Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Wings of War at Manassas

On Saturday a few of us met at Manassas Airfield to see the bombers that had taken part in the DC flyover to mark the end of WWII. The fighter jets were at Culpeper but I particularly wanted to see the B-29 Superfortress, Fifi, the only one of its kind left in the world, intact and flying. Steve, Charles, Michele and I had to wait for ages before we were allowed on the ramp. There were plenty of other folks there but most of these were waiting, lucky enough to be taking actual flights, which were really expensive. A 40 minute flight in Fifi cost $1500 on the day. It looks like online bookings made before were cheaper, see here.
I walked all around her, taking in the sheer enormity of her, noticing the dents and war wounds on her shell and scrambling underneath so I could stand up and look inside the bomb bay, savoring the aged, musty and vintage aroma that only an old vehicle can emit. Fifi had been discovered at Lake China, CA where the Navy weapons center were using her and other plane carcasses for target practice as well as being abused by sand and vandals. The CAF managed to convince the Navy to hand her over in 1971 and 3 years later she was restored and flying. There is another B-29 being restored which had hoped to make the flyover but it doesn't have a working engine yet, details here.
These planes are costing millions to restore to flying condition, and then to insure, so the high prices for public flights can be appreciated.
We were allowed to climb up a ladder to look into the cockpit of a B-24 Liberator. I couldn't resist this shot where I lined up diamond Lil's gun to reach down onto Fifi, and a guy timed it perfectly, raising his arms as though pushing the gun away. We could also clamber up into the inside of this plane.
A C-45 Expediter.
There were a couple of B-17s on the tarmac. This one had engine problems during the flyover and is now having a cylinder replaced.
Another B-17, Aluminum Overcast, was getting readied to take up some lucky passengers, so we quickly walked around getting our close-ups. Today proved that getting up and getting here early paid off. Once these planes had been out on a flight, the public were not allowed near them again because of the hot engines, and latecomers had to be satisfied with standing behind ropes and viewing them from a distance. The propellers had to be rotated to get the oil inside moving and the parts lubricated. This guy had to turn 9 blades on each engine and it looked hard, so I asked if I could have a go. It was pretty tough and I understood why he used a rag as cushioning. I had imprints from the prop edge on my palms for some time afterwards.
My feet took me back to Fifi again and I grabbed a shot of one of her individually named engines and then tried a selfie from directly underneath.
This is a SB2C Helldiver, 'The Beast'. One of the flying team was prepping the plane for flight and kept us amused with his delivery of information. There's only 4 of these left in the world, 3 in museums and only 1 that's airworthy. "At least it was when I landed", quiped the guy! Costing over $200,000 to restore, she has been given the markings of the carrier U.S.S. Franklin.
This amazing war veteran on the right is 92 years old. He used to fly in the back of a Helldiver at 18 years old and recalled when during one flight he looked down to see a kamikaze pilot smash into the U.S.S. Franklin. His son had brought him along today and I really hoped he was being treated to a flight.
The flight crew prepping before getting Fifi ready for take off.
We waited to enjoy the sensory experience of Aluminum Overcast starting up and rolling to the flight strip. The noise was deep and deafening, the smell of oil and fuel reached us before the hot gritty gusts from the engines. Michele and I grinned at each other as we lifted our faces towards the old warbird as she slowly cruised towards and then turned for the runway.
Click her for a video of her starting her rumble to the flight strip.
Once she had rumbled away, we followed Steve to the cars where he took us to a spot where we were directly underneath the flight path of the planes as they landed. We stood in the glaring heat, kicking ourselves that we hadn't brought any water, and looked skyward for glints and spots in the distance that could be our planes. We only had a few seconds as they thundered over but they were glorious and Michelle even managed to get a couple to waggle their wings in a returned greeting to her outstretched arms.
I took a photo of a modern plane before I realized what it was, and was going to delete it, but I actually liked the lighting on the propeller so I left it here. We saw the B-17, the B-29 and the Helldiver fly over.
And then it was back to the airfield again to hopefully see Fifi start her engines for her final flight of the day.
A C-47.
The Helldiver going up again with an impressive passenger. The guy at the back in the sapphire shirt is a Dutchman living in London. He called in sick on Thursday, flew over here and then spent 2 days, spending thousands, flying all the war birds. This was his last flight and then he was rushing to Dulles for a red flight back home. Good luck explaining the sun tan!
We all crunched together behind the ropes staring at Fifi, willing her to start her engines. And then the signal came, The 2 inside engines fired up and then the 2 outer ones. Closing down the 2 outer engines, she turned and headed for take-off. We all stood patiently as she slowly made her way to the top of the field, then unhurriedly turned around. The engines all fired up and revved loudly, the volume increasing as she gradually picked up speed down the runway. Her nose slowly lifted and the only flying Superfortress in the world disappeared from view against grey stormy skies. I hope I see her again some day.

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