Several thousand feet in the air and less than 100 feet apart, “Doc” and “Fifi” — the last two B-29 Superfortress bombers still flying — gently bounce in unison over the verdant fields of rural Virginia.
Inside “Doc,” little can be heard over the growling roar of the four Curtiss-Wright R3350 engines as pilot Steve Zimmerman concentrates on keeping the aircraft apart.
A short while later, a B-25 Mitchell bomber, trailed by four P-51 Mustang fighters, sidles up along Doc’s right.
After the Mustangs peel away, the Mitchell moves ahead of Doc.
The aircraft, traveling at about 190 mph, are so close that the faces of photographers can be seen as they take pictures from the back of the Mitchell.
“It’s a challenge,” Zimmerman would later say of flying in formation with so many other aircraft. “The fighters can zip around. We can’t. We are too big and too heavy.”
The bombers and fighters were part of a roughly 60-plane flying flotilla on a nearly two-hour mission practicing for the Arsenal of Democracy Washington flyover, scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Friday.
The flyover, which was rescheduled due to the ongoing pandemic, will see about 70 aircraft fly over the nation’s capital to celebrate victory in WWII.
Rising like a phoenix
But for Doc, in particular, any time in the air is a celebration.
Rolling off the Boeing assembly line in March 1945, B-29 No. 44-69972 (now known as Doc) was delivered to the U.S. Army. It never flew in combat and during its short service life, spent its time assigned to radar calibration duty, along with a few other B-29s, according to the aircraft’s website. The squadron was known as the Seven Dwarfs.
In May of 1955, Doc was assigned to target-towing duty and in March a year later, Doc and the rest of its squadron became targets for bomb training at China Lake, California.
For the next four decades, Doc sat in the Mojave Desert serving as a target for the U.S. Navy. But in 1987, a Cleveland-area businessman named Tony Mazzolini found Doc and had a dream. He wanted to restore the old warbird to its original glory.
For Mazzolini, now 86, it would take more than a decade before he and his team would be able to take possession of the airplane from the U.S. government. In April of 1998, Tony and his team of volunteers towed Doc out of its 42 year resting place on the floor of the Mojave Desert.
According to the plane’s website, after arranging for an inspection by an expert on aging Boeing aircraft, Mazzolini realized it would take extensive resources and specific expertise to return the Doc to flying condition. So the B-29 returned to Wichita in sections on flatbed trailers in May of 2000. Volunteers began the process of reassembling the B-29 and drew up plans to restore the historic warbird, which was now sitting a few hundred feet from where it first rolled off the Boeing-Wichita assembly line some five decades earlier. Dedicated volunteers spent long hours in the early stages of restoring the historic plane.
In February of 2013, a group of Wichita aviation enthusiasts & business leaders led by retired Spirit AeroSystems CEO Jeff Turner formed Doc’s Friends, a 501c3 non-profit board to manage the restoration project and help see it through to completion. And three years later, on July 17, 2016, the refurbished aircraft took to the air for the first time.
Flight of honor
For Anita Mack, riding aboard Doc was a special honor.
An Air Force lieutenant colonel and C-130 navigator, Mack, 48, has spent time in the air in warzones. A member of the Commemorative Air Force, she flies her own WWII-era HE-1, a single-engine Piper hospital plane.
But she said it was “awe-inspiring” to fly in Doc “knowing what crews went through during WWII.”
After the flight, she was ebullient.
“Pure joy,” she said, explaining how she felt flying in the type of bomber that helped the allies defeat Japan. “While there is no way to compare what these crew did and what I do, this was a special experience.”
Thomas Vaucher’s face lit up with a huge smile as the golf cart he was riding approached Doc.
That’s because Vaucher, 102, used to pilot Superfortresses during the war.
In fact, he flew the first one Boeing delivered to the Army Air Corps in July 1943.
“It was the most wonderful airplane I ever flew,” said Vaucher. “I flew 41 different airplanes and the B-29 was by far — by far — the best.”
The reason, said Vaucher, was that the Superfortress had the first pressurized cabin, allowing crew to fly in far greater comfort than older bombers like the B-17 Flying Fortress.
Vaucher laughed when asked what it was like to deliver the first one.
“That was an experience,” he said. “I only had two hours and 15 minutes in the airplane” when he flew it to be delivered to the 40th Bombardment Group.
He would go on to fly 29 missions in that plane and many more in others in a career that took him to India, China, Guam, Saipan and Tinian.
It was there he saw another B-29 that would become one of the most infamous of the war.
The Enola Gay dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945.
But Vaucher had no idea about its future role.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” he said.
Rosie the Riveter
Having Doc take to the air has instilled pride in a lot of people — and rightly so.
But perhaps no one was as proud Thursday in Manassas as Connie Palacioz.
Now 95, she is one of the last of the surviving women who worked in the Boeing plant in Wichita. They became known as “Rosie the Riveter,” with a scarf on their head, striking a bent-arm pose to show might.
The iconic character, she said, was developed to counter Japanese propagandist Tokyo Rose.
“I riveted the nose assemblies on 1,644 B-29s,” said Palacioz, who stands a diminutive 4-11.
That means that she worked on every Superfortress ever made.
Touching the now-gleaming silver warbird, she recalled how it wasn’t always so pristine. And she took a moment to take pride in her craft.
“It was in the desert for 40 years,” she said. “But in all that time, it only lost seven rivets in the nose section.”
Doc and about 70 other aircraft will fly over Washington starting at 11:30 a.m. Friday. Some of the aircraft expected to participate include bombers like the two B-29s, the B-25 Mitchell and a B-17 Flying Fortress, fighters like the P-51 Mustang, P-38 Lightning, P-47 Thunderbolt and transports like the C-47 Skytrain.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.