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.

Photos: Air Force One at SEA

This blog post contains photos and video from U.S. President Joe Biden’s April 21-22, 2022, visit to Seattle, posted in the order in which they were taken. Interspersed within the imagery is the story of why this event was especially meaningful to me, both personally and professionally. -Annie

On the evening of Thursday, April 21, I got to experience something extra special… something I feel like I’ve been waiting for my entire life. On behalf of my blog, The Great Planes, I was granted White House press credentials to cover the arrival of President Joe Biden aboard VC-25A, better known as “Air Force One,” into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. I was among roughly a dozen other local journalists (mainly television news reporters and photographers) who were perched atop a platform roughly four feet high, situated on the airfield just next to where the big, beautiful presidential jet would soon park. This was my first time seeing Air Force One, so naturally it was a very special day for me as an aviation blogger and photographer. But as an aviation historian, this particular airplane and the legacy of presidential air transport has always been of interest to me, and in fact, played a large part in how I got to where I am today.

Next January will mark the 80th anniversary of U.S. presidents relying primarily on Boeing and heritage company airplanes. The first time a sitting president traveled by air was in January 1943, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt flew to Casablanca, Morocco, on a Boeing Model 314 Clipper flying boat operated by Pan American Airways. The Model 314 was the “jumbo” of her time and the original Queen of the Skies – the “Grandmother” of the Boeing 747, if you will. Over the next two decades, the presidential fleet was continually upgraded and included military versions of the Douglas DC-4 and DC-6, designated VC-54C and VC-118A, respectively. In these designations, the “V” stands for “VIP” and the “C” for “transport.” The VC-54C was the first airplane specifically built for use by the President of the United States, and was nicknamed the “Sacred Cow” by Roosevelt.

In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower broke the mold when he assumed office and brought with him a customized Lockheed Constellation, designated VC-121E. In fact, it was that airplane in that year that became the first to use the “Air Force One” callsign. In 1954, he upgraded to a Super Constellation. Toward the end of his second term, the administration acquired the first of three customized Boeing 707-120s, designated VC-137A, bringing the presidential fleet into the Jet Age. Although President Eisenhower often flew aboard the 707s – known as SAM (for Special Air Mission) 970, 971 and 972 – he still relied primarily on his Super Constellation. The U.S. Air Force “Special Air Mission” provides air transport for the sitting president and other high ranking officials. Whenever the president is on board one of the airplanes, that flight assumes the callsign “Air Force One.”

In 1962, John F. Kennedy became the first president to fly in a jet designed and built specifically for presidential use. The airplane – SAM 26000 – was the first of two highly modified Boeing 707-320Bs, designated VC-137Cs, to enter service. The second aircraft, SAM 27000, entered service in 1972. These two VC-137Cs were the first presidential planes to sport the iconic blue and white Raymond Loewy livery, still worn on today’s presidential 747s. SAM 26000 is perhaps best known for its role in one of the most tragic events in American history. On Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy flew on SAM 26000 to Dallas, where he was assassinated. Lyndon B. Johnson was then sworn in as President on SAM 26000 before it departed for Washington, D.C., with Kennedy’s body on board.

The VC-137C served as the primary presidential airplane until 1990, when the VC-25A – a modified Boeing 747-200B – was introduced. The 747 first flew in 1969 and over the last 50-plus years has served in a multitude of roles, both civil and military. However, I think most aviation professionals would agree that the 747’s most famous role in history has been that of “Air Force One.”

I began my career with Boeing toward the end of 2017, and shortly thereafter I attended a presentation by our senior corporate historian, Mike Lombardi. I was fascinated with the stories he told and did whatever I could to stay in touch with him, thinking maybe, just maybe, one day I’d be fortunate to join his team. In the summer of 2018, I was reading about Boeing’s rich history of transporting U.S. presidents, and realized that the 747 was getting close to taking the reins from the 707 as the longest serving “Air Force One” airplane. I put pen to paper and did the math, down to the day. One could take a number of different approaches to these calculations, but I chose to base mine on delivery date.

The first VC-137C was delivered to the U.S. Air Force on Oct. 10, 1962, and the first VC-25A on Aug. 23, 1990, meaning nearly 28 years (or 10,179 days) separated the two dates. I calculated that July 7, 2018, marked 10,180 days since the first VC-25A was delivered. That was it. July 7, 2018, would be the day when the 747 would become the longest serving presidential aircraft. I excitedly shared my findings with Mike, and the rest, as they say, is history. I was fortunate to join Boeing’s Historical Services team the following year, and there’s been no looking back.

