Editor’s Note: One of the highlights of EAA AirVenture 2017 was witnessing two B-29s flying together for the first time since they were in military service more than 50 years ago. Longtime Twin & Turbine readers may remember writer Doug Rozendaal, who through his prolific flying career, contributed a number of articles to this magazine. As Chief of Staff of the Commemorative Air Force and a longtime warbird pilot and enthusiast, he is a regular on the air show circuit, flying any number of warbirds. Earlier this year, he began flying the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, so we brought him back to find out what it is like to fly one of the biggest warbirds in the fleet.
My first job in aviation was over 30 years ago flying right seat in a DC-3 hauling overnight express packages. The co-pilot’s primary responsibility was humping 7,000 pounds of overnight letters and packages up the 12-degree incline created when the airplane was sitting on its tailwheel. That ignited a passion for old airplanes and that led me to warbirds. There, I came to appreciate the stories these airplanes can tell and the excitement they can create for young people, of all ages. (Yes, airplanes can make people feel young again.)
I have been richly blessed to fly many of the significant airplanes of WWII. Museums and private collectors need someone to fly an airplane and that provides an opportunity to fly a new type. For the last several years the leader of the Commemorative Air Force B-29/B-24 Squadron had been pushing me to come to their spring ground school and start the process of checking out in the CAF B-29, “FIFI.” This spring I agreed, and so I went to Texas for the annual spring ground school.
WWII aircraft are remarkably simple and share very common systems. The U.S. military recognized the benefits of standardization and many of the components are interchangeable between various models and even manufacturers. The voltage regulators are almost universal from a trainer built by North American to a bomber built by Boeing.
If the appliances are the same then the systems will almost certainly be similar. So often learning a new aircraft type is about learning the differences. The B-29 is a Boeing product and Boeing airplanes are almost entirely electric. Since I had not flown the B-17, I had some extra learning to accomplish. But with some home study prior to arrival, it all made sense, and I passed the written test at the end.
The next thing was to get scheduled for initial flight training. Back to the books again. One of the squadron members is a gifted technical writer and he has crafted expanded checklist procedures and flight profiles that make the transition easier. There are six pages of a challenge-and-response checklist that must be accomplished before the airplane leaves the ground, and five more before it is landed and parked. The co-pilot’s main responsibility is to manage that checklist. That, plus learning the flight manual and the limitations. There is quite a bit of head work to do before arriving at the airplane to fly.
“FIFI” is a big airplane. With a 141-foot wingspan and 110,000-pound gross weight, it is three times bigger than anything I had flown previously. Patience is not only a virtue in big piston airplanes, it is mandatory. From the time the crew assembles at the nose for a briefing until the airplane leaves the ground is at minimum 30 minutes. The flight engineer has already been at the airplane for a couple of hours fueling, oiling and pre-flighting the airplane. Each engine has up to 90 gallons of oil, and it might require 15 minutes of idle time on a cool morning to reach 40-degree Celsius oil temp before brake release.
Crew is a key word in flying the B-29. The normal crew in wartime was 11 and “FIFI” flies with 6. A pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer up front, plus left and right scanners, and a rear scanner/APU operator in the tailcone. These crew members have key roles in normal flight, and critical roles in emergencies. Getting the airplane in the air is a ceremony and requires clear and concise communication from everyone.
None of the WWII bombers had nose wheel steering and all of them have marginal brakes. Learning to taxi them is often harder than flying them. Fortunately, my B-25 experience was a huge help in taxiing the airplane. The brake chambers on these airplanes are large and the brake valves are basically pressure regulators. There is no feedback in the pedal other than a spring and a mild application of brake results in the fluid filling the brake chamber very slowly. Holding the appropriate pedal pressure, and waiting until the chamber fills will yield a nice brake application, but pushing the pedal until you feel, or hear, the brake engage, will result in a brake pressure far in excess of what’s desired. The brake barks, the tire squeals, the airplane lurches, in one direction and the pilot releases the brake quickly, only to have to restart the procedure on the other side to stop the excursion.
The CAF Airpower History Tour takes “FIFI” to airports unaccustomed to aircraft having a wingspan 23 feet longer than a 737. This often requires shutting down the No. 1 and 4 engines and “X-ing” the propellers to clear taxiway lights and signs. The outboard propellers clear the ground by a measly 28 inches, and the inboards only 14 inches. Obstructions and FOD are a major concern while taxiing.
The flight engineer (FE) is the hardest-working person on the airplane. The FE operates everything but the flight controls, gear and the flaps, including providing the hydraulic pressure to the brakes. The pilots have throttles, but other than for taxi and initial takeoff roll we never touch them. Power settings are called to the FE as needed. To eliminate confusion, power settings are called as individual numbers. So, lined up on the runway before brake release the pilot flying might call, “Engineer’s throttles, set manifold three-zero.” Flap settings are called as “Flaps 15.”
Lined up on the runway with the engines spooled up to 30 inches of manifold pressure, the pilot flying takes the throttles and releases the brakes. The 16-foot, 7-inch propellers provide a very strong left turning tendency. Using the brakes on takeoff roll is verboten, so the hot tip is to have the rudder fully deflected and lead with some power on the left side as the brakes are released. Early in the takeoff roll before the rudder is fully effective, full rudder deflection left and right may be required. The first decision speed is 80 miles per hour. Any problem prior to 80 is an abort. The next decision speed is 125. Directional control cannot be maintained with an engine out below this speed.
