Ralph Aquaro turned and smiled as the four engines of the B-29 Superfortress named Fifi rumbled to life and the World War II-era bomber taxied out to the runway Monday morning in Monterey.
Aquaro is no kid with a simple fascination with big planes with big engines that make big noises, even though the Fifi – one of only two B-29s still flying – certainly commands the awe accorded to the big old warbirds.
He’s 96 years old, and his fascination, like that of Modesto’s Sam Satariano, comes from vivid memories of the plane’s sounds and smells that returned when they rode as guests of the Commemorative Air Force and its AirPower History Tour. In fact, Aquaro and Satariano represent the very history the nonprofit organization wants to preserve as it takes the Fifi from city to city across the nation.
These men and former B-29 bombardier Hank Adams of Turlock – who at 92 can no longer get into the plane but came to the airport to spur his recollections as well – are among the last of a generation that soon won’t be around to tell their stories of what it was like to fly B-29s in wartime. It’s the same type of plane as the Enola Gay and the Bockscar, which dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II.
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With Aquaro and Satariano aboard, the Fifi arrived in Modesto for five days of public tours, educational events and pay-for rides that enable the B-29, a C-45 Expeditor and a T-6 Texan – the latter being World War II training aircraft – to keep flying and teaching. Beginning Wednesday on the airport’s general aviation side, hundreds of people including student groups will see the planes up close and personal, getting an understanding of the types of machinery that helped win World War II in ways no school textbook could possibly match.
Nobody gets more from hearing the stories of those who flew these planes during wartime than the crew flying the aircraft now, said Mark Novak, who piloted the Fifi into Modesto as he did during a similar visit in 2014.
“We learn a lot from the old guys,” he said. “A lot of them tell us we do it wrong. But we operate the plane differently, we tell them, because there is only one (two after another, called Doc, in July returned to the skies for the first time since 1956). So we do a lot of things more safely.”
And, of course, today’s crew isn’t facing anti-aircraft flak or enemy fighter planes looking for a big score.
Neither man had ridden in a warplane since leaving the military decades ago. Aquaro served as a radioman on the crew of the Caboose, a B-29 crew he said concentrated most of its efforts on bombing the Mariana Islands. The plane also flew the last B-29 mission of World War II, attacking Japan roughly six days after the United States dropped the second of two atomic bombs in August 1945.
“We bombed a fuel refinery in Sapporo,” Aquaro said. “We were supposed to be at 35,000 feet, but we dropped down to 15,000. We hit it, and flames came up all around us. Then, on our way back to Guam, I radioed San Francisco and they said the war was over. (The Japanese) had capitulated.”
Satariano flew 25 missions as a B-17 pilot over Europe, thinking it would be fun until he encountered his first resistance bombing German installations in the Rhine Valley.
“You’d look down and see what looked like ants on the runways,” he said. “It was fighter planes scrambling to get up and after you. Suddenly, the sky was black from (anti-aircraft) flak. And I’m thinking, ‘What the hell have I gotten myself into?’ I wanted to get out of the Air Force as fast as I could.”
Instead, he trained to fly B-29s stateside as the war ended and then left the service. Soon after, though, he was called back to fly C-54s loaded with supplies into Germany during the Berlin Airlift. When the airlift ended in 1949, he again left the Air Force.
“Six months later, though, they called me back in again for the Korean War,” he said.
A Modesto native who still lives on property his family has owned for nearly a century, Satariano went to Randolph Air Force Base in Texas to train B-29 pilots. Suddenly, his orders changed.
“They were going to send us to combat in Korea,” Satariano said. “I looked at the colonel and asked him, ‘Have you ever been in combat?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘I thought we were supposed to replace you here (in training) and you were supposed to go to combat.’ ”
When the colonel told Satariano it didn’t work that way, Satariano told the officer he’d be calling his congressman to see about that.
“The next day, they sent me to Castle (Air Force Base in Merced),” he said.
Which he flew over Monday in the Fifi.
“Beautiful country,” Satariano said. “A beautiful ride.”
Adams, the bombardier who couldn’t make the flight, stared out from the shade of the hangar at the plane as it rested, bomb bay doors open, on the tarmac.
“That bomb bay brings back memories,” he said. “It reminds me of the time I had to go down into the bomb bay and release a bomb by hand. We couldn’t land with it in there. That happened to another plane and it blew up (on landing). The (B-29) amazed me. It weighed what, 145,000 pounds loaded and 80,000 pounds empty. And it still got off the ground.”
Aquaro, meanwhile, remembers training in Grand Island, Neb., to become a radio operator. The Philadelphia resident met his future wife, Corrine, there, and they made their life together after the war in Manteca, moving later to Ripon, where they lived until her death in 2009.
At 96, he still works maybe a day a week at the automotive electrical business he started five decades ago and that his sons still run.
His trip on the Fifi gave him the opportunity to do what he never did as a B-29 crew member. He sat up front in the bombardier’s seat in the nosecone instead of the radio operator’s seat further back near where a gun turret once had been.
“I remember it being really crowded with that central firing service there,” he said. The bombardier’s seat? Now that was eye-opening, particularly when pilot Novak took the plane through a cut between mountains near Pacheco Pass.
“We never flew so close to the ground,” he said.
When the plane rolled to its stop in Modesto, family and others greeted these men as if the war had just ended and they were returning heroes.
And they were, returning to their pasts with high-flying flashbacks – of the sounds and smells of the old warbirds so few others could possibly own.
An hour in the sky rekindled their fascination with the B-29 and the memories of a lifetime.
Want to go?
The B-29 Fifi will be at the Modesto City-County Airport’s general aviation side and available for public tours and rides Wednesday through Sunday. Visit www.airpowersquadron.org/modesto-california for details, including ride costs.