By Candy Thomson, The Baltimore Sun
10:16 PM EDT, June 3, 2013
Fifi is no shrinking violet.
The 68-year-old warplane can't sky like it used to, and getting all the parts going in the morning takes a little more thought and planning.
But Fifi — the last B-29 Superfortress still in the air — commands respect, with super-charged engines that growl with authority and menacing gun turrets that appear ready to fend off swarming enemy fighters.
The plane did, after all, have more than a bit part in "The Right Stuff," standing in as the mother ship for test pilot Chuck Yeager's first supersonic flight.
Fifi and several other vintage planes arrived Monday afternoon at Martin State Airport for the annual AirPower History Tour through Wednesday: the only carrier-based Helldiver still flying, a P-51 Mustang fighter and a C-45 Expediter with the nickname "Bucket of Bolts."
A small knot of well-wishers documented the big bomber's touchdown and swarmed it after the engines came to a stop. For Matt Younkin, a third-generation aerobatic pilot from Arkansas, it was just his second flight in the co-pilot's seat.
"This is a very special aircraft," Younkin said after negotiating a flawless touchdown. "It's flying history."
B-29s, which began active service in 1944, could fly higher and longer and carry more bombs than any other warplane during World War II. They provided support for island-hopping troops in the Pacific and in 1945 dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Fifi came off the production line late and never saw combat.)
But that was in their heyday. Now just one remains flight worthy, plucked from the desert and saved from military target practice by the nonprofit Commemorative Air Force, which has collected and restored more than 150 vintage planes.
Before the 45-minute flight Monday from Manassas, Va., to Baltimore, Fifi cooled its heels on the tarmac, waiting for the weather to break. The six-member crew, led by pilot Carl Riese, checked and double-checked the plane while keeping watch on the clouds and an ear on the radio.
"This is a childhood dream come true," said Younkin, who has flown more than 75 types of aircraft and marvels at the exploits of the airmen of the 1940s. "It's one thing to load up and go flying around on a pretty day at 1,000 feet. It's another thing to go up in the stratosphere where it's cold and lonely and you've got airplanes and guns on the ground shooting at you and you're on a mission. It's a whole 'nother ballgame, and I think about it every time I get in the airplane."
At 99 feet long and with a wingspan of 141 feet, the plane looms large outside, with four massive propellers (each named after a 1940s movie actress) rising like large arms. But inside, there's a no-frills economy of space. Two people need to choreograph their steps around each other, and crawling through the 33-foot tunnel that runs above the bomb bay between the cockpit and tail feels like squeezing through an empty paper towel roll.
However, the view from the bombardier's seat in the nose or the tail gunner's position is like having a window on the world.
Kim Pardon, CAF spokeswoman, said keeping history alive doesn't come cheap. The overhead cost each year before taking into account flying the airplane and touring is more than $750,000 a year.
"It's an enormous amount of money to stay in the air," she said. "More and more, we have to have things custom-made when they break."
The organization sells rides, ranging from $65 to $1,995, to pay for expenses and upkeep.
The plane was grounded for four years while the CAF raised the money to rebuild and remount the engines. It took to the air again in June 2010 after a $3 million makeover.
Fifi flies at about 220 mph at an altitude that rarely exceeds 10,000 feet. The controls are heavy, and it takes a lot of rudder to get Fifi to turn.
But that's OK, said Riese. "You just have to get used to doing things the old way."
Where: Martin State Airport, 701 Wilson Point Road, Middle River
Hours: Tuesday and Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Cost: $10 per person or $20 per family
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