A YEAR IN THE B-29 "SUPERFORTRESS"
by Fred Carl Gardner
By May, 1944, I had been at Gardner Army Air Field near Taft, California for more than a year. My job designation was "Aircraft Maintenance Engineering Officer." I was a first lieutenant by this time and was pretty well "settled-into" my job. How I happened to be assigned to Gardner AAF is another story, and one which in its implications, borders on the "supernatural." I worked under Captain Gillespie, a veteran of the old "brown-shoe air force." Prior to the rapid build-up of the Air Corps, he had been a master sergeant and a "line chief." With the dire need for experienced aircraft maintenance engineering officers, he had been sent through an officers training course, and commissioned "Captain." Upon being assigned to "Gardner." a year earlier, I had been placed in the 741st Aircraft Maintenance Engineering Squadron as Captain Gillespies assistant. I helped with the routine paperwork, "rode herd" on the mechanics, and flew BT-13s and AT-6s on required test flights. This kind of test flying was pretty tame, since it consisted mainly of putting the airplanes through the standard "school maneuvers" prior to releasing them for student flight training.
In mid-May of 1944, everything changed. At that time, I received orders assigning me to "Temporary Duty" at McClellan AAF, to take a refresher course in the "Aircraft Maintenance Engineering." There were about forty other Air Corps aircraft maintenance engineering officers also enrolled in the course. They were all from Army Air Fields located in the geographical area encompassed by the Western Flying Training Command. The headquarters of that command was Santa Ana, California. After getting acquainted with the other student officers, and "comparing notes," we were all somewhat puzzled concerning the reason we had been assigned to this course of training. After a short time in the course, however, we began to have an inkling regarding the reason we were there. There was a heavy emphasis on the operation of the Wright R-3350, 2200 horsepower engine. That was the engine that powered the B-29. Another clue soon emerged. We were all rated Air Corps pilots, currently on full flying status. There were no "ground-pounders," (non-rated officers) among us. At this point in my story, I should mention that the B-29 program was undergoing a great expansion to build up a force of B-29s to be based on the islands of Guam, Tinian, and Saipan. These islands had only recently been taken from the Japanese.
After approximately three weeks at McClellan, we completed the course and all forty of us returned to our respective bases. I must have been at Gardner for about three days when a telegram arrived for me. The telegram was an "order" It directed my to travel to Maxwell Army Air Field, near Montgomery, Alabama, for a course of training in the B-29. The course was identified as " B-29 Flight Engineer Instructor Training Course." My orders specified "priority air travel." After I arrived at Maxwell and got "settled-in" at my assigned BOQ (Bachelor's Officer Quarters), I went out for a walk to get familiar with the base, then went to the Officers Club for dinner. Both during my walk and during dinner, I began to encounter guys who I had become acquainted with at McClellan. Of course, all of us had many unanswered questions.
During the evening we traded rumors and speculations concerning what
the future held for us. The next morning we were all assembled for a briefing.
The major in charge briefed us somewhat as follows:
1. You are all rated, and current, Air Corps pilots. All of you also hold the "Aircraft
Maintenance Officer Occupational Specialty Rating."
2. The Air Corps is in the process of creating a B-29 strike force based on the new air
fields being built on the Mairiannas Islands.
3. To create this strike force, the Air Corps has designated several existing Army Air
Fields, located throughout the continental United States, as facilities to be used for
the initial training of pilots, co-pilots, and flight engineers in the B-29.
4. After your training here at Maxwell AAF, you will be assigned to one of the bases in
the Western Flying Training Command. Your primary duty will be to train B-29
5. Our plan is to crew each B-29 with three pilots. Therefore, you will be given pilot train-
ing, as well as flight engineer training, in the B-29, and will be qualified in its basic
flight operations, including takeoffs, landings, and emergency operations. This plan
assures that the flight engineer will be qualified to act as the pilot-in-command of the
airplane in the event the aircraft commander and second-in-command are incapacitated.
The three-man crews you train will all be qualified to act as both pilot and flight engineer.
