By Frederick A. Johnsen
From the moment you mount the crew ladder of the only flying B-29 Superfortress, you begin to appreciate the men in their 20s who more than six decades ago took these revolutionary bombers into battle over Japan.
That's the passion the Commemorative Air Force wants you to feel as FIFI motors over Wisconsin during AirVenture 2012, carrying passengers for the first time during an AirVenture appearance.
B-29 aircraft commander David Oliver is earnestly affable describing the B-29 and its fliers to crowds that gather wherever FIFI flies. He asks veterans to identify themselves to the invariable applause of the crowd.
"We really believe that the stories of the men who flew it and the women who built it matter," David says.
FIFI can carry 10 passengers in addition to the crew-10 visitors to another era, experiencing history firsthand.
The lucky fliers are grouped six in the rear gunners' compartment and four up front on the flight deck. A skinny aluminum tube spans the twin bomb bays as the only path between two compartments, fore and aft; the isolation is palpable.
It emphasizes the B-29's place in the bomber evolutionary tree. This is no B-17 or B-24, smaller bombers that lacked the Superfortress' lengthened geometry. Migration through FIFI's time tunnel is generally discouraged by the CAF, but it is easy to imagine using this lifeline to come to the aid of a wounded crewman over the Pacific. Like everything else about the B-29, the long, age-dented tunnel speaks volumes about brave young men writing a new chapter in strategic bombardment doctrine.
A flight back in time
Shortly before engine start a red aircraft anti-collision light atop the aft fuselage bleeds pulses of color into the interior through small holes. Even with Plexiglas gunsight blisters atop and flanking the fuselage, passengers sometimes say this compartment reminds them of a submarine.
Perhaps-but only until takeoff when seat belts are dropped, and passengers scan from the windows, rotate in the top gunner's seat, and crawl farther back to the remarkably roomy tail-gun emplacement.
In the tail gunner's station, the fulcrum of flight exaggerates every movement of FIFI's long fuselage, giving appreciation of the skills tail gunners must have possessed to put rounds on target.
Windows in the gun emplacement gave the gunner a wide field of view; passengers may twist forward and view both the horizontal stabilizers and the wings of the B-29, stretching out to the horizon or dipping noticeably to herald a banking turn.
Speech is possible at elevated levels in this evocatively noisy domain; passengers who were strangers on the ground begin joking and sharing sights and sensations the big bomber produces. The B-29's thin aluminum hide is just a knuckle-thump away in the utilitarian fuselage; that realization adds comprehension to the dangers crews braved in flak-filled skies.
Up front, passengers sit in relative roominess. At the radio operator's station, Engines one and two are dramatically close, drumming out a steady power song.
The ultimate view, even better than that enjoyed by pilot David Oliver, is in the bombardier's seat-the glassed cathedral of the B-29's multi-paned bullet nose.
From here a sense of awe can sweep over a flier upon realizing the power a B-29's bombardier wielded.
No matter how long the flight it ends too soon as FIFI's crew reminds everyone to return to their seats for landing. Huge slab Fowler flaps roll out, and three sets of dual-wheeled landing gear drop and lock. A couple of audible chirps signal the meeting of rubber with concrete as the B-29 completes another historic sortie.
Rolling back to the taxiway, the brakes squeal a bit as a counterpoint to the throaty whisper of idling engines before FIFI stops.
One living-history mission accomplished; another about to begin.
David Oliver says he figures it costs at least $10,000 an hour to operate FIFI. Rides and ground tours help the CAF offset these immense costs while sharing its pride and joy with the public.
For the price, the Commemorative Air Force offers an experience unattainable anywhere else. From the time the gear leaves the runway until touchdown, you and your compatriot B-29 travelers are the only passengers aloft in a B-29 Superfortress.