My most memorable flying experience was on September 20th, 2011, when I got my copilot checkout in Fifi, the only flying Boeing B-29. I had never dreamed I’d get the chance to wrap my hands around the controls of the Superfortress.
After a briefing with Capt. Bill Geoken, we head out to Fifi. There she sits, waiting for me. I head straight for the cockpit, climb on up and sit down in the copilot seat. This is going to be my little corner of heaven for the next couple of hours. It’s time to crank this baby up, and it ain’t just batt on and clear right…this is serious.
I say, “Somebody give me a checklist, I’m the newbie.” The rest of the crew has done this countless times, and it sounds like a well-oiled machine. Now, the engines are all fired up. One good thing about these old radials is that it takes a while to warm up, so there’s plenty of time to get your clearance.
The wings are 141 feet long. Because of their length, the outboard engines have to be shut down so we can taxi to the runway. Once we reach the end of the runway, we can start the outboards again. Capt. Bill says, “Aaron, call them, and tell them we are ready to go.” I make the call.
We’re cleared for takeoff, so we roll out to the runway. You need to get as straight as you can because when you start the roll down the runway, it’s going to be important. Now, Capt. Bill holds the brakes and calls for 30-inch manifold pressure. The engineer adjusts to 30 inches, and the boss releases the brakes. From this point to 65 mph, it’s all directional control with the engines. It’s like steering a bulldozer passing through 65 mph.
Capt. Bill states: “Engineer’s throttles,” then comes 100 mph. He barely lifts the nosewheel to set takeoff attitude, and at 120 mph, she flies off the ground with no effort and a positive rate of climb. Gear up! Now, we’re looking for 150 knots for flaps up, and Capt. Bill calls for climb 1 (40 inches, 2,400 rpm)—now 170 mph, climb 2 (38 inches, 2,300 rpm)—at this point, I felt busier than a one-armed Sheetrock hanger.
Capt. Bill calls for climb check. As soon as we get that done, he announces, “Ok, Aaron you got it.” I reply, “I got it or maybe it’s got me!” Talk about control input: You put a little in, and nothing happens. You put a lot in, and a little happens. They had told me it was a handful, and I now believe it. If you aren’t way ahead of this airplane, it’s going to eat your lunch and your lunch box.
We head to Alliance, Texas. They’ve got a great big 11,000-foot runway, so a greenhorn like me will have plenty of time to get Fifi on the ground. Even though this ship does roll all over the sky, it’s nothing for this big baby to hit speeds of over 200 mph in a skinny minute. Next, I’m calling for gear down abeam my landing point. Capt. Bill says, “This is just going to be a low approach, so you can get a good sight picture for the real thing next time.” Wheels are out with 15 degrees flaps. On base leg, flaps 25 degrees, manifold pressure 23 inches.
The flight engineer is controlling the throttles, so you just tell him what you want, which is a weird feeling. But like I said earlier, you’ve got your hands full just flying this airplane, so even though it’s hard to get used to, it’s nice to have the help. We’re on final now with 45- degree flaps…need to keep it at about 140 mph till short final…then comes the command to go around. I call to the engineer for takeoff power and flaps 25. It doesn’t take long for this giant piece of sheet metal to transition from a descent to a max rate of climb.
All I have to do is get her going up at a positive rate of climb, and then I call for gear up, flaps 15, and now I’m looking for 150 mph…flaps up, climb 1 power, now 170 mph, climb 2 power. Capt. Bill says, “Left traffic for a full stop, same as the first, but this time keep it all the way to touchdown.”
Before I know it, I’m on short final starting to slow her down to about 120 mph. The sink rate is high, so I start arresting it at about 75 feet. Capt. Bill nudges me a little to the left to get on centerline, and then she touches down.
All is silent on the rollout, and we make the turn off the runway. I’m sweating bullets. The silence is broken by Capt. Bill’s reassurance: “If that is as bad as it gets, you are going to be okay, Buster! Now taxi back, and do it again.” We approach the end of the runway. Man, those brakes are tricky, and I have to work my tail off just to get her back down to the end. They clear us for takeoff.
I get her straight, set the brakes, call for 30 inches, and Rick the engineer says, “Go.” I drop the brakes and steer with the throttle. There goes 65 mph and “engineer’s throttles.” It doesn’t take long, and here comes 100 mph. I ease her back to takeoff pitch just like Capt. Bill had done. At 115, 120, 125 mph, then we’re off…positive rate of climb and gear up.
I’m watching my speeds and calling for checklists. After a few more landings, Capt. Bill congratulates me: “Ok, greenhorn, you made the grade.” I’m so happy that I could jump out and do cartwheels on the tarmac, but I keep my cool.
Many thanks to everyone that made that possible for me: Steve, Neils, Rozie, David, Gerald, Mike, the B-29 crew, Dave and Rick. I’ll turn a wrench on Fifi anytime you need me to. Last but not least, Capt. Bill, you’re firm but fair, and a great aviator!
Aaron Tippin is a musician, pilot, farmer, winemaker, outdoorsman and avid bodybuilder. He runs his own record label and is currently travelling the U.S. on his Red, White and Loud tour. Learn more at www.aarontippin.com.