The morning after this briefing, we were all assembled again by the major in charge and told that all of the B-29s in the entire fleet were being modified in an attempt to alleviate an engine over-heating problem. He said the airplanes would be grounded for approximately two weeks and that we would attend ground school classes during that time.
The major described the changes that were being made in the B-29s
1. "Cuffs" are being added to the shafts of the propellers. This would hopefully increase
the flow of air through the forward opening of the engine cowling.
2. The "baffling" around the cylinders are being modified direct a higher velocity
airflow around the cooling fins of the cylinders.
3. The engine nacelle cowl flaps are being modified and enlarged to increase the over-all
volume of air flowing around the cylinders during ground operations.
As "time would tell," these changes didnt do a lot of good during hot summertime operations at Roswell, New Mexico AAF.
After approximately two weeks, the changes were completed and we began our flying training. As flight engineer trainees, our curriculum included weight and balance control, cruise control procedures, pre-flight , exterior and interior inspection, starting procedures, in-flight procedures, emergency procedures including propeller feathering and unfeathering, shut-down procedures, and post-flight procedures. In addition, there were the procedures that applied during night flying.
As we progressed through our training, our group became smaller for various reasons. I should mention here that none of us were particularly enthusiastic about becoming flight engineer instructors. Even though we would be given enough flight training to handle the B-29 in an emergency, our primary duty was not that of "pilot," and heretofore, piloting airplanes had been our primary duty. Sitting in the flight engineers seat, or instructing a flight engineer trainee who was sitting in that seat, meant "flying backward." That was totally contrary to the pilot instincts that had been drilled into us from the first day we started pilot training. During our flight training as aviation cadets, we had been constantly drilled to "look around," Our flight instructors had cautioned us on every dual flight to "keep your head on a swivel," and look around for other airplanes. "See and be seen," was the motto. The refrain, "a stiff neck is better that a broken one," was the "watchword." Now we were riding backwards, with our attention riveted on the flight engineers panel.
It was very frustrating. We even wrote a song about it, titled, "Through the Universe in Reverse." I cant remember the song now, but it was filled with profanity and expressed our frustrations. There were many times, particularly in the traffic pattern during night landing practice, that I could not keep myself from standing in a half-crouch, between the pilot and the co-pilot seats looking for other traffic. One night it "paid-off." The night was moonless and pitch-black, and B-29s in the pattern were closely spaced. I was in that crouched position between the pilot and co-pilot, looking ahead, right, and left. Suddenly, I saw the dim shape of another B-29 ahead, below us to the right.
The control tower and the mobile control unit had somehow missed that B-29 and now we were on a "collision course" for the "approach end" of the same runway. I yelled, B-29 at two o'clock low!!! Now the pilot in the co-pilots seat saw that B-29 and immediately initiated a "go-around." Not following SOP (standard operating procedure), in this case, saved the lives of twenty men, including my own!!
Our training continued on into the autumn, then into the winter. Of course, there were "R&R" interludes at the Officers Club and at a pilots "hang-out" in downtown Montgomery called the "Drum Room." It seemed to us that the training would never end, but since this whole B-29 project was new to everyone, the thoroughness was understandable.
Finally, about the middle of January, 1945, our training was completed with our successful performance on the final "check rides" given by the major in charge. Some of the trainees "busted" checks and had to go up for "re-checks," but since our trainers had invested so much time and effort training us, no one was "washed out."
I think it was on January 16, 1945, that I was issued my "travel voucher" for the trip back to Gardner AAF. For some unknown reason, only train travel was authorized. That was hard to understand, since I had been required to travel "air priority" from Gardner AAF to Maxwell AAF several months earlier. The military travel office worked in "strange and mysterious ways" in those days. Be that as it may, I packed my B-4 bag and an old barracks bag and boarded a train composed of old coaches that had been resurrected from some railroad storage yard, for wartime service. Some of the coaches were of wood construction, and from their appearance, could have been in use during the previous century. The train headed west along the southern border of the United States. The coaches were filled with men from all branches of the service, but mostly from the army. Since there was no air conditioning, all of the windows were wide open. Of course, the air inside the coaches was filled with dust. As we progressed west along the southern border of Arizona, the temperature inside the coaches must have reached at least one hundred degrees. As I remember, the trip took two days and one night. It was a "slow boat to China." The "travel office" must have forgotten, or have been unaware, that commissioned personnel were required to travel "first class" when on official business. Well, I was a first lieutenant on official business, but it seemed that I was traveling just one level above "caboose class."
