The "Doc" Experience

Prose and Photography: Nick Moore

As a child, a typical Sunday morning for me was playing around at the local airport in Pratt, KS while my grandfather either worked on or flew his various aircraft. This airport was the former Pratt Army Airfield (PAAF) and was the first B-29 Superfortress base, home to the 58th Bombardment Wing, so my introduction to the B-29 came early, but my fascination has not faded since then. August 10, 2018 was to be the first Living History Flight Experience offered in Doc’s hometown of Wichita, KS, and when I heard about this first revenue flight of the year, I jumped at the chance. Flying on a real Boeing B-29 Superfortress? Yes, please.

Upon arrival at Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport (ICT), I was greeted in the lobby of Yingling Aviation by various "Doc’s Friends" volunteers, flight crew, fellow passengers, and other Doc “fans” (a B-29 is difficult to disguise on the ramp). There was a quick briefing and we were given our lanyard boarding passes, and once the crew was ready for us, we headed out single file like elementary school out the door and to the airplane. I had been fortunate enough to photograph Doc on the ground many times so this part was nothing new to me. That would change quickly.

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We were given a few minutes to admire the plane from the ramp and exchange pleasantries with our fellow passengers and the crew who were dressed in olive drab flight suits. Doc's polished surface acted like a fun house mirror for anything near it; the closer I got, the more twisted my reflection became. Halfway up the rounded fuselage the reflections changed from tarmac and passengers into azure Kansas sky; a perfect day for flying. We gathered into in a circle for the pre-flight briefing where each member of the crew introduced themselves, told us a bit about their aviation history and their time with Doc, and explained what their responsibility for the flight was.

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The pilot, Mark Novak, laid out what to expect on the ride and gave us a proper safety briefing just as one would get on any commercial flight. He also explained that it was the crew’s mission to help us understand what 18-year-old boys “off the farm” would experience back during World War II. Our flight would be a short 30 minute hop over sleepy Kansas prairie. In stark contrast, their ride would be 16 hours long, most of that time over nothing but water, carrying tens of thousands of pounds of incendiary or high explosives bombs, with the displeasure of being shot at by flak and fighters. We would land and head home to our families, these boys would hope to just get back to base in one piece to survive another night near a strip carved out of a malaria infested jungle on an otherwise deserted island. It was easy to get lost in the wonder of the aircraft itself, sometimes it is worth reminding everyone that this was a weapon of war.

After the introductions and briefing, we headed to our respective entrances to the aircraft. Since the B-29 was a pressurized bomber, it was constructed with two main cabins (fore and aft) and a tunnel routed through the bomb bay so that the plane would not need to depressurize in order drop its ordinance. Three passengers would occupy the front cabin in the Navigator, Radio Operator, and Bombardier positions along with the Pilot, Co-pilot, and Flight Engineer stations manned by the crew members. This group entered through a ladder in the nose gear well. My seat would be in the aft cabin where the gunners operated during combat. Ladder access was provided to an opening immediately forward of the horizontal stabilizer. Access is tight and was designed for able-bodied young people; yours truly had to maneuver carefully to squeeze inside. The crew was wonderful in ensuring all of the passengers got aboard safely and also made sure that no one bumped their head on anything.

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We each made our way to our comfortable seats, sat down, and buckled our safety belts. Doc had two crew members designated as “Scanners” seated at each side plexiglas “blister” directly in front of the passenger seats and a third crew member sitting behind the passengers for other general passenger assistance. The Scanner’s job is to be the eyes of the crew at the back of the aircraft as the crew in the forward cabin has very limited visibility of anything on the aircraft from the engines on back.

Each seat was accompanied by a very nice, comfortable set of Sennheiser headphones. Not only would these headphones serve as hearing protection from the noise of four massive R-3350 engines but they also let us in on the work the crew was doing. Each item on the pre-start checklist was rattled off and every single member of the crew played a part. This audible ballet was amazing to me as it was likely the same checklist used by the bomber crews some 74 years prior. It was very clear to me that the crew took each checklist item very seriously.

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By the time the pre-start checks were wrapping up it was becoming very apparent to me that the aluminum tube we were strapped in to was starting to collect the heat from this 95-degree afternoon. This further hit home just what the brave crews were facing during the war as they waited on the steamy ramps of Tinian or Guam in the South Pacific; loaded with fuel and ordinance and praying that they would make it back home safely just to have to load back up in the following days and do it all over again. I looked around the olive green alodine coating on the aluminum inside the fuselage and tried to imagine their emotions.

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Hearing the magic words “Pre-Start Checklist Complete”, I knew the real fun was about to commence. The visibility in the aft cabin was very limited but we could hear the crew run through the start-up checklist. The prop was run through a couple times and then we felt a quick shudder followed by the vibration of engine number 3 coming to life. I ducked my head down to see what I could out of the right blister. Smoke poured from the exhaust for a couple seconds and then the vibration seemed to subside as the engine settled into a comfortable idle.

