The 15-year effort to restore and fly the B-29 Superfortress called “Doc” reached a major milestone Friday when volunteers successfully started the World War II bomber’s four engines.
It was the first time since 1956 that engines ran on the airplane that once served in a squadron known as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
And the successful engine start means the nonprofit group that owns and is restoring the airplane is that much closer to the next milestone of getting her up into the air.
A spokesman for Docs Friends said the group hopes to have Doc in the air for first flight in a couple of months, barring any setbacks. That would make Doc only the second airworthy B-29 in the world.
Friday’s engine start, performed on a ramp at Air Capital Flight Line – formerly Boeing Wichita – on South Oliver, didn’t go completely smoothly.
One of the 3,600-horsepower engines, Engine No. 2 and closest to the pilot’s side of the aircraft, wouldn’t fully turn over despite what seemed like nearly a dozen attempts.
About 20 minutes in, volunteers got the pesky engine to turn over.
“I said, ‘Don’t let me down now, baby,’ ” said Tony Mazzolini, who discovered Doc on a bombing range in California’s Mojave desert in 1987 and was inside the cockpit Friday morning during the engine start.
Jim Murphy, restoration program manager for Doc’s Friends, attributed the difficulty to a rich fuel mixture and battery power.
“(Doc’s) in better shape than when it came out of the factory the first time,” he said.
Friday’s engine start almost caps off a restoration effort that began 15 years ago when the World War II bomber was trucked to Wichita in 2000 in pieces by Mazzolini, a former flight engineer. He plucked the airplane from the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station bombing range several years earlier.
The airplane came to Wichita because of Boeing, which provided hangar space for its restoration.
But then restoration was put on hiatus for several years because of a lack of hangar space and the recession.
A group of business leaders and aviation enthusiasts formed Doc’s Friends – led by former Spirit AeroSystems CEO Jeff Turner – and acquired the B-29 from Mazzolini in 2013. The following year restoration was restarted.
“The last two years have been very, very productive,” volunteer David Eslinger said of the effort.
Eslinger, a retired Boeing employee and restoration volunteer for 11 years, said the engine start was “amazing,” adding that “we started off with a little bit of drama” getting the No. 2 engine to start.
“I … cried tears,” said Connie Palacioz, a restoration volunteer since Doc’s arrival to Wichita. “I thought I would never see this day.”
Palacioz, 90, said she worked on the B-29 line in Wichita when she was 18. She also worked on Doc on that line, putting rivets in the airplane’s nose section, she said.
Boeing’s Wichita plant turned out 1,644 of the airplanes – best known as the bomber type that dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II in the Pacific.
The B-29’s role in the war was important, Mazzollini said Friday. That’s why he sought 38 years ago to acquire the “suitable airframe” of a B-29, and he found Doc.
“Thank God for all these people who helped,” he said, motioning to the 30 or so restoration volunteers who witnessed the engine start. “I want to preserve history.
“We accomplished so much during that war period. I just wanted to keep the memories alive.”