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Requiem for an Aircraft, Farewell to a Pilot

by Dave Norton


The day was stiflingly warm. The sky was exactly the crystalline blue overhead canopy that veteran pilots call "Severe Clear".

The sun of a summer solstice reflected off the concrete ramp at Chino Airport. It blasted first degree burns onto the normally shaded tender skin just above my eyelids, as it did also to the thousands of others there for the Chino Warbirds Airshow. Brother Dan and I knew, on a visceral level, that this was to be a special day of special days. We were in the presence of History. We didnít realize that this would be the greatest gathering of flying WWII combat aircraft we would ever see.

The warcraft were all there: the legendary P-51 Mustangs, the "Fork-Tailed Devil" P-38 Lightnings, P-40 Warhawks, YAKs, gorgeous Spitfires, Hellcats, Wildcats, Corsairs, Messerschmitts, Sea Furys, a Zero Ö and dozens of others. These were the fighters that I grew up sketching in church, and replicating in stick and tissue in adolescence, dreaming of a life in the air. The light trainers and observation planes appeared as well: L-5 ďBird-dogsĒ, L-19s, even the Stearmans and Texans in which an entire generation of pilots learned to FLY!

The bombers and transports were there, light, medium and heavy. Here were the Bostons, Goonie Birds, Commandos, a Heinkel; they were all on the ramp. Of the bombers, we saw the carrier-borne Dauntless and Avenger, sleek A-26ís and B-26ís, and thumpy-looking B-25s. We saw the B-17 Flying Fortress that carried the war to Hitlerís bunker. We had seen these before, complex machines of elegant, brute-force grace that allowed their crews ever-increasing control over World War II skies, and over the ground and sea below.

These were not, however, what called us that day. We were drawn to an aircraft so big as to defy imagination, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. It was tied down on the ramp, nose toward the runway. We took shelter beneath the B-29ís monstrous silver wings while waiting for the fighters, the transports, the dive-bombers and medium bombers to take their place in the sun in the piercing blue sky around us.

Anticipatory tension was building on the shimmering concrete ramp. Everyone felt it now. The planeís crew, a team of serious Army Air Force uniformed men, supermen, larger than life, cleared the area and attached the tow tractor's bar to the nosewheel. Slowly, the craft was brought onto the flightline; the two smaller nose wheels and four huge main wheels (taller than a man!) were chocked. A guard with a fire extinguisher stood beneath each of the four mighty engines.

The flight crew ran through, walked through, crawled through the nooks and crannies of their preflight checklist. Red-flagged gust locks and rig pins were pulled from control surfaces, access hatches, gear locking mechanisms and pitot tubes. All these visual-check items were presented below the cockpit for the pilotís inspection.

The pilot, classically young, brave, and square-jawed, was totally involved in this process of bringing his winged warrior of a machine to life. He reached overhead, below, and on both sides, setting switches and circuit breakers, knobs and levers, bringing the 4 separate throttle levers to the prime position, checking and rechecking every switch and lever.

The process continued, seemingly stretching ten actual minutes into hours. Then, the real start sequence began.

Number one engine, inboard, port side: the pilot called out the opened cockpit window "CLEAR LEFT!" The starter motor slowly rotated the prop through one revolution, and a second, and then three, clearing the cylinders of accumulated oil. The prop stopped. Again: "CLEAR LEFT!Ē The giant prop re-started its halting full circle journey, hesitatingly, as each individual cylinder rose up into its compression stroke, and then: BLAM!

A mighty belch of heady white smoke roared from the un-silenced exhaust manifold, followed by another and still another. In fits and starts, the first mighty prop was coaxed toward a raggedly continuous motion.

This is the first complete stuttering revolution of the radial engine under power, when each of 18 cylinders, the size of coffee cans, fires off and ignites aviation gas detonations from Hell. Spuming a rich mixture of fuel, air, and accumulated oil, the exhaust stacks instantly dump a dirigible-size volume of blue-white smoke into a swirling vortex, trailing back behind the aircraft into a horizontal hurricane's pinwheel.

Each of the four 2,200 HP Wright R3350 radial engines starts sequentially in this manner. They pop, belch, spit, and bellow in transition from cold dead metal museum displays to living creatures of Life and Power: roughly at first, then, gradually, segueing into a low, mellow thrumming idle, each of the huge four-blade propellers spawning Texas dust-devils to run amok through those lucky enough to be in their wake.

