Is there any way to thank a friend for inviting you to ride in a Boeing B-29 Superfortress—and even in the “candy” bombardier’s seat?
After realigning my dropped jaw and babbling, “Oh, gosh, yes,” I blathered on with: “Really? You’re sure? You’re not kidding? But, David, how can I even begin to thank you?” And then I hung up and began obsessing about what to wear (yes, really) and what I could do to even remotely show my appreciation.
So, I unearthed an old jumpsuit and some aviator-style jodhpurs and then baked my best sourdough bread.
The already famous Doc was delivered to the US Army in 1945, five months before another B-29, Enola Gay, dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The terrible death toll from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki missions was acknowledged as necessary to accelerate the Japanese surrender, saving many more lives and ending World War II.
For the next 10 years, Doc and a few sister B-29s—the Seven Dwarf squadron—flew military radar-calibration flights and towed gunnery targets. Then Doc was parked in the desert at China Lake, California, destined for an ignoble end as a target for naval-aviator bomb training.
Fortunately, the aspiring naval aviators weren’t all that great at hitting their target because, although wounded and forlorn, Doc survived.
Then, 32 years later, a man named Tony Mazzolini found the airplane in the Mojave and spent 10 years working through government red tape to rescue the distressed old bomber. When the deal was finally done, Mazzolini and his team realized that it would be impossible fly it out because of its “war wounds” and having sat, abandoned, for 42 years in the desert.
It took a couple of years for volunteers to disassemble and put sections of Doc on flatbed trailers, but by 1988, it was back home in Wichita, Kansas, in the same hangar from which it first rolled off the Boeing assembly line more than 50 years before. Then began the daunting process of restoration—repairing, rebuilding and reassembly.
The project got a welcome boost in 2013, when a group of Wichita aviation enthusiasts and business leaders, led by retired Spirit AeroSystems CEO Jeff Turner, formed Doc’s Friends, a nonprofit group with enough volunteers and money to see the project through to completion. It first flew in 2018, and by the following year, Doc—one of only two surviving airworthy B-29s—was touring the country from its Wichita base.
I can’t begin to describe the thrill of flying in Doc—the sound of those Wright 3350s (I removed my headset on takeoff to get the full impact of that glorious roar), the view from that bombardier’s seat in the nose, and the chill of peering through the Norden bombsight with my finger on the bomb release button. I “took out” a dam on the Ohio River while thinking of the 1945 bombardier, sitting in that seat and peering through that bombsight.
We had another “virtual passenger” on board—Cincinnatian Herb Heilbrun, who would soon celebrate his 100th birthday. Herb piloted 35 B-17 combat missions with the 15th Air Force in Foggia, Italy, and the Cincinnati Warbirds have celebrated their honorary member by sending his US flag aloft with its special logbook showing time in everything from a B-17 to the F-22 Raptor and now the B-29. Herb’s WWII bomber missions were accompanied by a P-51 squadron of Tuskegee Airmen, and famously, he met one of these “Red Tail” squadron pilots at a 1997 reunion in Cincinnati. They became friends and, comparing logbooks, found that John Leahr, had indeed accompanied Herb on at least two missions. Incredibly, they learned they had attended the same grade school and found a photo of themselves in the same third grade class—but segregated.
After the glorious 30-minute flight, we landed and taxied to the ramp where another group of 11 was waiting to board for the second flight. These, I learned, were all Cincinnati police officers.
Read More from Martha Lunken: Unusual Attitudes
When Doc was scheduled to come through Cincinnati, on the way to the Arsenal of Democracy flight in Washington, D.C., David Wiser and his wife, Elizabeth, bought all the seats on two flights. It costs $3,600 an hour to operate this magnificent and rare warbird; here’s David’s reply when I asked him about this incredibly generous gift:
“Martha, I come from a family of Chicago police officers and firemen—uncles, cousins, you name it. I’ve seen firsthand what they do and how they do it, and I have tremendous respect and admiration for who they are. These men and women in blue and their families, across the country, sacrifice a great deal every day so the rest of us can feel safe in our homes and on the streets.
“So, Elizabeth and I wanted to do something to show our respect, our admiration and our undying gratitude for the men and women who wear the badge every day, for us. We wanted to let them know there are people out here…who know what they do and truly value them.
“Why the Doc B-29 experience? Well, first, with only two operating B-29s left, there are very few who can experience this flight, which makes it so special, and special people deserve special experiences. Second, as a pilot, I know when you are in the air, you can leave behind—if only for 30 minutes—the craziness that exists 3,000 or 35,000 feet below. These officers have earned some time where they can put the craziness aside. Third, when we talk about loving or honoring someone, we talk about ‘lifting them up.’ There’s no better way to honor ‘blue’ than to ask our friends at Doc to lift up 11 of our officers inside the aircraft that literally won the war for the US exactly 75 years ago. And last, the 18-, 19- and 20-year-old young men who flew these B-29s on bombing runs in the Pacific and the far east in 1945 were among the most courageous human beings the United States has produced in our 244-year history. And we think those serving in law enforcement are cut from the same cloth as our war heroes and veterans.”
Doc left the next day for the Arsenal of Democracy flyover in Washington, D.C., commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII. Unfortunately, weather grounded the planned flight of 100 WWII airplanes over the National Mall. But somehow, Doc succeeded in getting honorary air boss Lieutenant Colonel Bob Vaucher, 101 years old, on board for a marvelous flight over Manassas, Virginia.
This story appeared in the January-February 2021 issue of Flying Magazine