B-29 “Fifi” Needs Help

Until recently, the world’s only flyable WWII B-29 bomber was “Fifi,” operated by the Commemorative Air Force. Unfortunately, the airplane has…at least temporarily…lost its flyable status due to the need for expensive engine repairs. You can contribute to Fifi’s engine fund here.

The B-29 Superfortress was the most technically advanced bomber of WWII: it featured pressurization, a centralized fire-control system for its guns, and both higher speed and a greater bomb load than the B-17. Visually, it is also a very beautiful airplane, at least to my eye. Design of the aircraft that was to become the Superfortress began in 1938 with the receipt by Boeing of a request from the Army Air Corps–Boeing funded much of the initial development itself since the Air Corps did not at that point have funding for the project. The initial production order was not placed until May 1941…remarkably, production aircraft were being delivered by the end of 1943…total production would reach almost 4000 aircraft. Thousand of subcontractors were involved. My back-of-the-envelope calculation  based on numbers in this factsheet suggests that there must have been somewhere around 100,000 workers involved at one level or another in B-29 production.

Japanese fighter pilot Ryuji Nagatsuka described his first encounter with the B-29, on a combat training mission in late 1944:

At a distance of 1000 feet, I had a clear view of this famous bomber for the first time. It was like some fabulous flying castle. Its elegant, uncamouflaged fuselage made me think of a monstrous flying fish. What imposing fins, what a rudder! The most disquieting thing about it was those six domes: two gun turrets on its back and four defense turrets operated by remote control…The four engines developed 8800 horsepower. The white star that stood out against a black background seemed to me like a challenge. It was the mark of the enemy.

The efficacy of the B-29’s centralized fire control system…which provided not only remote control of the guns but automatic computer calculation of necessary offsets (“leads”) to hit the target…has been questioned–but Nagatsuka gives it a good review:

Their central firing computer, controlling the gun turrets by remote control, had proved extraordinarily efficient. An isolated B-29, on a photographic mission one day over the Nipponese archipelago, had been attacked by more than ninety of our fighters, and, lo and behold, the enemy plane, which was not equipped for a bombing mission, managed to repulse their attack by climbing to a very high altitude and putting on all possible speed. During this battle, which lasted more than half an hour, he shot down seven of our fighters and finally escaped.

However, most of the gunnery equipment was removed from the B-29s when US General Curtis LeMay ordered a change in tactics from high-altitude day bombing to low-altitude night bombing, focusing on the use of incendiary bombs. Wide areas of Toyko and several other cities were destroyed: the total number of Japanese killed in these raids has been estimated variously but was certainly at least 100,000.

In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school

They said, ‘Here are the maps’; we burned the cities.

(Randall Jarrell)

We’ve talked here before about the dangers of the loss of historical knowledge. I believe that keeping FiFi flying is a useful contribution to maintaining the continuity of American historical memory. Again, you can donate here.

Some links:

ShrinkWrapped has published his father’s recollections of flying 50 missions as a B-24 tail gunner. There are 6 different posts in the collection–start at the bottom for the first one.

Thoughts about strategic bombing at my post Dresden

Excerpts of some of Randall Jarrell’s WWII Air Corps poems, here

The Ryuji Nagatsuka quotes are from his memoir I Was a Kamikaze (obviously, an unsuccessful one)…an interesting book that is worthy of a review one of these days.


16 thoughts on “B-29 “Fifi” Needs Help”

  1. I didn’t know there was one flying. They had terrible engine problems which is why there is only one. They couldn’t handle jets in Korea. To deal with the engine problems, the plane was modified and later called the B 50 which had larger engines and a taller tail fin. I don’t know if any B 50s are flying. The plane was originally called the B 29D but to evade Congress shutting down war production rules, the name was changed.

  2. A major problem one faces in Paris is that it is very difficult to do any remodelling. It seems that every building is a historical landmark, or the site where someone was taking a bath when his girl friend killed him or where he discovered somee principle of poetry.

    The notion of tearing down every building in four city blocks, clearing the land bare so that no stone stands on another stone, and replacing it with a brand new Walmart and Paris’s only decent size parking lot, is unthinkable and beyond barbaric.

    The past can prevent the future and condemn everyone to life styles hundred of years old. Without growth and modernization, countries fall apart.

    American bombers played a vital role in modernizing Japan and Germany. They cut through the red tape and levelled whole cities so that all the Japanese and Germans had to do was rebuild. And the US set up governments and funding to make rebuilding happen.

    Great looking plane.

  3. NOTE: The linked collection of WWII stories from ShrinkWrapped’s father, which I highly recommend, somehow does not include the most recent post in the series, which can be found here.

  4. It is a machine that generated Hell on Earth and devoured hundreds of thousands of lives, yet it is a majestic and beautiful thing nonetheless.

