Pilot projects takes to air

The Commemorative Air Force B-29 "FIFI" paid a visit to the Mid-South recently, including a flyover the Mississippi River at Walls. The vintage bomber plane was flown by pilots Jeff Linebaugh and Neils Agather.

Similar to planes that filled the skies over Normandy Beach on a blustery June day 74 years ago, a squadron of vintage fighter aircraft recently flew over another large body of water — the Mississippi River.

The Commemorative Air Force, based in Texas, brought several of their expertly restored airplanes to the former Millington Naval Airbase

so that the public could see and even ride in aircraft that played a part in ending World War II and served the U.S. Air Force during the 1950s.

The aircraft flew high over Walls, Tunica and the metro Memphis area.

Of the five planes that came from the CAF's home in Dallas, the star

attraction was the B-29 Superfortress "FIFI", one of two of the 4,000 B-29s produced at the end of the war that is still operational.

Perhaps the most famous Superfortress was the “Enola Gay”, which carried

the world's first atomic bomb "Little Boy" from a base on Tinian Island in the South Pacific to Japan and dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.

That raid, followed by a second B-29 “Boxcar” which dropped a second atomic weapon on Nagasaki, ended the conflict that had involved U.S. forces since entering the war in 1942.

The original B-29 that was rescued from the junkyard and which became "FIFI" was built by Boeing at their plant in Renton, Washington and rolled off the assembly line in July, 1945, too late to see action.

It was then decommissioned shortly after the war, having never left U.S. soil.

All but forgotten and spared from being cut-up for scrap like other B-29s, the plane was flown to and parked at the U.S. Navy's China Lake weapons center in the desert of California. There it sat for decades in the dry heat.

Pilot Neils Agather said it was a treasure waiting to be plucked from the desert sand.

“The Commemorative Air Force had wanted a B-29 to add to their collection, but the military said that no Superfortresses remained. Then in 1971, a pilot spotted several of them at China Lake where they'd been sitting for 17 years."

Agather said the old fighter plane was haggled over and bartered for after some intense discussions.

"Negotiations got underway, which my dad played a major part in, and after lengthy negotiations with the military, the CAF acquired the aircraft," Agather said. “The next problem was if the B-29 be flown and was it airworthy? So a CAF maintenance team flew to China Lake to prepare the plane so that it could be flown to our maintenance facility in Harlingen, Texas so that the extensive and intensive work could begin. That was in March of '71 and by August – with all systems restored, fuel, oil, and hydraulic hoses replaced – it was ready to take to air."

Complete restoration and certification would take another three years and millions of dollars, but donations and support poured-in and the project moved forward.

“Then by late 1974, the B-29 was ready to go on tour and it was christened 'FIFI' in honor of my dad's efforts and, his way of honoring my mother who was named 'Fifi',” according to Agather.

By 2010, in order to upgrade the plane mechanically and keep it in top shape, the four engines were brought up to the more powerful 2,000 horsepower version of the Wright Cyclone 18-cylinder motor and some additional electronics were installed.

But to qualify the B-29 to carry passengers, "FIFI" was licensed an

“experimental” aircraft by the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) since it is one of only two still flying. And actually, the those standards and

requirements are much more strict.

Every crew member involved with the airplane is a volunteer who loves the

plane, and loves being a part of the Commemorative Air Force because it

gives each one an opportunity to fly and to be around the various types of

aircraft that the CAF owns.

Flying as co-pilot during "FIFI's" weekend visit was FedEx pilot Jeff Linebaugh, who lives in Memphis.

“It's a totally different airplane than the 757 that I fly for FedEx,” he explained, “and in some ways, it's much more of a handful. The 757 is virtually a computer controlled jet aircraft where the B-29 requires

physical strength,” Linebaugh said.

Both Linebaugh and Agather agreed that the Superfortress is a joy to handle because, as Agather noted, “It's living history. At the end of the war and through the early 1950s, the B-29 was our frontline bomber – the largest in the inventory – and the most sophisticated in its day. The plane saw the majority of action in the Pacific Theater, and played a major role in bringing the conflict to an end,” he said, adding, “We all love flying, crewing, maintaining and sharing this historic aircraft with the

public.”

The fighting "FIFI" and the other planes that visited the base in Millington stop dover in Jackson, Tenn. where citizens there got a

chance to see 'living history' before the planes then moved on to complete

their 2018 Airpower History Tour.

Pilots of the aircraft all agreed it was a sight and flight to behold.

Mike Lee is a free-lance writer based in Hernando.

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