d even left the house,” he said. “He had dementia or Alzheimer’s and didn’t know where he lived. But being in that plane and that seat again brought everything back like it was yesterday.”
Mary Mount, the crew’s ride captain, is responsible for promoting the events and selling the public the tickets that help pay the $10,000 per hour it costs to fly the plane and offset the costs. She has her favorite moments as well.
“There was this vet – his name was Jimmy – and he came out in uniform,” she said. “He was a little guy, thin, and it still fit. He’d been a gunner in World War II, and he was on one of our flights. He got quiet, and he said, ‘I can see their faces.’ ”
“I can see the crew,” he replied, his eyes in a gaze. “Sitting here, I can see their faces.”
“It’s comments like that that get you emotional,” Mary said. “They bring tears to your eyes.”
And some bring laughter. One World War II vet approached her when the tour went to Napa last year.
“He was 90 and he had his credit card in hand,” she said. “He said, ‘I want to ride in the P-51 and I don’t care how much it costs.’”
A Mustang ride costs $1,895, she told him.
“I don’t care how much it costs,” he repeated. “During World War II, I’d watch those P-51s take off and land.”
The pilot gave him a longer-than-usual trip and when it ended, she asked him how he enjoyed it.
“He put his hands in the air,” she said. “Then he said, ‘Now I have a job to do.’ Job? ‘I’ve got to tell my wife what I just did.’ ”
She didn’t know he was going for a ride in a P-51?
“He said, ‘Hell, no! She’d never have let me do it. I’d better tell her what’s going to be on the credit card,’ ” Mary said.
Every tour stop brings new stories.
“Veterans bringing their grandchildren and great-grandchildren and we’ll hear them telling them what they did – what they did and where they were stationed during the war,” Mary said. “Not every child gets to go to a museum or the Smithsonian, where they have these planes.”
Nor does everyone – only a selected few, in fact – get to ride around in them all over the country for weeks on end.
Said Glenn Mount: “We’re having the time of our lives.”
The Commemorative Air Force is looking for sponsors, corporate or individuals, willing to help local schools with the costs of busing students to the Modesto City-County Airport when Fifi returns in September. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.