Two days and one night passed before I arrived at the Los Angeles railway depot. From L.A., I took a bus to Taft, then took a taxi to a garage where I had stored my car. I drove out to Gardner AAF and parked by my BOQ. My room looked the same as it did when I left it about five months earlier. I walked around the base for a short time, then went to the Officers Club for lunch. There I met several old friends.
One of them said, "You returned just in time to close the base." My friends told me that most of the pilots and other personnel involved in cadet training had already departed. They had been re-assigned to other training facilities in the Western Flying Training Command. I didnt see any "WASPS" around, so I asked where they were. I was told that the entire WASP (Womens Auxiliary Service Pilot) program had been disbanded the previous November. It was now January 20, 1945, as I remember. After lunch, I walked to my old office at the 741st maintenance squadron. The squadron was down to a "skeleton force." Most of the mechanics had been "shipped-out." Captain Gillespie had been reassigned to Marana AAF, Arizona. Only one or two of the pilots who did test flying with me were still on the base.
I probably spent two days at Gardner, when I received a telegram with orders to report to Roswell AAF, near Roswell, New Mexico. I was authorized "private transportation." As I recall, I was ordered to report to Roswell in about three days. The next step was to "clear the base."
I went through that procedure without a hitch until I reached the dental clinic. The dentist (a captain) informed me that he couldn't "clear" me with my front dental bridge in its present condition, and with two of my front teeth in their present "state of decay." Then he removed the bridge, two of my front teeth, signed off my clearance, and sent me on my way. Note: At Roswell AAF, I had to go by the moniker, "Snag-tooth Gardner" until I could get my bridge replaced. That took about a month.
After I had "signed-in" at the base Headquarters and had been assigned a BOQ room, I began to "run into" the guys I had been with at McClellan and Maxwell. Again, we went though the routine of exchanging rumors and surmises regarding our future. As time went on, there would be unofficial, semi-official, and outright "educated guesses" coming down to us in that regard. None of us had been "overseas," so it was a near certainty that we would not remain in the "state-side" category much longer.
Now we began our training operations. The first step was to "team-up" an Instructor Pilot (IP) with a Flight Engineer Instructor. Those two "worked as a team" and had to be compatible. I have no idea how this "team-up" was accomplished. I think it was mostly "by guess and by God." As I remember, during the first week, I flew with more than one IP, all of whom were new acquaintances. About the time we got into the second week, I found that I was I was "teamed regularly" with a first lieutenant, about my age. I cant even remember his name now, but together, we trained three-man crews until the end of WW II.
The work (flying) schedule was rather complex. The schedule was based on several requirements. One requirement was that the B-29s had to be utilized to the maximum. This meant keeping them in training operations as near to twenty-one hours a day as possible. This meant that the airplanes would be in a "flying training mode" for three "seven-hour shifts" out of the available twenty-four hours.
Another requirement was "rest-time" for the "IP" and "FE instructor." Still another requirement was the "meshing" of ground training schedule of the trainees with their flying schedule.
The accommodation of these requirements resulted in the establishment of a rather complex flying schedule.
Here is an example of a 24-hour schedule, as it would apply to three IP/FE teams flying the same airplane:
1. "IP/FE Instructor team" No. 1 -- Reports for briefing at 3:00 A.M.
2. Team No. 1-- Starts flying at 4:00 A.M.
3. Team No. 1 -- In chocks at 11:00 A.M.
This results in seven hours flight time for Team No.1.
1. "IP/FE instructor team" No. 2 - Reports for briefing at 11:00 A.M.
2. Team No. 2 -- Starts flying at 12:00 noon.
3. Team No. 2 -- In chocks at 7:00 P.M.
This results in seven hours flight time for Team No.2.
1. "IP/FE instructor team No. 3 - Reports for briefing at 7:00 P.M.
