Doc’s hangar is a symbol of Wichita’s place in world history, Mayor Longwell says

Not everyone was impressed Saturday by the new permanent home for Doc, one of two World War II-era B-29 Superfortresses in the world that can fly.

Doc’s new hangar is a state-of-the-art, 32,000-square-foot interactive facility that cost $6.5 million to complete. The building has a glass front that faces South Airport Road at Eisenhower Airport.

Sitting in the middle is the mirror-finished World War II bomber that survived 42 years in the Mojave Desert and was flown in 2016 for the first time since 1956 — Doc.

Kendell Reimer, 11, said there’s probably not a big enough — or flashy enough — hangar to do Doc justice.

“Not to be disrespectful,” Reimer said. “But this plane is what led us to win World War II and ended it. This plane ended that war, and I think it deserves to be the main attraction in this city.”

Reimer is the kind of person the hangar and education center is geared toward — the future generation, curious about history and proudly American. Someone who wants to learn.

But knowledge is power, and once Reimer learned about the plane’s history — while researching a paper on the bombings of Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagasaki — he realized it “changed the world.”

“At first, when I saw it and didn’t know anything about it, I thought it was nothing. I thought it was just some stupid ugly plane,” Reimer said.

Now, there’s not a hangar in the world big enough to satisfy Reimer’s respect for Doc, he said — especially after seeing it in person for the first time on Saturday, the first chance for the public to be inside the hangar.

“When I researched the plane and saw what it could do, it really opened up just how big a part of the world that this was.

“People need to know that these planes were one of the biggest things that changed the war. It just helps us to understand what Americans can do that has never been possible for people to do,” Reimer said.

Wichita’s aviation industry was central to the city’s growth and the U.S. war effort during World War II. During that time, Boeing Wichita employed nearly 30,000 people and built 44 percent of all U.S. primary trainers for the Army and Navy.

Doc serves as a reminder of that history, Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell said. He said he hopes it will pass that legacy on to future generations, like Reimer’s.

“Doc is more than a plane,” Longwell said. “He’s a symbol of Wichita’s history as the Air Capital of the World. He’s a symbol of our community coming together and sacrificing support for our country in its time of need. He’s a reminder of the part Wichita played and continues to play on the world stage.”

Boeing Wichita built 1,644 B-29s, perhaps best known as the plane used to drop atomic bombs on Japan. At the height of World War II, the Wichita plant was churning out more than four B-29s a day, “a truly remarkable feat,” said Spirit Aerosystems President and CEO Tom Gentile.

The open house for Doc’s hangar Saturday capped off a big aviation weekend for Wichita, a day after Boeing delivered the first KC-46A Pegasus aerial refueling tanker to McConnell Air Force Base.

“What a great Air Force weekend we have had,” David Dennis said Saturday. “Yesterday, we brought in the KC-46A for Wichita. Which is the future of aviation in Wichita. Today, we’re opening up this great facility, which recognizes the past sacrifices of men and women who served for these mighty aircraft in the past.”

Like 11-year-old Kendell Reimer, Tony Mazzolini — who rescued Doc from its previous home on the desert floor with the help of volunteers, corporate partners and local government — credits the B-29 with changing the course of history.

But Mazzolini, who found the plane rotting in the desert in 1987 and helped get it back in the sky in 2016, said he “never thought (he) would be able to see this airplane in this setting.”

It took volunteers for the Doc’s Friends nonprofit, including Reimer’s grandfather, more than 16 years and 450,000 hours to restore Doc. Wichita gave $900,000 to the project and Sedgwick County added $200,000. Private donors provided the other $5.4 million needed to build the hangar.

“This hangar facility and education center — it’s like a palace,” Mazzolini said. “I’m in complete awe when I see it.”

The Saturday dedication ceremony was the first time the hangar was open to the public. It cost $10 a person or $20 a family. More than 100 people showed up for the ribbon cutting. The facility is expected to open for regular hours sometime in early March.

“We have a treasure here, and I hope that we can protect it for the future. This facility will help do that,” Mazzoli said.

Chance Swaim won the Betty Gage Holland Award in 2018 for distinguished service to honor and protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses. He has been a news reporter for The Wichita Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at 316-269-6752 and cswaim@wichitaeagle.com.