On Cloud (B-Twenty) Nine

I miss Doc. Even though he was only in Seattle for a week, I somehow got used to him being here. I felt this strange comfort in knowing he was always nearby — whether that meant flying at 1,000 feet around Puget Sound or simply sitting out on the tarmac on the southwest corner of Boeing Field. I can’t explain it… and I’m not sure that it’s even worth it to try. I don’t understand how or why my heart can feel so full and then suddenly so empty, all because of an airplane.

Doc is one of only two airworthy Boeing B-29s in the whole world. The B-29 Superfortress was the most capable, most advanced bomber of its time. It was quite costly, too. For perspective, the Manhattan Project — the U.S. program to develop the nuclear bomb — cost about $2 billion. The B-29 program cost $3 billion, but that didn’t matter. America needed something to carry that bomb… the price wasn’t a concern. It couldn’t be.

Doc departing Boeing Field on a brief media flight, Tuesday, May 17.
Doc coming into Boeing Field after one of nearly a dozen scenic flights during the airplane’s weeklong stay in Seattle.

When I heard that Doc was coming to Seattle, I was ecstatic. A couple years ago back in St. Louis, I had the opportunity to fly in a North American Aviation B-25 Mitchell, the famous bomber used in the Doolittle Raid. That was particularly special for two reasons: First, I got the invitation just minutes before the flight, giving it an element of surprise and creating a huge adrenaline rush. Second, my husband Scott was on the flight as well, and everything’s better when we’re together.

But nothing could prepare me for the B-29. Nothing could prepare me for Doc. 

Highlights from the Spokane-Seattle flight, as captured via GoPro, my iPhone, and my husband Scott’s iPhone.

I still get teary thinking about it. I think of the Boeing engineers who designed the B-29’s bulbous glass nose and its long slender wing. I think of the women and men who worked at Boeing’s Wichita, Kansas, and Renton, Washington, factories. They had such pride. Such passion. At peak, each factory was churning out 4-5 planes per day. They were building them for their brothers, for their sons. 

I think of the legendary Eddie Allen, the B-29 program’s chief pilot. He was a huge proponent of safety and testing, but tragically died while piloting the second XB-29 prototype on its ninth flight. An engine fire — which wasn’t an uncommon occurrence on the B-29 in its early days — spread and caused the plane to crash into the Frye Packing Company just north of Boeing Field in Seattle, killing Allen and 10 other crewmen, in addition to 20 Frye employees and a firefighter.

I think of the selfless young men who flew these planes into the unknown. Some made it home. Others died in combat. Some were held prisoner and subjected to unthinkable violence. They were brothers, sons, nephews, fathers.

Many of you know that by day I work as a historian at Boeing, though I try for the most part to avoid talking about that on The Great Planes, because I don’t represent my company here, I just represent myself and my borderline-insane love of airplanes. But, for this story, it’s impossible to not talk about my job and my team.

My colleague Mike Lombardi, Boeing’s chief historian, was first looped into Doc’s restoration in 2002. He and his team were able to provide archival documents like drawings and manuals to assist the hundreds of people working to bring the aging warbird back to life. Though he had kept up with the progress and seen photos over the years, he had never seen Doc in person. Until now.

Anxiously waiting to go board Doc for an hourlong flight to Seattle.
Ready for the flight of a lifetime with my Boeing teammates. L to R: Me, chief historian Mike Lombardi, archivist Anna Italiano and lead archivist Heather Schaub.

When I got a call from Josh with “Doc’s Friends” inviting our Historical Services team to join the crew on the Spokane to Seattle repositioning flight, I just about lost it. I must have been talking loudly and seemed obviously excited while on the phone, as my coworkers started asking, “What’s happening!?” the second I hung up. 

“Gather around,” I said.

We immediately started planning the trip out to Spokane. The plane was out there for several days as part of an air show at Fairchild Air Force Base, and was slated to fly into Seattle’s Boeing Field on Tuesday, May 17. We rented a car and drove the four hours to Spokane International Airport to return the car before catching a Lyft over to the base. A local KC-135 pilot, who volunteers to fly Doc now and again, picked us up and drove us out to the airplane.