2. Team No. 3 -- Starts flying at 8:00 P.M.
3. Team No. 3 -- In chocks at 3:00 A.M.
This results in seven hours flight time for Team No.3.
Thus, the airplane is in the air twenty-one hours out of the twenty-four. Although this was the "planned training usage" of the B-29s at Roswell, and the plan didnt always "work-out," it was surprising how often we did conform to the planned schedule. Of course, there were "glitches," but I do know that most of the time, the engines of those B-29s "cooled-down" only when they were taken out of service for routine inspections, or for unexpected maintenance problems.
The above discussion concerns "airplane utilization." Now, Ill discuss the "IP/FE" work/rest schedule. This schedule was complicated and was devised to utilize the two instructors adequately, give them enough rest, and not require them to exceed a specified number of flying hours per month. What that figure was (maximum number of flying hours per month), I never knew. It just seemed like it was a "balls-to-the-wall" operation from the word go!!!
Returning to the "IP/FE" work/rest schedule, here is an example:
Team No.1 finishes the 3:00 A.M to 11:00 A.M. shift. That team is then "off duty" until 8:00 P.M. the next day. This gives team No. 1 thirty-three hours of rest and free time. As I said earlier, the schedule was complicated and most of us had to write it down. Incidentally, flying training continued 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The pilot trainees were mostly B-17 and B-24 pilots. Some of them had flown a few missions against Germany; some of them had completed all of their missions, and wanted to fly the B-29. Some of them had only flown those airplanes in the "training command." The co-pilot trainees were a "mixed bag." They had less flying time than the pilot trainees and in many cases were not rated in four-engine airplanes. The flight engineer trainees were even more of a "mixed bag." They were mostly "low-time" single-engine and twin-engine pilots. (As I said earlier, the plan was to have three pilots in each B-29.) At this point in my story, I will describe a problem that arose in May or June of 1945. By this time, the war in Europe was over and pilot training had been reduced drastically. There were many newly-trained pilots who had been through "fighter transition" in P-40s, P-39s .P-47s, and P-51s. The Air Corps didnt need them now as fighter pilots, so the decision was made to make them B-29 flight engineers. That was a bad decision! The last thing these "fighter jocks" wanted to do was "FLY THROUGH THE UNIVERSE IN REVERSE" (Remember the song?) Well, we began to get them into our B-29 training program as flight engineer trainees. Their morale was terrible! The whole issue came to a head when four of them were out getting their four hours a month proficiency flying in two BT-13s, had a mid-air collision, and killed themselves.. As a "quick fix," the operations officer made the decision that these "fighter jock FE trainees" would get their four hours a month proficiency time, DUAL!!!
I think that decision was contrary to regulations and it wasnt in effect very long. During he time it was in effect, I spent some of my "free time" flying DUAL with these disgruntled fighter jocks.
It wasnt long before the idea of making fighter pilots over into flight engineers was TRASHED. The training command got wise and adopted the plan of training well qualified enlisted mechanics as B-29 flight engineers. Their morale was "sky-high." Becoming a B-29 flight engineer was a great advancement for them. Upon successful completion of their training they were given the rank of "warrant officer." I dont know what the Air Corps did with those disgruntled fighter jocks. I was happy not to have to fly dual with them while they were getting their "four hours a month proficiency flying."
