Volunteers restore rare B-29 built in 1945

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Associated Press

Posted on October 6, 2012 at 3:00 PM

ASHLAND, Neb. (AP) — The big bomber was a little late reporting for duty, rolling off a Georgia assembly line and into military service Aug. 4, 1945.

It was just two days before another B-29 — the famous, Nebraska-born Enola Gay — unleashed an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

Not much need for bombing runs after that. Still, this Boeing Superfortress found plenty of work in peacetime, serving flight crews in eight states, deploying to England, then spending much of the '50s jamming radar out of Hamilton, Calif.

It made its last flight in 1959, when a crew pointed the bird east — its four engines producing 8,800 horsepower, enough to pick up and propel 120,000 pounds — and delivered it to Offutt Air Base in Bellevue.

It was parked, retired, subjected to decades of decay.

Then came the birds, the bats, the rodents and the rot.

Then, the army of volunteers.

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The B-29 was the most sophisticated bomber of World War II — the first with a pressurized cabin, the first with remote-controlled machine guns.

It was the deadliest bomber of World War II, after the pair of missions above Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It also was the biggest.

Wing to wing: nearly half a football field.

Bottom to top: more than two stories.

End to end: 99 feet.

Inside its fat fuselage: stations for nearly a dozen crew members. Two bomb bays. Hundreds of switches, dials, gauges, buttons, levers. Complicated rivers of cables, wires and hoses. Radar scopes, oxygen tanks, even ashtrays.

The army of restoration volunteers at the Strategic Air and Space Museum embarked on a mission: Bring life back to this 35-ton bird, which was so critical to the military seven decades ago but so endangered now.

Of the nearly 4,000 B-29s the United States put to work, few remain. Fewer still are intact. Only one still flies. There are websites that list the surviving planes — their conditions and locations. Those lists aren't long.

In 1959, six B-29 bombers were stationed at Hamilton, Calif. Five landed at the big boneyard in the Arizona desert.

The sixth flew to Nebraska. More than 45 years later, the museum's crew jockeyed it out of storage and took stock.

"It was terrible. It looked like 40 years of sitting out in Nebraska weather," said Chuck Karrick, a restoration volunteer.

First, the black belly paint had to go. The classic, shining silver of the Word War II-era bomber had to come back.

The sheet metal slapped on the trailing edges of the wings and rudder had to go, too, to make room for the original fabric coverings.

The exterior work would be time-consuming — the wings alone measure more than 1,700 square feet — but relatively simple. Soda-blast it, then sand, sand, sand. Primer and paint.

But inside? It was weathered and rotted. Some instruments were broken, some were missing.

"The insulation would crumble in your hands," Karrick said. "The yoke wheels were cracked and broken, the glass was clouded."

The goal: Make the plane complete and accurate, as if it could return to service with one command from a general.

But there are few sources of replacement parts for a 68-year-old bomber.

"We just don't have a B-29 store," said volunteer Don Skaw. "You have to make everything."

The museum unveiled the bomber — now named Lucky Lady — earlier this month.

"And it looks new, ready to go," Karrick said.

But it took six years, 27,000 volunteer hours, $40,000 and a few thrift store chairs to get here.

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In his 40 years working with sheet metal — the last 30 at Cornhusker Heating and Air — Walt Meier thought he'd fixed and fabricated just about everything.

Except bombs.

But the plane was nearing completion. The unveiling was approaching. And the bomb bays, now restored and repainted, were empty.

Meier landed a half-dozen high-pressure air cylinders. He did research, studying photos of World War II bombs.

He got to work in February.

He cut the cylinders short, fashioned sheet-metal rudders at their ends and replicated propeller-like fuses for their noses. He painted them green with precise yellow trim — the military's designation for high explosives.

Late last month, he snapped his first, finished bomb into the belly of the plane.

The B-29 was loaded.

"I'm kind of careful when people ask me what I do. They kind of back up when I tell them I make bombs."

Since 2006, about 30 volunteers have contributed to the B-29's rebirth.

"Most of them did one thing or another, especially in the beginning," said Mark "Hambone" Hamilton, the museum's restoration co-manager. As the rebuild progressed, the general laborers — the sanders and cleaners — moved to other projects, and those with fabrication skills stayed with the Superfortress.

Don Skaw was an aircraft mechanic in the Navy. He spent 37 years as a plumber and pipefitter.

Then he retired and became a furniture maker.

He and his wife, Cheryl, reupholstered the B-29's two surviving seats — pilot and co-pilot — and offered to build five more.

"I ended up going to second-hand stores like Goodwill and such and picked up old office chairs. I did some alterations to make them work on the airplane."

It wasn't guesswork. Don Skaw consulted old photos, books and aircraft manuals. But the tail-gunner's seat nearly stumped him. He couldn't find a single picture or description. The best he could do: a glimpse of the chair in an old cartoon he found online called "The Lonely Tail-Gunner."

He spent 10 to 12 hours building the seat; Cheryl spent four or five more hours upholstering it.

The tail-gunner's station is at the end of a tough, contorted crawl through a cramped space. It's the only part of the plane off-limits to the public.

Skaw knew nobody would see his work back there. That didn't matter.

"I built that chair because it just needed to be built."

And then he said this: "I just love this old airplane. I really fell in love with it."

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The B-29 was gleaming late last month, days before its first public appearance.

Don Skaw, with a bucket of soapy water, was wiping down the radar-jamming station. Meier was adding the yellow trim on his fake bombs. Karrick finished painting the tires.

"I do it for the people who flew them," he said. "It's a thrill to these old folks come in who flew these planes or maintained them. They bring their families, and tears are running down their eyes. They never forget."

Another volunteer was slowly circling the bomber on a portable scaffold, wiping the giant down with a dust mop.

Inside, the control panels and instrument clusters were repaired, replaced or repainted. The foggy glass was gone. The cockpit looked ready for war.

But even with all the fresh paint and new plywood, Skaw caught something in the air — something that reminded him of this plane's long history.

"I love that it still smells like an old airplane."

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Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com

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