The airplane accelerates quickly, the gear comes up and the airplane climbs away nicely. This was not always the case. The B-29 was fitted with the first version of the Curtis-Wright R-3350-57. It was an engine before its time, and it suffered from numerous problems. Engine failures, engine fires and serious overheating problems were all just a way of life in the B-29. Large power reductions immediately after takeoff were mandatory and flying her was a struggle between cooling and climbing. Many lives were lost when B-29s ditched in the Pacific Ocean after engine problems.
The CAF flew “FIFI” until 2005 with the original engines and they were so unreliable the decision was made to ground the airplane. She sat sadly in our hangar in Midland, Texas for five years. It seemed she might never fly again, but that’s not how the CAF works. The entrepreneurial spirit of our members rose to the occasion and it was decided that maybe she could be refit with better engines. The problem was that the engine mounts were specific to the -57 engines and the nose case gear reduction needed to turn the huge propellers was a ridiculously low 0.35 to 1 reduction.
The solution was to build engines using the nose and accessory case from the -57 engine and the power section from a much more advanced 3350 used in the Douglas AD-1 Skyraider. The combination was tested on a test stand and it worked. This power section was significantly different and it required extensive modifications to the cowlings and an entirely new exhaust system, and it had to be done for all four engines. It was a massive undertaking made possible by a major donation from Jim Cavanaugh of the Cavanaugh Flight Museum in Addison, Texas. The new hybrid engines have performed very well and normal climb power settings can be maintained.
Once the airplane is up and flying at a cruise power, she indicates 190-200 mph. Add a 2 percent increase for every 1,000 feet of altitude, 200 KTAS is a good flight plan speed at 6,500 ft. This while gobbling up 500 gallons in the first hour and 400 per hour subsequent. But topped off with 5,460 gallons of avgas, she could go a very long way.
The flight controls are fly by wire, wire cables. There is no hydraulic boost on anything. The best way to fly is with one hand on the yoke and the other on the trim wheel. Push or pull to achieve the desired pitch and relieve that pressure by following with trim. The ailerons are fairly light by comparison, but the response is slow. She is very stable in pitch and roll and relatively stable in yaw at cruise speeds. Frankly delightful to fly in smooth air.
Large radial engines do not like abrupt power changes so the secret to an arrival is planning ahead. Initial flap speed in 220, but in order for the scanners to inspect the landing gear, it is lowered at 180 mph before initial flap extension. “Manifold 26” in level flight will get the airplane below that speed easily and the fun begins.
As the airplane slows, the flight controls become considerably less responsive. And the airplane becomes less stable, especially in yaw. Downwind at 170, base and 160, and decelerating to stable approach at 125. Stall speed in the landing configuration is 95 and the airplane is now a bit of a handful. The secret, as in any airplane is small corrections made early. Aileron inputs will result in adverse yaw that, uncorrected, will drag the nose several feet in the opposite direction of aileron application. Manifold 22 or 24 seems to be the power setting for the final. Getting slow in the landing configuration is a bad idea. It takes a big power increase to get the speed back.
The sight picture is unlike anything else. The entire nose of the airplane is covered in small windows with hefty frames to accommodate cabin pressurization. Every window seems to have a different index of refraction causing landmarks outside to appear in different places depending on which pane of glass they are observed through. Not having a nose in the traditional sense on the airplane also is a new experience. But if the airplane is stable on glideslope and on speed at about 50 feet, the call is “Ease ‘em off.”
This is the FE’s que to begin a gradual power reduction and the pilot flares in concert with the power reduction. If all goes according to plan, the airplane can be rolled on the runway in a most pleasing fashion, the nose is lowered and the residual thrust from the gigantic propellers continue to pull the airplane down the runway until the brakes are applied, CAREFULLY. Nothing to it. Right?
There are some other idiosyncrasies. On the rear of the fuselage below the horizontal stabilizer there is an electrically controlled tail skid that raises and lowers with the gear. One of the responsibilities of the Aft scanner/APU operator is to ensure that it extends. A line drawn from the main wheel to the tailskid is 5 degrees above level. This means that if the nose rises more the 5 degrees on landing, the tail will strike the skid.
Airplanes are intended to be flown and not driven. This means that for the most part, they should leave and return to the earth at the slowest possible speed. If the pilot happens to make the “ease ‘em off” call slightly early, or late and the airplane starts to settle, or bounces, any aviator knows that pulling back will soften the impending arrival. Wrong! The CAF paints the tailskid bright red and it bears the signature of the most recent remover of the paint. (At this writing that would be the author whose signature is augmented with two hash marks.)
A 5-degree landing pitch window from nosewheel first to tail strike is pretty narrow. With both hands on the yoke and the engineer on the throttles, calling for some power and getting the engines spun up before the arrival just isn’t going to happen. The solution is to swallow your pride, and ride out the firm arrival. The airplane takes it in stride, but it is not very rewarding to the pilot flying.
The reward in flying warbirds is not a “roll-on landing.” Flying these historic airplanes is about using them as a hook to bring young Americans to the airport. Our hope is they might come to know and understand the price that was paid for their freedom. The old CAF cliché “Lest We Forget” is more important today than ever. It’s so a granddad or grandmother will bring the current generation to the airport to see and touch an old airplane. Share stories about a time when we were losing the war in the Pacific. About a brother on a ship in the Pacific who never came home. Or a neighbor who walked on to the beach at Normandy and survived but brought home the scars left by walking among the bodies on the blood-stained sand of Omaha Beach.
Preserving and flying these airplanes to preserve those stories, good landing or bad landing, is rewarding work. And occasionally, a “roll-on landing” is nice too, especially nice because you know you earned it.