By early summer of 1945, we had established a reasonably successful routine. We were turning out three-man crews on a regular schedule. However, as the summer temperatures increased, we were having more and more problems with engine over-heating. By July, the temperature on the ramp, was frequently 125 degrees F. The pilots taxied to the "run-up" position as expeditiously as possible, then parked and we flight engineers checked the magnetos. On a hot day, the cylinder head temperature of the engines would be approaching the "red-line." It was "SOP" that the take-off would not be initiated unless the cylinder head temperatures were below the red-line. I must admit that we "fudged" a little on that rule. It should be a noted here that the engine cowl flaps were always opened to the maximum during ground operations for maximum engine cooling. After the mag check had been completed, the B-29 was cleared for takeoff, and lined-up on the runway. As the pilot advanced the throttles to the takeoff power setting, the flight engineer actuated four toggle switches to reduce the cowl flap setting to seven degrees (the "trail" position). This reduction was necessary because of the great amount of "drag" imposed by by wide-open cowl flaps. Now the B-29 accelerated down the runway to reach "rotation" speed. When this was attained, the pilot "rotated" to the takeoff pitch attitude and the airplane entered a climb. It was a "sweat-job" all the way. As the airplane accelerated down the runway, the flight engineer had his eyes glued to the instruments as he brought the cowl flaps down to the "trail" position. If the takeoff was started with the cylinder head temperatures near the red-line (which was always the case on a hot day), it was certain those temperatures would climb above the red-line during the takeoff run and initial climb. Actually, it was worse than that. On a hot day, I would watch those temperatures climb past the red-line to the very limit of the gauge. I had no idea how hot those cylinder heads got. The pilots were acutely aware of what was going on, therefore, as soon as the B-29 became airborne, the landing gear was retracted and a climb configuration was established. Now, in an attempt to bring the temperatures down within limits, the pilot established a shallow climb and reduced power to a minimum safe setting. Now, we would fly for miles at a minimum climb rate to get the temperatures back below the red-line. After that was accomplished,the pilot would establish a slightly steeper climb, maybe five hundred feet a minute. While this was going on, the pilots and the flight engineer concentrated their attention to detect any indication of backfiring. If an engine started back-firing, it was SOP to "feather it." Here is the reason: B-29s of the vintage we were flying had magnesium supercharger sections. This reduced weight, but the magnesium was prone to start burning if back-firing occurred. Therefore, we "feathered" at the first indication of a backfire.
I remember one one occasion where failure to "feather" or a delayed or improper "feathering procedure" nearly had dire consequences. One day about noon, after our crew had returned to the briefing room after a morning flight, the flight commander directed us and the other crews in the room to go out to the parking spot where a particular B-29 was parked. As we approached it, we could see that number two engine was missing. We then climbed up on a "crew chief stand" and looked at the top of the left wing. The engine had burned off and dropped from the nacelle; a strip wing metal skin about three feet wide had burned off down to the self-sealing fuel tank. A sizable portion of the tank was scorched and plainly visible. The crew had come within a "hairs-breadth" of "buying the farm." That was the expression used in those days for a "fatal accident."
I have gone into some detail in the foregoing passage to acquaint the reader with the critical problem of engine over-heating that the crews of the early B-29s faced.
All in all, we were very lucky at Roswell. We had a lot of "near-misses" but were able to get through until the end of WW II without a fatal accident. One night, immediately after take-off, we looked down, and ahead of us to the right there was a B-29 on the ground surrounded by flames. We thought, "There goes thirteen men." For some reason, that was the usual number of men on board.
After the nights flying was over, we learned that we had again been lucky. Apparently, the pilot had failed to maintain the proper climb pitch attitude after take-off and had "bellied-in." The last man to get out of the airplane had the back of his flying suit scorched. The B-29 was a total loss.
About the middle of June, I requested a cross-country flight to Rosecrans Field, near St. Joseph, Missouri. My Dad , step-mother, and sister were were living on a farm not far from the field. They met me at the field and took me home to the old farm. I hadnt been there since I left to join the Air Corps shortly after "Pearl Harbor." A lot had happened in the last three and a half years. I was wearing those Air Corps silver wings and my Dad was obviously "bursting with pride." I remember him saying to one neighbor, "I dont know how he does it." After the war, I saw the old farm one more time. Shortly after that, my Dad sold it and moved to Oregon. It was the end of one phase of my life. and I was in the midst of another. I think there was a song written shortly after the first the first world war with the verse, "How ya gonna keep em down on tha farm, after theyve seen Paree?" For me, the appropriate words would have been, "How ya gonna keep him behind the plow, after hes soared the blue."
By the early part of July, the group of us who had gone to Maxwell AAF nearly a year earlier had become proficient B-29 crew trainers. We had welcomed the "new boys" to the B-29 program, and several weeks later, had sent them on to an Operational Training Unit to pick up the rest of of their crews. Crews were beginning to return from the B-29 bases in the Pacific, so "rotation" was certain to begin soon. It was just a matter of time, and that time was bound to be short.
