Musing about B-29 FIFI and her sisters

From inside the perimeter building in Auburndale, Fla., a security officer heard a low and deep roar approaching from the Northwest on the morning of Friday, March 30, 2012. He stepped outside to investigate. Immediately, his eyes fixed upon a very large aircraft approaching at low altitude. The giant, aluminum bird winged directly above at an altitude of about 1,500 feet. He smiled as the shadow of the big bomber passed over him.

FIFI was getting “her” morning exercise and delivering a welcome wakeup call to those who had not yet had a cup of coffee. The guard watched as the Boeing B-29 Superfortress banked slightly to avoid the traffic pattern at the nearby Winter Haven Municipal Airport. It had been more than 20 years since the officer had seen FIFI in person. At that time the venerable Boeing was visiting the now extinct Stapleton Airport in Denver, and the owners were using the original organizational name of  “Confederate Air Force”. FIFI remains the only airworthy example of the World War II bombers that ushered in the nuclear age.

SUN ‘n FUN 2012 was underway, and the Commemorative Air Force’s Boeing B-29 Superfortress FIFI periodically plied the skies around central Florida. During FIFI’s visit, the plane occasionally lifted from its temporary roost at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport to transport paying passengers and media representatives on memorable journeys. Many would afterward contend that the aerial experiences would stay with them for the remainder of their lives. Those grounded observers who spotted the big bird wheeling gracefully through the air marveled at the very large airplane. Meanwhile, the deep and throaty roar from the complement of 4 Curtiss-Wright radial engines enveloped the excited viewers.

 

Evidently, even after 60 years, controversy also still follows B-29s. Not only do debates about the bombings of Japan continue, but discussions addressing the delivery vehicles themselves are not uncommon. Happy Landings, the newsletter of the Florida Aviation Historical Society (FAHS), contains two relevant articles in the May-June 2012 issue. In Was the B-29 Bomber Really A “Super Fortress? (page 5) several salient points about the B-29 come from Robert Morgan, who piloted the famous B-17 Memphis Belle over Europe and later B-29s in the Pacific.

The article’s author points out that USAF Col. (Ret.) Robert Morgan says the B-29, even with its outward esthetics and state-of-the-art systems, wasn’t as good as the older B-17 design. He indicated that the Superfortress was not much fun to fly and couldn’t maneuver as easily as its B-17 predecessor. Furthermore, a B-29 could not react as ably to pilots’ hand-and-foot movements because the aileron and the elevators were more sluggish. As for B-29 rudder response, Mr. Morgan said it took far more foot pressure to turn the plane. Additionally, Morgan states the B-29 was not only a difficult airplane but that could be very dangerous to the men inside, and that Superforts damaged by fighters or antiaircraft did not fare very well.

An incident related to the author by a former Superfortress flight engineer seemingly bolsters Morgan’s contentions. This man described a nearly fatal mission over Tokyo in 1945. He and his crewmates were cruising above the sprawling city at an altitude of approximately 25,000 feet. A large anti-aircraft shell exploded beneath the right wing of their bomber. The concussion hit the Superfortress and the giant began an unapproved, unplanned and highly undesirable aerobatic maneuver. Alarmed, the pilots found their gigantic mount beginning a slow roll.

The two men at the controls fought with all their strength to neutralize the rotation and stabilize the ship. Despite their best efforts, the unresponsive B-29 continued her roll. Finally, at 500 feet above the ground, the wings at last righted and the crew exhaled a great sigh of relief. Only by the grace of Almighty God had they escaped death.

To be fair, there are other aspects by which one must judge the Superfortress. Firstly, the fact was that bombing missions from Saipan required a 1,340-mile flight to the target and back home. Despite the B-29’s evident limitations, the type could fly the outbound leg with an atomic bomb loaded inside a modified weapons bay. At the time very few, if any, other aeroplanes could carry such a load or do the job with a high degree of confidence.

Secondly, on page 10 of Happy Landings, the text of Top Secret: The Invasion of Japan informs readers about the details of Japan’s planned defense. Military and civilians were preparing to fight to the death. Bloody and desperate the fighting would take place.

The FAHS newsletter states some facts that were apparently unknown to Allied intelligence. In August 1945 the Japanese still had some 12,000 aircraft. Not surprisingly, considering the physical and psychological damages already inflicted by kamikazes, the plans to defend Japan included aerial attacks on Allied ships. The Japanese planned to coordinate their air strikes with attacks from more than three dozen submarines. Opposing the American marines and soldiers landing at Kyushu alone would be “14 Japanese divisions, 7 independent mixed brigades, 3 tank brigades and thousands of naval troops.” In addition, some “28 million Japanese had become part of the national volunteer Combat Force.” These civilian paramilitary forces were to conduct nighttime attacks, hit and run raids, fight delaying actions and would mass for “suicide charges at the weaker American positions.” Estimates were that during the early stages “of the invasion 1,000 Japanese and American soldiers would be dying every hour.” Thus, the toll in human lives would be horrendous.

As fortune and fate would have it, the invasion of Japan never became necessary. This was partially because the B-29 Enola Gay dropped “Little Boy” over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and a second Superfortress named Bockscar released “Fat Man” over Nagasaki three days later. The horror of such warfare became immediately apparent, and the bombings likely contributed to Japan’s leaders’ willingness to surrender. Many argue that the those two missions alone justify the Superfortress’ developmental costs and teething pains.

So, is the B-29 worthy of laurels? American Experience: Victory in the Pacific, a PBS documentary, reminds viewers that Empress Nagako, who was the wife of Japanese Emperor Hirohito, penned the following admission shortly after Japan’s capitulation: “Unfortunately, the B-29 is a splendid plane.” Whether the B-29 was “superlative” or not, FIFI is an impressive sight and a reminder of what the type did to end the war and save many lives.

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