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
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
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
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
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
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
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
I remember, man and machine, and I am eternally grateful.
Farewell, Lt. Col. Clyde David Douglass, USAF (Ret.), and our thanks
© Dave Norton, January
|(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.
Please click the image for a full-size view).