Last month, we looked at the dedication and financial resources that are required to keep a WWII-era P-51 Mustang in flyable condition. It is definitely not for the meek or frugal. As civilian-owned warbirds go, the P-51 probably represents the middle of the road in terms of overhead. Many aspiring warbird owners seek former trainer and liaison aircraft because they are generally much easier and less costly to maintain and operate than fighters. At the opposite end of the scale are large, multi-engine transports and bombers. While there are a few of these pricier treasures in private hangars, they often demand resources that only a diverse and well-funded organization can provide.
When it comes to WWII airplanes, few are bigger and none are more complex than the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. I recently had an opportunity to get an up-close look at FIFI, the only airworthy B-29 in the world. The airplane was at the Vintage Flying Museum in Fort Worth, Texas undergoing off-season maintenance. Just by seeing the huge airplane in the hangar with its massive engines uncowled, it was immediately obvious that it takes a tremendous operation to keep her flying. I later spoke with Kim Pardon and Brad Pilgrim from the Commemorative Air Force (CAF), the nonprofit organization that has owned and operated FIFI for more than 40 years. They were able to provide an insider's perspective of what's involved to keep FIFI in the air year after year.
Learning About FIFI
The CAF has numerous WWII-era aircraft operating from various airports around the country…including other 4-engined bombers. Yet, FIFI is the only airplane in your fleet that has a full-time crew. What is it about this airplane that demands the extra resources?
Brad Pilgrim - FIFI is probably the most maintenance intensive airplane in the CAF's fleet. In order to keep up with the required maintenance and the flying schedule, we have to keep a couple of full-time mechanics on staff.
Kim Pardon - FIFI is also the only CAF aircraft that generates the kind of revenue it takes to sustain this level of maintenance. Most other CAF aircraft rely primarily on volunteer maintenance. The organization has a lot of dedicated and talented volunteers. Because we (the B-29 crew) travel almost 24 weeks a year we rely heavily on our paid maintenance staff to travel with us and help us fulfill all of our tour obligations.
What kind of money are we talking about to keep FIFI in the air?
Pilgrim - Fuel, staff, insurance, wear and tear on tires, and other direct operating costs come out to around $10,000 an hour.
Pardon - Last year we had a record gross income of $2.2 million. Every bit of the net income goes back into the airplane either in maintenance or operating expense.
You mentioned fuel. How much AvGas does FIFI burn on a typical flight?
Pilgrim - We generally burn around 400 gallons an hour.
And how much maintenance does a 70+-year-old B-29 require? Can you give an approximate ratio of maintenance hours to flight hours?
Pilgrim - It works out to about 300 hours of maintenance for every 1 hour of flying time.
Pardon - Many of those hours are volunteer maintenance closely directed and overseen by our paid maintenance staff. We rely heavily on volunteer labor and are grateful for it.
What are some of the typical maintenance tasks that have to be done to keep FIFI airworthy?
Pilgrim- There is a periodic inspection program that is followed for heavy maintenance. The airframe itself is inspected along with the engines. How long this takes is often a matter of what you find wrong. Some of the normal things that get done during the inspections and normal maintenance on the road are: Spark plug changes, magneto timing, tire changes, brake maintenance, control cable rigging, landing gear swings, lubrication of moving parts, oil changes, window replacement, fabric repairs on control surfaces, corrosion repair, along with the normal servicing of the airplane.
What is your biggest challenge, maintenance-wise?
Pilgrim - If you had to nail down one particular challenge, it would be money. I say that because there is very little, maintenance wise, that can't be fixed with large applications of cash. With a lot of money you have the ability to buy parts when you need them, pay more specialty mechanics when you need them and just generally buy what you need when you need it. There is nothing particularly hard about maintaining FIFI. She has the same problems every other airplane has, they are just bigger in scale. If you had the ability to download knowledge from a human brain and keep it for reference, life would be simpler for us. People talk about radial engine maintenance being a lost art. And it is, to a certain extent. But there are so many people who have lifetimes of knowledge about it. It is just a matter of getting it passed on to future generations.
Is it problematic to find spare parts?
Pilgrim - It all depends on the part! Finding serviceable electrical items like the landing gear motors is getting harder to do but not impossible. It usually comes back to money as I mentioned before. The part you need will nearly always exist somewhere. It is just a matter of getting a hold of it. Being the only operator of a B-29 for all these years has allowed us to build up decent spare parts supply. The problem is that most of what we have in any kind of quantity is something that never needs to be replaced. If we don't have a part in hand then it is probably because it is starting to get a little rare. In a lot of instances we have the ability to build parts we need or adapt something from a different airplane.
I heard that it is possible to interchange B-29 parts with those from the Tupolev Tu-4 Bull, the Russian knock-off of the Superfortress. Can you comment on that?