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This process was repeated for engine number 2 on the left side of the plane. The chatter on the intercom was that of a crew ready to go fly. Once taxi clearance was granted, the two engines running growled to a higher RPM and the 74-year-old work of art came to life, lurching into motion. The subtle braking action on the left side and then the right side of the plane was indicative of the differential braking required to steer the bomber. Once we were close to the Hold Short line of Runway 1R but still taxiing, the Flight Engineer began the start sequence for the remaining engines (number 1 and  4). At the Hold Short line the Pre-Takeoff Checklist was completed and the engines were put through a run-up. The aircraft shuddered even more with the increase in power and the noise level rose. When the Flight Engineer was happy after the run-up, those magic words came through our headphones. I'll never forget them:

“Doc 72, Fly runway heading, Runway 1R, Cleared for takeoff.”

The RPM of all four of the twin-row radial engines came up. A few more taps of the left brake and we were in position on the runway. The power increased again and we were rolling. The visibility for the passengers in the aft cabin was not that great from our seats as we were behind the side blisters and there are no other windows in the aluminum fuselage. Our views would soon be changing… but for the time being, I did what I could to see outside as the pavement began to move through my view much more quickly. All of the sudden the subtle vibration from the tires on the runway ceased. I heard one of the pilots call for “gear up” and then it hit me. I was really flying in a B-29.

The ground that I could see out the right side of the plane was quickly getting farther away from us. As I was looking out the blister, I heard on the intercom that the passengers were free to move about the cabin. The Scanners got up from their seats directly in front of the side blisters and sat on the floor forward of each position, motioning for us to unbuckle and sit in the seats they just vacated. I didn't need any more encouragement; I unbuckled, removed my headphones and made my way to the starboard Scanner’s position.

The limited visibility that I mentioned previously was quickly forgotten as I poked my head into the plexiglass blister; the view was unforgettable. One thing that was mentioned during the briefing was that the blisters were deceivingly deep. As I stuck my head in and was looking around, the crewmember nearest me tapped me on the shoulder and tapped on the deepest portion of the blister indicating that I still had a ways to go before I was in all the way. This improved my view even further, and I could now see the entire tail section all the way to the right wing and everything in between. These well-maintained blisters gave you the illusion that you were sticking your body into the 200+ knot slipstream. I took a few shots with my camera deep in the blister and then gave up my seat to the next person waiting to indulge in this wonderful view.

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No sooner than I got up out of the seat, the port Scanner’s seat became available and I quickly found myself looking out the opposite side of the plane. The Scanner who had given up his seat for us to enjoy the view tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I wanted to have him take my picture. This was one thing that really stuck with me on this trip; the crew really went out of their way to make this special ride an “experience” for all of us onboard.

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Once I ended my time in the Scanner’s seat I noticed that the Fire Control Officer’s station in the center of the fuselage was unoccupied. I was most excited about exploring this seat. This rotating seat is located on a pedestal directly in between the two scanner positions, like sitting on a swivel chair on your dining room table. Once seated, your head is sticking out the top of the fuselage into a tinted blister giving you a perfect 360-degree view of everything above and beside the aircraft. This was one of the main computer-controlled firing stations that would have been used to remotely aim two or more 50-cal turrets to defend the mighty B-29 in battle. A simple push with your feet on the base of the seat would spin the seat 360-degrees so that you never had to strain your neck. Aside from looking through the front “greenhouse” in the cockpit, this easily was the best seat in the house.

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I went back to my seat to reflect as the other passengers got their fill of these positions, and after a couple minutes, these three positions became available again and I made one more trip through each, just soaking it in without the distraction of my phone or camera. I just couldn’t help but think what a magnificent machine Doc was. These volunteers had devoted so much of their lives over many years to virtually make a “brand new” B-29. Up to this day, my warbird flying experience was limited to a Stearman, T-6, and a Bird Dog. I was truly amazed at how smooth of a ride we had. The large and powerful aircraft did not seem to mind turbulence generated by the heat of the afternoon. Outside of one good bump, we barely felt any turbulence.

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Just as quickly as we were turned loose to roam the cabin, it was time to return to our seats for landing. The Pre-Landing Checklist was executed. The Pilot called for gear down and various flap positions. Each command was met with some noise, a noticeable attitude change, and finally a verification from each of the Scanners that the action was complete. An LED display forward of the Scanners showed our position on the moving map so it was very clear when we were on short final.  I was able to duck my head down enough to see out the side blister. The view of grass quickly turned to pavement. We heard the decrescendo of the four engines as the power was reduced.

The Pilot was heard on the intercom talking to the old bird; asking for it to use the subtle crosswind to align the plane right on the centerline at touchdown. After a few more encouraging words from the Pilot, the main tires kissed the pavement ever so gently with a chirp. A few taps of the brakes and we were exiting the runway. The crew quickly pointed out to everyone that Doc’s new home/hangar currently under construction was directly off our right wing.

A few more moments passed, and we were parked on the ramp. The crew executed the shutdown checklist. As all four engines came to a stop, the air moving in the cabin also stopped. The aluminum fuselage very quickly returned to being an aluminum heat sink. I unfastened my safety belt and worked my way to the rear door and then down the ladder. Once on the ground, I could not help but to look up at the giant vertical stabilizer in disbelief of what I had just experienced. An old dream had come true.

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The mission of Doc’s Friends is to educate this generation about the bravery and heroism of those who served and protected us when they were called upon, and this mission was fully executed. If Doc comes to your area, I highly recommend that you jump at the chance to experience this, just as I did. I was taken back in time and it was amazing. This is one experience that I will never forget.

Ride information can be found at: