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.

WAI 2022: Enriching, encouraging and enlightening

A Lufthansa ERJ-190 pilot who previously flew the 737 and the legendary Queen of the Skies, the 747.

A former flight attendant who is now pursuing her pilot’s license and intends to fly helicopters with law enforcement.

An author who fought to ensure her grandmother — and other members of the WASP — received equal recognition at Arlington National Cemetery.

A U.S. Navy pilot who flies the SH-60 Seahawk — the naval version of the Army UH-60 Black Hawk.

A former U.S. Air Force Thunderbird pilot and the first woman to fly the T-7 Red Hawk.

Me and Caroline “Blaze” Jensen. She used to fly with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team, and last year became the first woman to fly the Boeing T-7 Red Hawk trainer. I attended a virtual session with her a few months back as part of a leadership program I’m in at Boeing, and jumped at the chance to meet her.

These are just a few of the incredibly smart, kind and inspiring women I met at this year’s International Women in Aviation Conference — and that doesn’t even touch on the dozens of industry colleagues I mixed and mingled with at the Exhibit Hall, which featured more than 100 exhibitors including airlines, manufacturers, military branches, schools and more.

Over the course of three days, I attended a number of leadership and educational seminars. All of them were so enlightening, but very different in terms of content and tone. One of them was on flight test, and another was on resiliency. One featured a former astronaut and two U.S. Space Force guardians, and another talked about the early (and I mean early!) history of women in aviation, including balloonists in the 1800s.

During the conference’s opening general session, there were some very, very powerful speakers, including Niloofar Rahmani, the first female fixed-wing pilot for the Afghan Air Force. With the support of her parents, Rahmani went against all odds to follow her dream of flying in war-torn Afghanistan. But after receiving death threats from the Taliban — not just against her, but against her family — Rahmani moved to the United States where she was granted political asylum. She has since learned to fly the C-130. Also during that session, we all stood for the Ukrainian National Anthem. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was misty-eyed.

I feel very fortunate to work in this industry. While it’s unthinkably large, it feels so very small. As a lifelong introvert, aviation has helped me to break out of my shell over the course of the last several years. It’s equally as comforting as it is exhilarating to be in a room full of people who you know share your passion. And it makes it that much easier to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger, because you know within a few seconds they won’t feel so “strange.”

I’m grateful to have been able to attend this year’s conference in Nashville, Tennessee, and look forward to sustaining these new friendships and putting into practice the many lessons I learned.

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.

TW-YAY: A nostalgic night at JFK

As an aviation historian and a die-hard Av Geek, a visit to the newish TWA Hotel at New York’s JFK Airport was imminent. The mid-century modern hotel had its long-awaited “soft opening” on May 15, 2019 (my husband Scott’s 30th birthday — talk about a missed opportunity!), and I’ve been itching to get out there ever since.

Originally, Scott and I planned to make a two-week trip to Korea with our good friend Jiho this fall, but COVID-19 put the kibosh on that right quick, so Scott and I decided to head to the Big Apple for a week instead. My dad has a timeshare in Midtown Manhattan that we were fortunate to secure for a few nights, but this time — in addition to our time in the concrete jungle — we decided to tack on an extra night on the front end to check out the 1960s-era hotel.

Designed by famed architect Eero Saarinen, the TWA Flight Center opened in 1962 and served as a bustling terminal until the airline ceased operations in 2001 following its acquisition by American Airlines. The iconic winged structure or “head house” remained intact and was declared a New York City Landmark in 2004 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places the following year.

As part of a Terminal 5 expansion, a new JetBlue terminal opened just east of the head house in October 2008. The hotel project was announced in 2015 and a groundbreaking ceremony took place the following year. The two hotel buildings, aptly named the Saarinen and Hughes wings, flank the head house and sit just between it and the JetBlue terminal. The Saarinen Wing is of course named for the famous architect, and the Hughes Wing for Hollywood icon and aviation legend Howard Hughes.

In the late 1930s, at the advice of TWA President Jack Frye, Hughes began purchasing stock in the airline and would eventually own more than three-quarters of the company. In fact, he’s often credited with turning TWA into a “world-class” airline. Hughes and Frye went to Lockheed in 1939 to request a new 40-passenger airplane with a range of 3,500 miles, eventually leading to the L-049 Constellation. Hughes actually used his own money to purchase 40 of the new planes for TWA.

TWA and the “Connie” truly go hand-in-hand. In addition to its 40 L-049s, the airline went on to operate 12 L-749 and 28 of the L-749A variants, 40 L-1049 Super Constellations in multiple variants, and 30 of the L-1649A Starliners — the last in the Constellation series. For that reason, it’s only fitting that the TWA Hotel’s main attraction is N8083H — a 1958 L-1649A. The beautifully restored airplane now serves as a cocktail bar just behind Saarinen’s iconic head house. You can read her story here.

Other notable, nostalgic features include the spacious sunken lounge with an authentic split flap departures board by Solari di Udine, a rooftop infinity pool, museum exhibits, an outdoor roller skating rink and more than 500 guest rooms, many of which have floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the airfield.

So, there you have it! For aviation enthusiasts and history buffs alike, I can’t speak highly enough of the incredible, immersive experience offered by the TWA Hotel. It isn’t cheap (runway view rooms can run you roughly $300 per night) but remember it’s more than just a hotel… it’s a time machine.