I’ve been running this blog and social media accounts by the same name for five years now, and never in my wildest dreams did I think it would take me this far. I found out that my application for press credentials was approved just hours before President Biden’s arrival into Sea-Tac. Upon my arrival at the press check-in location, I was instructed to empty my bags and lay everything out across the pavement so that the Secret Service could inspect it and the security dogs could sniff it. I was patted down from head to toe, then instructed to repack my bags, before being escorted onto the airfield. The anticipation was almost as exciting as the arrival itself. The weather wasn’t great – temperatures hovered around 50 degrees and rain clouds lingered for most of the afternoon. In fact, just moments after Air Force One’s 5:11 p.m. PT arrival, it began to drizzle, and it slowly grew into a steady shower. By the time the fanfare had come to an end, I was completely unphased by the fact that I was soaking wet and freezing cold. I was actually much more concerned about my camera equipment than I was about myself.

Friday was equally exciting. I was able to spend the morning airside at King County International Airport (Boeing Field) to watch a fleet of four MV-22 Ospreys and two VH-60N Whitehawks – part of HMX-1 (Marine Helicopter Squadron One or “Marine One”) – depart for Auburn, Washington, to pick up President Biden. I then zipped down to Sea-Tac to cover Biden’s arrival on Marine One, and subsequent departure on Air Force One. The afternoon ended up being quite eventful, as a suspicious vehicle at Sea-Tac caused the prompt relocation of the 747 to the middle of the airfield, where the fleet of helicopters met it. Biden was swiftly transferred to the airplane, before it and the support helicopters departed to the south. Air Force One was headed cross-country to Philadelphia, and the Marine One fleet was going back to Boeing Field where it would spend one more night. All support equipment had left the Seattle area by lunchtime Saturday.

Everything about the President’s visit was exhilarating and inspiring. Until Thursday, I had never in my life seen a sitting president in person, and had never seen so much security in one place. I am eternally grateful for this unique opportunity and I truly hope you get even half the satisfaction from seeing these photos as I did taking them. Cue “Hail to the Chief.”

Help animals in need, order a 2022 TGP calendar!

I love aviation. Whether it’s flying, taking photos of airplanes, or watching aviation-themed movies – it’s something that brings me great joy. 

I’m also a huge animal lover. I’ll always go out of my way to help an animal in need, and in fact it was my love of animals that led me to become a vegetarian five years ago. I grew up with cats and dogs – all rescues – and today I couldn’t imagine life without my two best friends: Beans (top) and Buddy.

One of my all-time favorite animal-related experiences was back in my hometown of Minneapolis in 2014, helping to kick off the Animal Humane Society (AHS) “Community Cats” program. Community Cats works to improve the lives of free-roaming and feral cats and reduce the unnecessary euthanasia of healthy cats that are not suitable for adoption.

The program was already in the works when I stumbled upon a litter of kittens outside the parking garage of my Loring Park apartment. Working with AHS, I was able to safely live-trap all of the kittens, who were subsequently spayed/neutered and adopted, as well as the mother, who was spayed and then released back into the wild – the first of roughly 250 cats to be released in the program’s first five months.

You can read more about my experience with Community Cats on page 16 of the Spring/Summer 2015 Animal Tracks magazine.

Last year, I sold calendars featuring my aviation photography, with 100% of the profits going to Wings of Hope – we were able to donate $1,000! Since it was such a success, I figured we needed to do something again this year, which is why I’m selling 2022 calendars with 100% of the profits going to Los Angeles-based Pet Rescue Pilots, a fantastic organization that flies pets out of shelters and brings them safely to rescue groups, fosters and forever homes.

Calendars are $25 each and available to order through Monday, Nov. 15. Please, if you’re able, support this great organization and help get these animals to their forever homes!

Buy a 2022 The Great Planes calendar now

Giving back

As 2020 comes to a close, I started thinking about how I could end this crazy year on a high note.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced a lot of people to seriously cut back on doing things they love. Lucky for me, my passion for aviation photography wasn’t — and still hasn’t been — impacted. Plane-spotting is something I’ve been able to do safely and frequently throughout the year.

I feel so fortunate that I’ve been able to continue doing what I love, and with the holiday season in full swing, I started to wonder how I could give back to others.

A couple weeks back, I shared some of my favorite photos that I had taken this year with a friend of mine, who then asked, “When can I buy a calendar?” Right then I had my “Aha!” moment… I’d make 2021 calendars featuring my photos, put them up for sale, and donate 100 percent of the profits to a local aviation/humanitarian nonprofit called Wings of Hope.

I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to be able to share my photography with others, while giving back to those in need. Also, let’s be honest, 2020 has been pretty awful. What better way to forget all about it, than with a 2021 calendar filled with big, beautiful flying machines?

With that, The Great Planes 2021 Calendars are on sale now through Dec. 15. All orders will ship Dec. 22.

I sincerely wish you and your loved ones a safe and happy holiday season!

-Annie