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.

An afternoon with the legendary Bob Parks

As a World War II veteran, an incredibly talented artist, an esteemed aviator and a genuinely good person, Bob Parks is a legend.

Born in 1926, Parks enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces at age 17 after graduating high school. He served as a crewmember in a number of different aircraft, from trainers to transports and bombers. After being discharged from the military in 1945, he attended Duke University and also received his pilot’s license. He then joined The Boeing Company where he worked in a number of positions over the course of nearly 50 years, including as a production illustrator on the XB-52.

Throughout his remarkable military and aviation career, Parks was constantly sketching or painting. His artwork garnered much attention throughout his life and today is on display in a number of different corporate offices and museums across the country, including the prestigious Smithsonian.

Additionally, Parks was commissioned to do illustrations for Ernest Gann in Flying Magazine and perhaps most notably for the author’s famous book, Ernest Gann’s Flying Circus.

I had the pleasure of meeting Parks and his lovely wife Judy in their Seattle-area home last week, where a handful of current and former Boeing employees had the chance to look through dozens of Parks’ drawings and paintings, including landscapes, portraits and — of course — airplanes.

I also got to sit down with him and hear stories about the inspiration behind many of his paintings. The amount of thought and detail that went into each one of them is unreal… from the color of the sweeping sands in the Sahara Desert to the chamois cloth used to filter out whatever junk was in the aviation fuel — every detail needed to be just right.

I purchased two stunning prints: one of the famous Boeing 367-80 or “Dash 80” and one of a Northwest Airlines Boeing 377 Stratocruiser — the latter appears in Ernest Gann’s Flying Circus.

I can’t say enough good things about Bob Parks. I am eternally grateful to have met him and to now be able to call him a friend. Parks is, of course, part of the “Greatest Generation,” and after spending an afternoon with him… I certainly know why.

Flying the Feathered Edge

R.A. “Bob” Hoover, as seen on the cover of the documentary detailing his astounding career.

“Each time I did see an airplane — and there weren’t too many flying back in those days — I’d stop whatever I was doing to watch it until it went out of sight. All I could think about or want to read about would be airplanes and aviation.”

Those words were spoken by R.A. “Bob” Hoover himself during an interview for Flying the Feathered Edge: The Bob Hoover Project, a documentary highlighting the remarkable life and legacy of the man often called the greatest pilot of all time.

My favorite thing about Bob is that his friends and former military comrades say he was “always up to something.” Example: He was shot down in World War II, spent more than a year in a prison camp, escaped, stole a Focke-Wulf F190 (the very plane he was shot down by) and flew to safety in The Netherlands.

Years later, he worked as a test pilot for Boeing heritage company North American Aviation. From the FJ-2 Fury to the F-86 Sabre and F-100 Super Sabre… he flew ‘em all.

In the ‘60s, he began flying the can’t-be-stopped P-51 Mustang in airshows. Often called “a pilot’s pilot,” his post-war aerobatics career lasted almost 40 years.

In watching the movie, I of course was enlightened as to what a remarkable pilot and person Bob was (he unfortunately passed away in 2016), but I also realized how many museums are out there housing artifacts and relics from his and other notable pilots’ careers… museums I’ve never been to. From the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and its annex, the Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles, all the way across the country to the San Diego Air and Space Museum… heck, I’ve never even been to the Museum of Flight in Tukwila, Wash.

So, in summary: Annie has a lot of places she needs to go, and everyone needs to watch Flying the Feathered Edge.

And… Scene.

I’m happiest in the sky

Old planes, new planes.

Fast planes, slow planes.

Big planes, small planes.

I’ve seen all of ’em, flown in all of ’em and love all of ’em.

I don’t care who made it, who bought it, who owns it or who flies it—I love airplanes. I love the places they take me and the “real world” they take me away from. Simply put: I’m happiest in the sky.

Of course, I’m partial to Boeing. For one, I work there… but I’m truly fascinated by the company, its people and its products. It’s a remarkable, beautiful story of determination, perseverance, passion and innovation; and I’m humbled to be able to help keep that history alive.

This passion of mine has really taken me places, both figuratively and literally, and I’m truly grateful for that. Because, believe it or not, that very passion was just sitting dormant inside of me for a long, long time. It was gathering dust somewhere in a deep, dark corner of my mind, for more than a decade. But several years ago, a chance encounter with a metal bird that soared right over my head, just seconds after departing on MSP’s runway 17, was my “aha” moment. I was hooked.

I’m now officially three weeks into working in communications for our company’s historical archives. To say that being in this role is an honor would be an understatement. I am still brand new to this team and to the city of St. Louis, but I have never, ever, ever felt such an intense drive and such determination to do my best. And I love that.

Boeing’s story is one that needs to be kept alive… it needs to be told and retold. It needs to be heard and read, appreciated and understood. I myself understand and respect that all people don’t feel so drawn to these flying machines… but they do—and always will—touch all of our lives.

So, if I could ask anything of you, reading this right now, it would be… take a minute and “Google” William Boeing. Do the same for Donald Douglas, James McDonnell and James “Dutch” Kindelberger. Those men were the true pioneers of aviation—they saw promise in aviation, they believed they could build better airplanes and they stood up and grew these INCREDIBLE companies that today are all part of the Boeing family.

This afternoon, I was fortunate to visit the Greater St. Louis Air and Space Museum. Located at the St. Louis Downtown Airport (CPS), it is chock full of photographs, film, models and other artifacts that bring you right back to the golden age of flight. And, outside the hangars that the museum is housed in (which are on the National Register of Historic Places), you’ll find a stunning 1943 Douglas DC-3 (arguably the greatest airplane of all time), a Convair 440 that started its life with FinnAir in 1957, and a 1969 Lockheed JetStar once owned by none other than Howard Hughes.

I’ll leave you with a few photos from this afternoon, and there’ll be many, many more to come. I’m on a big adventure, I mean a big, BIG adventure, and I’m really lucky to share in that adventure with all of you.

Thanks for the love and the support.

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