By Scott Hamilton
May 24, 2022, © Leeham News: I’ve ridden in the Boeing B-17 and the Consolidated B-24 bombers. There’s the Douglas DC-3, which I had a chance to pilot, the Ford Tri Motor, the Convair 240, and the Douglas DC-7B that I’ve ridden in as well. I wasn’t about to pass up the chance to ride in the Boeing B-29 when I learned it would be here in Seattle at the Museum of Flight and a media seat was still available.
The B-29 was a World War II crash effort to build a long-range bomber with more range and payload than the B-17 or even the B-24. With a range of 3,250 statute miles, it compares with the B-17’s 2,000sm range and the B-24’s 1,540sm. The B-29 was fast for its day: a cruising speed of 220 mph vs 182 and 215 for the B-17 and B-24. Dimensionally, it was a much larger aircraft than the other planes.
And, of course, it was the B-29 that dropped the atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II.
“Doc,” the B-29 that visited Seattle last week, was built in March 1945 by what was then Boeing’s Wichita (KS) factory (now Spirit Aerosystems). Doc didn’t serve in combat. After it was built, it went to New York as a radar calibration airplane. After being retired by the Navy (yes, the Navy), the aircraft sat for 42 years in the desert before being acquired for restoration. It returned to flying status in 2016. Hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours and tangible and intangible costs equalling about $30m went into restoring the airplane. The full history may be found here.
Although Doc did not serve in combat, it represents a piece of history that helped end World War II. The Foundation tours the airplane as a tribute to this history, to the Greatest Generation of WW II vets and those that served in the US Armed Forces after the war. Doc arrived in Seattle May 17 after a stop in Spokane (WA) for an air show at the Fairchild Air Force Base. The aircraft does not have pressurization anymore—the WW II models did—so it flew across the state at about 6,500 ft and between 185-200 knots.
A group of media and others who somehow learned of Doc’s planned arrival at Boeing Field gathered by the Museum of Flight, which arranged the media flight and coordinated the public events for May 19-22. The MOF has its own B-29 on a permanent static display. Named T-Square 54, this bird was in combat in the Pacific during WW II.
The B-29’s development was rushed in the heat of the war. Production began without building a prototype. A test flight crashed early in the program following an engine fire. The B-29’s Pratt & Whitney R-3350 engines were temperamental and prone to failure, including fires, throughout the war.
The media took a short, 24 minutes flight north of the city. As one can imagine, with no need or desire for noise or insulation, the four big R-3350s were noisy. With no insulation, the interior was chilly (ground temperature was in the low 50Fs. Control cables are exposed.
We took off to the south from Boeing Field. To avoid the final approaches to Sea-Tac Airport, we turned left sharply—to avoid Renton Airport—and flew north for 12 minutes before returning. We climbed to 1,500 feet.
Crew members sat in the rear gunner seats watching the landing gear and flap settings, confirming visually what instruments told the cockpit about raising and lowering the gear and flaps. We passengers had a short time of freedom to take pictures out of the gunner dome plexiglass. The aft end of the B-29 is connected to the nose via a small tunnel, but for this short flight, we weren’t permitted to go fore and aft.
Throughout the taxiing and flight, we were tied into the ground and ATC control, able to listen to all conversations. The intercoms allowed us to hear all the pilot-to-cockpit crew chatter. Upon returning to Boeing Field, we made a rare three-point landing. “There’s something you don’t see every day,” an unidentified voice said over the radio with the tower. It was unclear if he was referring to the three-point landing or the B-29—or both.
The B-29 was the basis for Boeing’s first post-war airliner, the Stratocruiser. The B-29 fuselage, wings, tail, and engines were the basis of the C-97 freighter, a late-WWII design that mated a bubble top to the fuselage to form a figure 8 look. The C-97 was civilianized into the Stratocruiser after the war using the tail from the B-50 follow-on bomber from the B-29. Larger P&W R-4360 piston engines were added, which like the R-3350 were temperamental. The airplane had a lower deck lounge, making the Stratocruiser one of the iconic airliners of the piston era. But it was expensive to operate, and the engine/propeller combination caused several accidents. Only 56 Stratocruisers were built, but 888 KC-97 aerial refueling tankers were produced. The Stratocruiser served as a bridge aircraft for Boeing until the 707 program was launched in 1954.
Short videos are here:
Doc’s tour schedule may be found here. The Doc Foundation is a 501c3 charitable group. Donations may be made here. It costs about $10,000 per hour to operate the aircraft. This covers all overhead burdens to support the hangar, insurance, maintenance, and operating costs. Fuel costs between $4,000-$5,000 per hour.