The first time I set eyes on Doc, Tuesday, May 17, at Fairchild Air Force Base.
What a perfect day for a fly.

Doc looked stunning out on the tarmac. There were but a few clouds in the sky, and the beating sunshine was radiating off the airplane’s polished aluminum skin, to where it appeared to be glowing. We figured out where each of us would sit, climbed up the ladder through the hatch by the nose gear, buckled up and waited.

View from the bombardier’s seat, just minutes from departing the Air Force base.
Pilot Mark Novak and copilot Ken Newell get ready to fly the restored warbird across the state of Washington.

I was lucky enough to sit in the coveted bombardier’s seat for takeoff. It was pretty warm with the sunshine coming through, but sweating was the least of my concerns. Feeling those radial engines start up, and bouncing down the taxiway past a row of perfectly lined up KC-135s — it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. At that point, I knew I would get emotional.

“Keeps wanting to go left,” Novak said, as we lifted off. I could feel him correcting it. It was strange… I didn’t feel like we were climbing at all. It was as though we lifted off the ground and just cruised at a steady 50 feet over the remainder of the runway. Yes, I was crying… they were equal parts happy tears and sad tears, thinking of everything this airplane represents.

Flight engineer Don Obreiter with a picture perfect backdrop.
Flying low and slow through the Cascade Mountains.

It was incredible to see the topography of Washington from just 6,500 feet. The first part of the 1-hour, 10-minute flight was flat and green, then it turned brown and mountainous with plenty of snow-covered peaks and crystal blue mountain lakes. Finally, we saw the Seattle skyline in the distance and made a sharp bank south into Boeing Field.

Looking forward through the 35-foot tunnel. Crawling through it is easy, but getting into and out of it… not so much.
The secluded tail gunner’s position, which we were able to access mid-flight since the plane wasn’t pressurized.

During the flight, we had ample time to move about the airplane, all the way from the nose to the tail. During the war, the B-29 could cruise as high as 31,000 feet because the crew compartments were pressurized, hence the 35-foot tunnel connecting the forward and rear sections. The area between the tail and the rear section wasn’t pressurized, however, meaning the tail gunner could only leave his post during unpressurized flight. Doc flies so low today that it doesn’t need to be pressurized, which is why we were able to make it to the tail gunner’s spot during flight, no problem.

When we landed at Boeing Field, we were greeted by dozens of reporters and photographers, airport workers, and our own friends and family. That arrival was probably the closest I’ll ever feel to being a celebrity. Shortly after we got off the plane, the crew took a few members of the local media up for a quick 20-minute flight around Seattle, so naturally I decided to stay and photograph both the takeoff and landing. 

The plane remained in Seattle for nearly a week, offering cockpit tours to the public and taking paying passengers up on 30-minute scenic flights — I photographed nearly all of them. And then yesterday, Doc left. About 2:30 p.m. the plane took off to the South heading to Minden, Nevada, the next stop on the 2022 “History Restored Tour.” 

I kept obsessively clicking on the plane’s icon on Flightradar24, hoping maybe — just maybe — it would turn back. Who knows, maybe the crew had received a report of bad weather and decided to stay another night in Seattle. But after they crossed the Oregon-California border, I knew they were gone for good. Doc wasn’t coming back. And you know what…? That’s OK. That has to be OK. Now the folks in and around Lake Tahoe can experience what I experienced this past week.

This is my “so many emotions” face. I’m grateful for this opportunity.

To Doc’s Friends, thank you so much for your kindness and hospitality. This was an experience I don’t take for granted and one I won’t soon forget. To be able to experience flight in this iconic airplane has allowed me to see firsthand the engineering excellence that went into this beast of a machine, and to fully appreciate how incredible a feat it really was to build these planes at such a swift pace. It also helped me to better understand what flying felt like, what it sounded like, what it looked like and even what it smelled like 80 years ago. But most importantly, it left a lasting mark on my heart, one I’ll draw on each time I tell the B-29 story going forward. I’ll always remember what it felt like to be in that airplane, on that sunny spring afternoon. I traveled back in time.

And to the Greatest Generation… thank you. Thank you for designing, building, maintaining and flying these planes. And for those who made the ultimate sacrifice, I’m eternally grateful that I can live free today, thanks to you.

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