Here is an interesting item concerning German prisoners-of-war. Our crew ate breakfast in "GI" mess-halls. When we first began to do this, the "K.P.s" were all enlisted men. A month or so later, we noticed a change. Now all of the kitchen and mess-hall workers were German prisoners-of-war. We were aware that there was a large "POW camp south of the base and at times we would circle their soccer field and watch them play. Now, the "military" was using the "trust-worthy"ones for "K.P."duty. It seemed a little strange to see these Germans, who would have gladly "cut our throats" a couple of years earlier, now "waiting on our tables." They were a happy bunch and sang constantly.
On July 16, 1945, our crew was flying the 4:00A.M. to 11:00 A.M. shift. We had taken-off from Roswell AAF shortly before 4:00 A.M. and headed southwest to the "practice area." After about an hour southwest of Roswell, we headed north. When we were just about "abeam" of Roswell, we turned toward the west. That was a "fateful" series of turns. As we headed west, performing our routine training activities, one of the pilots turned around and said, " Hey, look up ahead." It was about 5:30 A.M. and still dark. There was a red glow in the western sky. The glow slowly expanded, then slowly receded. It seemed to take several minutes. By coincidence,we had lost radio communications several minutes earlier, so we couldnt tell the control tower what we had seen. We discussed the episode and surmised that it had been a B-29 that had exploded. After we made our final landing and returned to the briefing room, the flight commander said," We were able to make radio contact with everyone but you guys. We were sure that you had "blown-up," and that accounted for the red glow in the western sky. Well, the next day, the Roswell newspaper carried a story on the second page about a pyrotechnics and ammunition dump exploding on the Alamogordo Test Range which was about a hundred miles west of Roswell. We didnt think any more about it until the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6. Then we knew what we had seen.
We had witnessed an historic event and didnt know what we had seen!
Now, it seemed that events moved at a rapid pace. Rumors of the end of the war and peace filled our conversation. Then the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. We continued our training flights but at a reduced pace. Our flights now lasted only four hours instead of seven.
We were "winding-down." We no longer did concentrated take-off and landing practice; there was no more practicing of emergency procedures; the "feathering" of propellers was a thing of the past; we simply made "joy-riding" flights. The IP stated our attitude quite clearly during his pre-flight briefing following the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb. He said, "O.K. BOYS, LETS LIVE THOUGH THE WAR."
Finally, the war was over. Now, all of us were thinking and talking about we were going to do next. I wrestled with the decision. I liked the Air Corps. It had given me the chance to become a pilot, which was what I had wanted to do for as long as I could remember. But there was the chance to go back to college and finish my degree under the GI Bill, if I "got out". In the end, I decided to "get out." As time went by, I did earn a B.S. degree in Education at the University of Kansas and taught in a small Kansas high school. As more time went by, I returned to my first love, flying, and remained with it until I retired from the Federal Aviation Adminstration, at age 74.
Before the Instructor Pilot said "Good Bye," - forever, as it turned out - he said, "Go out and take a last look at that fleet of B-29s. You will never see anything like that again." He was right!
© 1998-2000, Fred Carl Gardner, All rights reserved.
B-29 Superfortress, "FIFI."
The Boeing B-29 long range strategic bomber was designed in 1940 as an eventual replacement for the B-17 and B-24. The first one built made its maiden flight on September 21, 1942. In December 1943, it was decided not to use the B-29 in the European Theater, thereby permitting the airplane to be sent to the Pacific area where its great range made it particularly suited for the long over-water flight required to attack the Japanese homeland from bases in China. At the end of 1944, B-29s began operating against Japan from the islands of Saipan, Guam and Tinian. In June 1950, the B-29 was used in action over Korea. For the next several years it was effectively used for attacking targets in North Korea. When production ended in May 1946, 3970 B-29's had been built. Source: U.S.A.F. Museum , Joe Baugher's Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution
Other stories by Fred Carl Gardner:
A SHAVE-TAIL PILOT'S FIRST FORCED LANDING
A FORCED LANDING IN THE ALLEGHENIES
Air Force Song
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