An icon of another age, B-29 Superfortress still inspires
By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: June 13, 2017
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — The B-29 Superfortress last ruled the skies more than 70 years ago, but it can still turn heads.
To the delight of aviation buffs, a restored B-29 landed Monday at the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport and will be open to the public through Wednesday.
"Just an awesome aircraft," said John Zsoldas of York County, as he gazed at the long-range bomber from the offices of Atlantic Aviation, where several fans had gathered.
The B-29 was the most advanced long-range bomber to come out of World War II. It incorporated pressurized crew compartments and onboard computers that controlled how bombs were dropped, so the aircraft remained balanced. Gunners could lay down withering fire via remote-controlled machine guns.
The Superfortress will forever be remembered as the aircraft that ushered in the Atomic Age, dropping A-bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II.
The aircraft that landed here Monday never flew during World War II, according to pilot Steve Zimmerman. In fact, it was almost destroyed.
Nicknamed FIFI, it was acquired in the 1970s by the Texas-based Commemorative Air Force, which collects, restores and flies vintage aircraft. FIFI had been marked for death: It was sitting at the U.S. Navy Proving Ground at China Lake, Calif., for use as a missile target.
CAF members restored it, and FIFI flew for more than 30 years. It underwent a complete overhaul starting in 2006 and returned to the sky in 2010. Newport News is the second stop on an 18-city tour that will take FIFI around the country.
"It's not hard to fly," said Zimmerman, who works for an airline as his day job. "It's just different than anything else you'd ever fly."
The pilot sits farther back in the aircraft behind a curved wall of glass that provides room for the bombardier and the high-tech Norden bombsight. Behind the pilot and co-pilot are stations for the flight engineer, navigator and radio operator.
The navigational map bears the autograph of Theodore "Dutch," Van Kirk, the navigator on the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Van Kirk died in 2014.
Zimmerman said he enjoys flying the vintage aircraft and the attention he gets coming into an airport. But the best part of the tour is meeting veterans.
"Some of them just want to touch it," he said.
Getting into the plane requires climbing a steep ladder, and sometimes family members will balk at the idea of Grandpa scaling those steps. Grandpa often proves them wrong.
"They turn into kids real quick, just like they were 19 again," Zimmerman said. "They go right up that ladder."
Although the long-range bomber will forever be associated with World War II, it served in the Korean War and lasted well into the 1950s. That's when Fredrick Boalt of Chesapeake became familiar with it.
Boalt, an Air Force veteran of 22 1/2 years, was a mechanic and ground crew chief for the B-29 in 1954. At that time, the B-29 was being called upon to fly into hurricanes. He sat in for three such flights, one at night and two during the day.
"It was a sturdy aircraft," he said. "There were times I thought the wings were going to come off, but they hung in there. A very wild ride — very wild."