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Hopes high that restored B-29 ‘Doc’ will fly in 2014

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, at 4:38 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, at 8:40 p.m.

Photos

B-29 "Doc" Closer to Flying

Work continues on "Doc" at a Boeing hanger in Wichita. Project volunteer manager T.J. Norman hope...

The Wichita-built vintage Boeing B-29 Superfortress under restoration inside a Boeing hangar may fly as soon as this summer, volunteers on the project say.

The plan is to fly the historic plane to AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., in July, where the public can view it.

“I think it’s doable,” said T.J. Norman, the volunteer project manager. “I can’t promise we’ll make it, but we’re sure going to try.”

The plane will be one of only two restored B-29s in flying condition.

The massive restoration project began in Wichita in 2000 but was on hiatus for a few years, the victim of a poor economy and lack of hangar space.

Restoration restarted early this year after a group of business leaders and aviation enthusiasts formed a nonprofit organization, Doc’s Friends, and acquired the airplane from Tony Mazzolini.

About 50 to 60 volunteers, including a core group of about 30, have been working on the plane since the project restarted.

Boeing donated a military hangar on the east side of Oliver, providing a work space that would facilitate completion of the restoration.

“The biggest challenge is just getting everybody back in the groove of working … and remembering where we were at three or four years ago when we stopped work,” Norman said.

Mazzolini rescued the B-29 from the Mojave Desert in California in 1998, where it had spent 42 years as a sanctuary for birds and other desert creatures.

It was trucked in pieces to Wichita in 2000.

The bomber, nicknamed “Doc,” was built in Wichita in 1944 inside Boeing Wichita’s Plant II. It was one of a squadron of eight airplanes named for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Three phases

The B-29 project has been divided into three phases.

The first is to complete the restoration and get the airplane flying. The second is to secure a permanent home for the plane, and the third is to operate it as a flying museum.

Volunteers have replaced every inch of wire, every cable, every pulley. They’ve changed wing spars, and many of the skin panels, which were corroded by salt and sand. They’ve painted the interior with anti-corrosive paint. Any damage was repaired. Corrosion was everywhere, volunteers say.

Four new engines, later versions of the original engines, are being installed.

Modern Garmin avionics also will be added so it can be flown.

Volunteers must also secure a modern hangar where the plane can have a permanent home – a place that is both accessible for the public and on an active runway.

When Friends of Doc was formed, members made a pact to keep the airplane in Wichita, said former Spirit AeroSystems CEO Jeff Turner, who is chairman of the Doc’s Friends board of directors.

That’s the big reason so much energy is behind the restoration here, Turner said.

Other communities have offered to build a hangar to house the B-29, Turner said.

But “the airplane was built in Wichita; the airplane was restored in Wichita,” he said. “This airplane needs to live here.”

It also must be kept indoors – in part because B-29s weren’t built to today’s standards.

“A hailstorm would be catastrophic,” Turner said. “Keeping it inside in Kansas is a really, really, really good idea.”

The final phase of the project will be to use the B-29 as a touring museum so the public can view it and hear the stories of those who served on them.

“We want to connect people,” Turner said.

It will take an estimated $7 million to $9 million to finish the restoration, get the plane flying and secure a hangar, Turner said.

“None of us are professional fundraisers,” Turner said. “We’re looking for people who want to step up.”

‘Ahead of their time’

The B-29 was the first bomber to have a pressurized crew compartment, remote-controlled guns and advanced radar for bombing and navigation.

The engines also were the most advanced engines of the time, said Scott Sarver, a volunteer on the project.

They were turbo supercharged, although initially they weren’t all that reliable.

“There was a bit of a problem keeping them running,” Sarver said. “They were tweaked and modified to be used at high altitudes. … They were pushed ahead of their time.”

During World War II, B-29s flew with a crew of 10 to 11 people. Flying it in its restored status will require a minimum crew of six, volunteers say.

Originally, crew members used smoke charts as a guide to determine what was wrong if a B-29 developed problems. Ten illustrations in the flight manual depicted different colors of smoke coming from various parts of the plane and what to do, including when to bail out, Norman said.

“You could tell what was wrong with the airplane by the chart,” Norman said.

Before the B-29, bomber pilots, who flew at lower altitudes, didn’t know much about jet streams, especially the strong jet streams found over Japan in the winter, Sarver said.

“They didn’t understand the power of it, where it was stronger and weaker around the globe,” he said.

So when they released bombs from a high altitude, where they could fly because of the pressurized cabin, their bombs often did not hit the targets, he said.

Instead, they began doing night missions so they could fly at lower altitudes, Sarver said.

In the meantime, they learned about jet streams.

“It was something they learned because of the B-29,” Sarver said.

The crew also wore heated flight suits and boots that were plugged into electrical outlets so they stayed warmer at the higher and colder altitudes.

The cabin wasn’t heated, Sarver said.

Since the restored plane won’t be pressurized, it will fly at lower altitudes.

Flying it lower will also allow more people to see it, Sarver said.

Skilled love needed

The project has been a labor of love.

As the Air Capital of the World, Wichita has the aviation expertise to see the project through, officials said.

“The aviation infrastructure here is very good,” Sarver said. “There’s a lot of talented people with the skills we need.”

Still, the project needs volunteers with specific skills, such as aircraft electricians, sheet metal mechanics, another inspector and those with radial engine experience.

“We want this thing perfect when it rolls out the doors,” Norman said.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mmcmillin.

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