Historic B-29 ‘Doc’ expects to be back in the air by spring

Renovation continues on “Doc,” a Boeing B-29 bomber. December marks the plane's 70th birthday, delivered in Dec., 1944. The plane was going to fly before the end of this year, but it now will be spring before it will make its first flight.
Renovation continues on “Doc,” a Boeing B-29 bomber. December marks the plane's 70th birthday, delivered in Dec., 1944. The plane was going to fly before the end of this year, but it now will be spring before it will make its first flight. The Wichita Eagle

The historic B-29 Superfortress known as “Doc,” will stay warm inside a Boeing Wichita hangar until next spring — when it is expected to make its first flight.

Volunteers restoring the bomber had thought it would fly by the end of 2014.

“We had some delays putting in the fuel system, and that was our biggest hold-up,” said Jim Murphy, the program manager for the restoration project. “Now, we’ve got it all done, and we could go outside anytime. But the temperature is really our hold-up now.”

Making sure the fuel system was done correctly was a big job.

“It has to be perfect,” Murphy said. “We wanted to make absolutely sure, as sure as we could, that we don’t have any (fuel) leaks when we get outside. We took a long time making sure we had it right.”

Now, weather is a factor because the outside temperature must be above 50 degrees to warm the oil enough to lubricate the engines properly for taxi testing and flight.

“We don’t have portable oil heaters,” Murphy said.

The plan is to roll the airplane outside in March, fuel it and run the engines.

A large roll-out ceremony will take place at that time.

“We’ll make a big announcement for that,” Murphy said.

Next, taxi tests will be performed and the first flight is expected to take place in April or May, depending on weather.

In the meantime, volunteers celebrated the B-29’s birthday this week.

The B-plane was built at Boeing Wichita’s Plant II factory.

It came out of the factory in December 1944 and became one of a squadron of eight airplanes named for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Doc is now 70 years old.

“Our No. 1 goal is to get to the finish line and get it in the air,” Murphy said.

Destination: Oshkosh

The plan is to take the plane to the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture Oshkosh airshow in Oshkosh, Wisc., an annual summer gathering of aviation enthusiasts.

Organizers want to fly the plane in formation with the only other B-29 Superfortress that’s flying, Fifi.

“It’s the first time in 60 years that two B-29s have been able to fly in formation together,” said T.J. Norman, the restoration’s project manager. “We want our first meet-up to be at Oshkosh next year.... We will make that, no doubt.”

A Federal Aviation Administration-certified test pilot for the B-29 is assembling a crew for Doc’s first flight.

The pilot has more than 2,000 flight hours in Fifi, Murphy said.

Flying the restored B-29 will take a crew of six — a pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and three observers.

“It’s a big job,” Murphy said. “This is a very unique airplane.”

The B-29 will burn 500 gallons of fuel and 2.5 gallons of oil an hour and cost close to $10,000 an hour to fly, he said.

Flying is a challenge.

For one, it’s not a good airplane to fly in a crosswind, Murphy said.

“The main reason is there’s no nose gear steering on the airplane,” he said. “You have to steer the airplane with differential braking and throttles.”

That makes it difficult to control under crosswind conditions.

McConnell Air Force Base, which is connected to the Boeing facilities, does not have a crosswind runway.

To fly, “all we have to do is find a fairly calm day with clear skies and temperatures over 50 degrees,” Murphy said.

The first flight will be a milestone event.

Doc is the last known B-29 able to be restored to flying condition.

“There will never be another one of these done,” Norman said.

The B-29 was trucked to Wichita for restoration after being rescued from a California desert. It arrived May 19, 2000.

“When we first started the project, a lot of people would come in and visit it,” Murphy said. “As they walked out, you’d hear them say, ‘Yeah. Sure that thing is going to fly again.’ Everyone believed it was a pipe dream.”

Now, “as we get close to the finish line, everybody is excited,” he said.

A core team of 30 to 40 volunteers continues work on the historic plane. They’ve tried to keep the plane as original as possible – yet modernized with up-to-date avionics.

Without today’s avionics that includes a Global Positioning System, it would be impossible to fly “unless you want to hire a navigator with an arm full of maps,” Norman said.

The avionics installation is still to be completed.

“The only thing else that we lack is we have to rig the gear doors and then run the gear and flaps to set the upper and lower control limits,” Murphy said. “Then we’ll be ready to down jack the airplane for the final time.”

Finding a home

After it flies, the second phase of the project will be to find a permanent home for the plane.

The charter of the nonprofit group undergoing the restoration, Doc’s Friends, commits to basing the B-29 in Wichita, where it also will serve as a traveling museum and exhibition.

The group is happy to operate from a hangar at Boeing and happy for the support McConnell has given. Several airmen have helped with the restoration project.

Now, however, it’s eying Wichita Mid-Continent Airport. There, the public would have more access to see the plane, take a ride and visit the museum and exhibition.

Plus, the airport has a crosswind runway.

One idea is to build a big hangar where the existing terminal building is located. That building will be torn down once the new terminal, now under construction, opens.

The hangar could show off planes that were part of Wichita’s heritage as the Air Capital of the World, such as a Stearman, a Staggerwing and a Learjet, Murphy said.

“Doc would be a part of that,” he said.

“If it had a glass front, every person who drove to the airport could see that heritage,” Murphy said.

Another idea is for Doc’s Friends to come up with the financing to build a separate hangar for Doc at the airport. That would cost $4 million to $5 million.

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

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