As the WWII bomber flew overhead on a dreary Monday, the dark grey clouds parted as a small beam of light from the evening sun opened in the sky and the B-29 Superfortress began its final pass with the 4 turbine engines roaring in the air as landing gear slowly appeared. Standing there judging the distance I quickly grabbed my longer lens, snapped it in place, and pointed up as fast as I could hoping to not miss a shot. Minutes turned to seconds and the B-29 called ‘Fifi,’ descended about 200 ft from where I stood during the Commemorative Air Force’s “Air Power History Tour,” at the Leesburg International Airport.
Landing smoothly, smoke erupted from the undercarriage and it was one of the most largest war planes I had ever set eyes on. Making its way down the runway a large crowd of plane enthusiasts and veterans gathered to see the magnificent monster of a machine — the same monster that dropped the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki saving roughly a million American lives and a few million Japanese. Although this B-29 at the show never dropped bombs it is one out of a handful that survived the war and is the only one that still flies today.
Watching the crew deplane was very interesting. In full head-to-toe gear, they each fit the role of operating such a historic piece of WWII. The shafts of the undercarriage opened, ladders fell from the cockpit, small windows popped up as bodies wiggled from the top of the aircraft and each person did their duty. For a brief moment it was like watching young men in the 1940s scrambling around performing maintenance and making sure everything was done with precision.
After coming down from the high that was placed before me from all of the adrenaline, the reporter and I were asked if we would like to come aboard. The high immediately came back and hit me like a bag of bricks. With my camera wrapped around my side and my flash dangling like a noodle from a cord I held on to a very thin ladder ascending up into the cockpit. As the smell of oil and gasoline disrupted my senses I felt like I was in military fatigues getting ready for flight preparations. Lifting myself up to the last step into the B-29, sweat began to drip from my brow. The sound of high heels clicked as they echoed and followed me remembering that I was a photojournalist on assignment as the reporter made the last few steps as she joined me inside.
From all of the years of use, the metal, the paint, along with the gas from the engines and the equipment, it had a distinctive odor that history embedded inside of the aircraft. So many different gauges, wires, equipment, seats for flight engineers and gunners crowded the space. The outside of the bomber seemed so huge, but the inside not so much. Looking around, I was in utter amazement as I sat down in the pilot’s seat the perspective changed. Ahead of me the window was huge and round and I wondered what it would have been like soaring in the sky over the Pacific. I just couldn’t get over that I was sitting in a B-29, a once in a lifetime chance to experience something so unique, yet a historic piece to the United States military.
Turning around I began to photograph, leaving my flash with the reporter as she descended back down to reality. I wanted to spend a few minutes alone up in the hull of the bomber capturing some of the natural light as it illuminated the space creating a lonely ambiance that only a slower shutter speed would be able to capture. In front of me now was a hole in the plane about 15 ft or so long. Below it were the areas where the replica bombs now lay to rest, but at one time the B-29 Superfortress carried a 20,000 lbs payload. To my curiosity I had to know what was on the other side of the plane so I yelled down to the man at the ladder and asked him if I could crawl through the dark hole to the other side. He replied yes and yet again with my camera strapped to my side I forced my way into the crawl space. The very small space felt like a mouse-hole, dark with hardly any headroom and a long green camouflage cushion under my knees. I tried to imagine what it would have been like for a young man pushing his way through this dark tunnel thousand of feet in the air possibly being fired upon as crew members yell and the sounds of return fire from the gunners echo.
Making it to the other side there is a tall chair on a platform with a plastic type dome-shaped window. I pull myself up to the chair and it is a top gunner seat in the back of the aircraft alongside a starboard waist gunner, a port waist gunner and a radar operating area. By this time I am completely overwhelmed and the inside of the plane is muggy and hot, but nonetheless I see a way back out onto the ground as the rest of the crew passes cargo out a back entrance ladder.
My experience on the B-29 Superfortress was nothing short of amazing. Being inside of an aircraft that men were on during WWII was something very unique. The opportunity as a photojournalist for something like this was once in a lifetime, also taking into consideration that this is the only B-29 that is flying.
The day after the reporter and I were on assignment for this we picked up a 90-year-old WWII veteran, Vinny Ranzino who was a Flight Engineer in the Army Air Corps that was on a B-29 in 1945 to bring him out to the Leesburg International Airport so he could see and relive a moment from his younger days. We captured his story while we were there and it was heartfelt and wonderful to see the smile on his face. He knew a lot about the aircraft and was excited to walk around with us as he touched the plane and even waited in line to climb up the ladder into the cockpit so he could sit in the same seat that he sat in 69 years ago. We climbed up with him, and for a brief moment as he placed his fragile hands upon the gears, Vinny was a young man again.
Photos by Cal Gaines, Photojournalist