B-29 BOMBER’S MAIDEN FLIGHT 79 YEARS AGO, WITH HISTORY TO FOLLOW

On this day in 1942, the first B-29 Superfortress bomber made its maiden flight in Seattle.

Built by Boeing and the brainchild of General Henry H. “Hap’ Arnold, this plane was a modern marvel. (Incidentally, Arnold learned to fly at the hands of the Wright brothers, but that’s another story.) It was the first U.S. bomber equipped with radar, and could fly long distances while packing bombs and gear that weighed nearly as much as the aircraft itself. It was the largest bomber employed by any nation during World War II.

Some 3,970 B-29s were built at five plants — Washington (Boeing in Seattle and Renton); Boeing in Wichita, Kansas; Bell Aircraft in Marietta, Georgia; and Glenn L. Martin Co. in Omaha, Nebraska.

Yet, despite its successful test drive in Seattle on September 21, 1942, the B-29 waited nearly two more years before its first bombing mission — over Bangkok in June 1944 against the Japanese during the Burma Campaign.

The nose of a B-29 bomber called Bockscar that flew over Japan during WWII.
The flying “Bockscar”, the second B-29 that flew over Japan during World War II, hastening the surrender of Japan.

A pair of B-29s — the “Enola Gay” and the “Bockscar” — dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, which compelled Japan to surrender, ending World War II.

Production ended in 1946, but the B-29s went on to fly all but 40 days of the 1,106-day air campaign during the Korean War, dumping more tonnage of bombs than they did on Japan in World War II. Some B-29s were converted to tanker aircraft and used during that war as well.

By 1955 and as the Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union grew, the U.S. built the bigger and more sophisticated B-52. It made the B-29s obsolete. Many were scrapped, while others were sent to “boneyards” in the California and Arizona deserts.

A B-29 bomber flying over the central valley of California.
Fifi – the first B-29 to return to flight.

A few were “rescued.” Among them, “Fifi” was in storage at the U.S. Naval Weapons Center and bombing range at China Lake in California’s Mojave Desert. The Commemorative Air Force acquired the plane in March 1971. By cannibalizing parts from other B-29s, volunteers were able to return it to air worthiness in just nine weeks. They flew “Fifi” to Texas, where it was restored and began flying again in 1974.

“Fifi” was the only flying B-29 until a second, named “Doc,” returned to flight in 2016. “Doc” also had been at the boneyard in the Mojave Desert before being acquired by the nonprofit “Doc’s Friends” in 1998.

They are only two B-29s flying today. “Fifi” has made numerous visits to California, including history tour events at Modesto and Sacramento.

The restored B-29 on display on a tarmac.
The restored B-29 – Doc – returned to the air in 2016.

In all, about two dozen B-29s — including “Fifi” and “Doc” — have been restored to complete form today. Three are on display at air museums in California: “Miss America 62” at the Travis Air Force Base Museum in Fairfield; “Raz’n Hell’ at Castle Air Museum in Atwater; and “Three Feathers” at March Field Air Museum in Riverside. (Click on the links to learn more about the museums, their operating hours, and their respective displays.)

“Doc” is scheduled to visit Chino Friday through Sunday at Yank’s Air Museum, and will be at InyoKern Airport near China Lake on October 1-3. Visit Doc’s Friends on Facebook for more information.

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