When I first saw Doc in 2013, the B-29 was in a Boeing Quonset hut hangar unpolished with faded nose art and missing engines. Today, after more than 16 years of restoration, it is an active flying tribute to the Greatest Generation. As its third airshow season approaches, we received a private tour of the airplane’s newly opened hangar and education space.
In November of 2018, nonprofit Doc’s Friends officially welcomed its restored B-29 (“Doc”) into a brand new 32,000 square-foot facility located at Wichita’s Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport. After nearly five years of architectural planning, fundraising and construction, it all came together.
“The most exciting part was when they opened the hangar door and rolled Doc inside,” said Sam Frey, Doc’s Friends hangar design committee chair and partner at Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture (SJCF). “I was enormously relieved he fit!”
Upon arriving to the hangar, visitors are immediately greeted by the B-29 through the building’s expansive glass windowpanes. Frey likes to think of the hangar’s frontal design as a metaphor; the large glass window is the frame with Doc as the big picture.
Frey and his team were tasked not only with creating a functional hangar space but a place to honor previous generations and inspire future ones.
“The vision behind the hangar was to build something where the public could see and experience the B-29,” said Josh Wells, Doc’s Friends general manager and executive director. “There is no other facility in the world where you can walk right up to a B-29, touch it, crawl in it and learn about it as it’s being worked on.”
The facility’s layout offers ample space for school groups, large events and conference rooms for crew training and pilot briefings. An enormous image of Doc flying over its hometown of Wichita is featured on the wall behind the reception desk. The lobby also features a gift shop area, gathering space (situated under a B-29 wing replica) and a commemorative “Veterans” wall.
To enter the hangar, you must walk through two (secured) double glass doors. Doc is showcased on a gleaming, well-polished floor with organized supply and maintenance rooms on both sides (you can imagine the amount of tooling required to keep a 1944 aircraft flying).
The warbird faces the front glass overlooking the “hero plaza.” The plaza displays numerous bricks and stones purchased by people from all over the world looking to honor loved ones and support the Doc’s Friends mission.
From the second-floor balcony, visitors can overlook the entire airplane while also browsing the various displays and artifacts lining the walls and floor. The Doc’s Friends hangar design committee visited museums for inspiration as well as turned to a local space museum, the Cosmosphere, to help bring Doc’s story to life. With a simple stroll, visitors are able to gain a solid appreciation and understanding of the B-29’s role in WWII.
Doc previously operated out of McConnell Air Force Base where the aircraft was at the mercy of the Federal Government, Air Force and Air Capital Flight Line security. Now in its new home, Doc’s Friends expects operations of the B-29 to be simpler but the group must still adhere to security measures laid out by the FAA, TSA, Airport Authority and the Airport Police Department.
One of the issues Doc faced during the restoration phase was the Kansas weather. The aircraft was often required to be outside in the elements, and if the temperatures dropped below 50 degrees, the oil in the engines started to thicken and grounded the aircraft – halting any engine runs or flying. But now, in its new heated hangar, the B-29 is well protected and can withstand a longer flying season.
B-29 Doc “ride experiences” will begin in April, with the 2019 tour season kicking off in May. The group plans to travel to 12 to 15 air shows throughout the year. The ultimate goal is for the aircraft and the facility to be self-sustainable. All proceeds from airshow fees, ride experiences and merchandise sales go directly into maintaining the aircraft and facility.
Crew and Volunteers
Support from the Commemorative Air Force and FIFI crew is instrumental as Doc’s Friends works toward finding and training its own full crew. Former KC-135 and B-1 Bomber pilot Mark Novak is the group’s chief pilot and also handles the scheduling of the crew. While crewmembers are primarily based in the Midwest, the team is open to bringing in others from across the country.
Doc’s Friends currently has around 100 active volunteers with 30 to 40 being day-to-day regulars. The team has been busy with standard winter maintenance with the year’s first test flights scheduled for late March. The hangar also opens to the public this month.
“We are always looking for ways to bring more people on, and will soon start a volunteer recruitment process to start bringing in that next generation,” said Wells. “The greatest compliment we can give our volunteers is that their legacy will continue. We want Doc to outlive all of us.”
For more information or to support the Doc’s Friends mission, visit www.b29doc.com.