JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — The deep, ominous rumble of a Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber’s four engines, a sound that echoed throughout the Pacific Ocean during World War II, was heard again on Monday in the skies above Richland Township.
“Fifi,” one of only two B-29 Superfortresses in the world that still fly, touched down on Monday afternoon at John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, as did two other World War II-era aircraft belonging to the Commemorative Air Force, a Texas-based nonprofit dedicated to preserving and showing historical aircraft at airshows.
The 45-minute flight from Reading to Johnstown was “lovely,” said copilot Doug Rozendaal, of Clear Lake, Iowa: “We waited for the weather to improve. … As soon as it broke, we took off, and it just got better all the way.”
Rozendaal and pilot Tom Travis, of Monroe, Louisiana, both of whom have been members of the Commemorative Air Force for more than 30 years, are two members of the B-29’s six-member crew, which also includes a flight engineer and three “scanners,” who are tasked with monitoring the airplane’s condition and keeping an eye out for engine fires.
“Imagine driving an 18-wheeler with about nine flats,” Travis said, chuckling, when asked what it’s like to fly a B-29. “It’s ponderous. You put in the control inputs, but you don’t force it to go. You just suggest it goes in this direction or that direction. You’ve got to think way ahead.”
The Commemorative Air Force AirPower History Tour, which organizers say offers “powerful, hands-on history lessons to audiences across North America,” will open to the public in Johnstown on Wednesday.
Rozendaal said that he and his fellow Commemorative Air Force members do what they do because they’re determined “to keep the stories that these airplanes have to tell alive.” Explaining the importance of that mission, he pointed out that, in 1933, the “airliner of the day” was the Ford Trimotor, an unpressurized three-engine craft that was made of corrugated tin and flew at a top speed of 90 miles per hour.
Just 10 years later, the American aircraft industry had developed the state-of-the-art B-29 and other airplanes that were much more advanced than the relatively primitive Trimotor, Rozendaal added. Developed after World War II, the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, an innovative civilian airliner, was based on the B-29.
Said Rozendaal: “That’s a tribute to American productivity and ingenuity, and what we can do as a country when we’re all focused on a common goal. The reason why we do this … is to keep those memories and those stories and those lessons alive.”
Travis, Rozendaal and other Commemorative Air Force pilots have heard plenty of stories from airshow attendees – some of whom flew B-29 bombers into combat.
“When you taxi up to an air show, and a veteran comes out with a walker or a wheelchair and his family members bring him out to the plane, you can see the years melt away,” Travis said. “He starts talking, and he starts telling stories, and the kids will inevitably say, ‘He never told us that.’
“The veteran will say, ‘Aw, nobody wanted to hear that.’ ”
Even though it never saw combat – the Commemorative Air Force salvaged it in 1971 from the U.S. Navy Proving Ground at China Lake, California, where it had been destined to be used as a target for missile practice – “FIFI” is at the center of a few of those stories.
Paul Tibbets and Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk – the pilot and navigator, respectively, of “Enola Gay,” the B-29 from which the atomic bomb that destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima was dropped on Aug. 6, 1945 – have both flown “FIFI.” Van Kirk’s autograph is still visible on the map of Japan that’s laid out on the navigator’s table.
“We say we fly these planes to honor that generation,” Rozendaal said. “The greatest way that we can honor them is to make sure their sacrifice wasn’t in vain. If we forget those lessons – if we don’t carry those stories forward so people understand that freedom isn’t free and that, if we take it for granted, it can be gone in a generation – we’ll be forced to learn them again.”
“It’s important to remember that we don’t glorify war,” Travis added. “That’s not the purpose. It’s simply to commemorate those folks.”
Also landing at Johnstown on Monday were a P-51 Mustang flown by Paul Stojkov, a Cleveland resident and 30-year member of the Commemorative Air Force, and a C-45 Expeditor nicknamed “Bucket of Bolts.” The P-51 is nicknamed “Tuskegee Airmen” in honor of the eponymous group of African-American military pilots.
A North American Aviation T-6 Texan is expected to arrive later in the week.
The AirPower History Tour will be open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.