    The Japanese were insane to go to war with us.

  5. They also discovered a phenomenon for which they had to answer at the time – designed for high altitude bombing, so many of the bombs – wit hthe Norden bombsight – were way off the mark.

    The B29 taught them about he jetstream – and is one of the reasons the raids on Japan were low altitude.

  6. Mike – if you ever find your way going up Hwy 99, stop at Atwater and the old Castle AFB. They still have the fabulous museum there, including a B-36 (only one I have seen) … and a B50. It had different wings too IIRC.

    The heartbreaking thing about FiFi – they knew of the problems of the original Wright Cyclones, put a slightly different version of the Wright in – had to re-engineer the cowling – and a year or so later – down.

  7. No Lex, not insane, just blinded by their own very powerful cultural delusions.

    It has been a common problem, and reoccurring theme, of all of our military encounters.

    Repeatedly, from the Revolution on, our opponents saw us as weak and disorganized, lacking in the proper martial spirit, and weakened by our multi-ethnic society, devoid of any aristocracy of birth or ideology.

    In the modern era, we faced some of the most ferociously deadly opponents in history, and their underestimation of our capabilities and resolve was crucial to their defeat.

    Currently, we are again facing an enemy which dangerously misjudges us, an error which may lead another fanatical antagonist to take that fatal step which arouses a total response, and their total destruction.

  8. “Mike – if you ever find your way going up Hwy 99, stop at Atwater and the old Castle AFB. They still have the fabulous museum there, including a B-36 (only one I have seen) … and a B50. It had different wings too IIRC. ”

    Bill, my father worked as a machinist on the B 36 one winter when the golf range was closed. He could do anything mechanical. In Spring they wanted him to stay and become the foreman but the golf range was beckoning. He had never done machining before. He picked it up in a month and that was before computer milling machines.

    There’s a great segment of a flying B 36 in “Strategic Air Command” with Jimmy Stewart. It also shows him flying a B 47. One big problem with the B 47 was going potty. I don’t know if they had relief tubes then.

  9. Mike – I love the checklist and startup sequence in that movie – 6 piston engines and 4 jets

    On the B47 I wondered if here was a way the crew could step down from the canopy (like a Lancaster?) or were they stuck there for the duration?

    If so it would have been a rater uncomfortable plane to fly, considering the durations

  10. There is a B-47 at the MIghty Eighth Air Force museum near Savannah. I was there a couple of months ago. Jeff Sypeck also visited there recently, and wrote this post.

    Some of the stained glass windows in the chapel are…unusual. One of them has the logo of one of the bomb groups, featuring the word “DESTROY,” and underneath it the angriest-looking image of Jesus you’ve ever seen.

  11. The Wiki article on LABS (Low Altitude Bombing System used to deliver nuclear bombs), which I found via the B-29/50 entry, mentions a LABS demonstration with a B-47. The aircraft entered a 3/4 loop from low altitude and released the bomb while pointed approximately straight up. I suspect they didn’t do this maneuver in the B-36.

  12. There’s a B 47 in Tucson at the Davis-Monthan museum, which is outdoors, of course. The church at the Georgia museum resembles one I visited with friends in England.

    I think the B 47 crew were stuck. There’s a nice, and long, Wiki article on the B 47. It had a third crewman below the cockpit but they were all in ejection seats.

  13. The B-47 crew weren’t stuck. There was a narrow passageway along the left-hand side below the level of the canopy. The crew access door was on the left behind the radome bulge under the nose. The “crew relief containers” were stored under the pilot floor accessible from the walkway according to one of the manuals for the B-47A (see sec. 1-169). They had access to the bomb bay by going further back, but I’m not sure if that was possible without depressurizing the cockpit. Here’s a pic from the walkway from close to the navigator’s position looking upward. Interestingly, this manual says the B-47A’s bombardier/navigator’s ejection seat wasn’t downward-firing like other sources say (and pictures show with a Google search). It says there was a jettisonable escape hatch in front of the canopy, after which the seat would fire upward. I suspect the upward-firing navigator’s ejection seat was in early production aircraft, and later changed to downward-firing. I would think that that hatch jettisoning in front of the canopy could potentially be hazardous to the pilot (who would normally eject last). These weren’t “zero-zero” seats, though, so you still needed some altitude and airspeed to survive an ejection. Any extras on the aircraft had to bail out the old fashioned way, so forget survival unless you got out at least several hundred feet up (and higher yet if the aircraft had any downward velocity). The B-47B eliminated ejection seats completely to save weight, only to be brought back in later versions to the great relief of the crews.

  14. Good detective work, Larry. They also have ashtrays. I would think that getting to the relief container would be a chore in a pressure suit. One reason why hemorrhoids are a universal characteristic of pilots, especially fighter pilots, is the problem of relief.

Comments are closed.