Hats were lost, parasols collapsed, small children were held closely to their mother's sides. The detritus of 10,000 spectators, from ice-cream wrappers to printed programs to articles of clothing was dispersed a hundred feet into the air, some to be carried into oblivion by thermals rising off the heated concrete taxiways.

Of those in this wake, of those fortunate few whose life experience allow them to see, hear, and feel, to remember in their bones and in their souls what others cannot: Those few stood transfixed, alternatively laughing and crying, weeping in gratitude for just being there at that time and place, and in gratefulness for those who came before.

In the minutes that followed, the engines came up to operating temperature, the huge pistons heating and expanding to tighten the metallic tolerances in the cylinders, reducing the cacophony of clanking rattling pistons to a thrumming bass growl, but on a scale unimaginable. The Flight Engineer carefully monitored oil pressure, the lifeís blood of each engine, pronouncing each ready for full power.

The mighty B-29 finally throttled up, the crew testing each engine in turn at peak rpm, cycling each prop through the range of pitch adjustment, running each aerodynamic control surface through its range of motion, bringing all four Wright Cyclones to full power and back to idle, releasing the brakes and beginning the slow inexorable acceleration to the moment of ROTATION!

Then the B-29 lofted its 133,000 pounds into the air with a ballet dancerís balance of power and grace, returning once more to its element, a thin cold world of cloud and contrail.

click the B-29 image for a full-size view

Dan and I were simply transfixed. I recall seeing tears in Dan's eyes, his face carrying an echo of the monumental achievements these men, these machines, contributed to our freedom. I discovered myself weeping with the same unspoken emotions, and was surprised to look down and find that I was standing tip-toe, my entire body hovering about 2 inches off the ground, tap-tap-tapping on the concrete, as a quarter might dance on a bass drum. It was a Moment!


Dan and I hadnít realized until recently that our uncle Clyde piloted just such a craft over Tokyo in the closing weeks of the war, delivering tens of thousands of the incendiary bombs that reduced entire cities to smoking ruins. When Clyde finally left the Air Force decades later, he gave me his flight bag (Aviatorís Kit B) that had accompanied him on these flights. It occupies a place of honor in my garage to this day.

Clyde would never share his stories with us. He was a quiet and gentle man, one we just couldnít picture as a hero. Yet, a hero he was. He did his duty, a duty that scarred him for life. In later years, as I came to understand this war and his role in it, I would ask him about those times. I could see a sullenness come over his face for just a moment. Then heíd ask me a question to change the subject. In these few exchanges, he made it clear that he had no pride in what he had done, desired no camaraderie with his fellow fliers, felt no honor for the devastation he had helped cause, and amazingly to me, Clyde felt no affection whatsoever for the aircraft which had brought him home safely from so many missions in harmís way.

After the war, Clyde went on to pilot one of the huge C-54 transports carrying food and medical supplies to an oppressed and starving population in West Berlin during the Berlin Airlift, in partial atonement for his service during the war. Clyde considered these humanitarian missions to be his legacy, the work of which he was most proud.

Uncle Clyde died this year; of Alzheimerís, and, perhaps, of unhealed internal war scars, cancers of the spirit more deadly than any of the flesh.

The last flying Superfortress is one human error or mechanical failure away from oblivion. The last living pilots will soon follow. Today we have little appreciation and less perceived need for such men as these. Where ever will we find them, if need arises once again?

In our past, such men, boys really, have risen. Theyíve arisen from the farmlands, from the mountain communities, the sprawling suburbs and crowded cities, from the ghettos and the universities, to step forward and serve. Until that time comes, when such young warriors will no longer need to be called upon to protect us all from national greed and prejudices, both force of circumstance, and their own conviction and courage, will bring them forth again.

May the same wisdom and foresight that directs the building of these magnificent engines of war, be judiciously and fairly applied to the leadership of those who shall fly them.

Today I stand atop my hillock of hard-won experience, with my eyes to the sky. The sights and sounds of that day, of those magnificently evil machines of war, fade into history, and those larger-than-life men who flew them flash by in that instant-replay mechanism we call human memory.

I remember, man and machine, and I am eternally grateful.

Farewell, Lt. Col. Clyde David Douglass, USAF (Ret.), and our thanks to you.

© Dave Norton, January 2001

(Illustration shows the B-50, which is a later development of the B-29 using the P&W
 R-4360-35 Wasp Major, 28 cylinder engines.
click the image for a full-size view).




see: link to David Palermo site, 360 degree virtual reality pan view of B-29 "Enola Gay" cockpit interior

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