Pilgrim - As far as TU-4 part go: We don't own any Tu-4 parts at all and there are none on FIFI. In theory there would be a couple of parts that might fit between the two airplanes, but in practicality it wouldn't work. The Russians had three B-29s that they reversed engineered to build the Tu-4. Contrary to what is usually found in books and online, the Tu-4 was far from a direct copy of the B-29. They looked alike but that is pretty much where the similarity ended. Everything was converted to metric dimensions and Russian material was used. The aluminum is a different thickness and alloy. The weapons systems were converted to use Russian guns and ammunition of a different caliber. The tires were very close to the same and could be interchanged but that is truly about it. The is an old story going around that they airplanes were so closely copied that the Russians even copied bullet holes and patches. That isn't true. The Russian designers were not stupid and really just took our design, copied it with their own needs in mind and built their version. The story is also told that the Russians copied it right down to the Boeing logo on the rudder pedals and "horn button" on the yoke. That isn't true either. The horn button had the Tupolev logo on it and Cyrillic words. No B-29, from the first prototype to the last one off the assembly line had any type of logo on the rudder pedal. The later they got in production on TU-4s, the less like B-29s they were. Like a lot of the tales behind the Tu-4, it is just propaganda to make it sound like the Russians weren't smart enough to build an airplane on their own. In reality, they have always been smart enough to let somebody else do the hard design work and just copy their efforts and adapt them to their own needs
What aspects of the airplane have been modernized?
Pilgrim - A lot of the instruments are modern. The radios, intercom and navigation system is all modern as well. We try to keep things as original as possible but there is a balance between originality and practicality. The engines we have now are a combination of later model R-3350 engines versus the original but externally most people can't tell a difference. The twin turbo chargers on each engine are removed.
What other things have been changed to demilitarize FIFI?
Pilgrim - All the armor plating has been removed and the electronics for the gun sighting system is gone. The turrets are all hollow with fake machine gun barrels on them. Extra seats have been added for passengers.
The B-29 was notable for being the first bomber with a pressurized fuselage. Do you ever fly FIFI pressurized?
Pilgrim - No, we have never pressurized FIFI. It was decided when the CAF acquired FIFI that she wouldn't be pressurized. Too much wear and tear on the airplane, added maintenance and we don't fly high enough to need it anyhow.
FIFI came to the CAF following a pretty miraculous rescue effort in 1971. Do you know how many man-hours and/or dollars it took to pull that off?
Pilgrim - It is very hard to say how many man-hours went into the initial recovery of FIFI from China Lake. I'd say safely that it was many thousands. The airplane had been abandoned to the elements for over 15 years and they had her ready for the ferry flight to Texas in 9-1/2 weeks. The contractor that did a lot of the work on the airplane in the desert was paid $26,000 for his part. That was in addition to the hundreds of hours that CAF volunteers and employees put in before the recovery flight. During the 3 year restoration after FIFI arrived in Texas, the hours were in the thousands and the expenditures were in multi thousands. I've got most of the records from that time period but I just haven't had a chance to go through it all and figure exactly what was spent.
Pardon - What we think is remarkable is that on top of all of the money and those passionate hours that saved the airplane, we have continued to generate millions of dollars and inspire volunteers to spend thousands and thousands of hours to keep this airplane flying for over 40 years. We're very proud of that.
FIFI is a well-known travelling ambassador for the CAF. What does the tour look like for 2016?
Pardon - The AirPower History Tour had 30 tour stops last year including air show events. We generally do four 6-week tours per year. Last year we flew around 100 ride flights in the B-29. Our 2016 schedule is starting to take shape. We will travel in Florida starting late February through early April. Our second tour will start in Birmingham in late May and continue over to the Mid-Atlantic states then up through New York before heading back to the Midwest. Our late summer tour takes us from the Midwest all the way to the California coast then back to Lubbock before heading home for the winter. Tour stop information can be found at www.AirPowerTour.org. We are still fine tuning the schedule so fans should check back every couple of weeks for more information.
Can you describe a typical "ride" flight in FIFI?
Pilgrim - When the passengers are all accounted for, we gather them at the nose of the airplane for a safety briefing. We tell them a little about the airplane and introduce the crew. We make a point to ask the passengers if any of them are veterans or if anybody has a personal connection to the B-29. If we know somebody is a B-29 veteran we ask them to tell us all a little about what they did in the military. We tell everybody the planned route of flight, give them a safety briefing and then load up. As soon as we get in the air, we let everybody know they are free to get up and move around. We fly around for about 30 minutes and then get everyone back in their seats just before landing.
See for Yourself
Although I've now been around FIFI up close, I've still never heard the growl of her engines or seen her take to the sky. I plan to remedy that shortcoming this fall when FIFI visits Lubbock. If seeing (or flying in) a functioning B-29 is on your bucket list as well, check the tour schedule and see if FIFI will be in your area.
My thanks to Kim Pardon, Brad Pilgrim and all of the other people in the CAF who work hard to keep this historic aircraft flying and take her around the country for all to see.