Washington Revisited

A search of my files revealed little of the Squadron’s Washington era, other than a couple of photographs pulled from the internet. I was therefore most grateful to John King of Ontario, Canada, for sending the following piece.

The Commemorative Air Force, based in Dallas, Texas, operates one of only two Boeing B-29 Superfortress aircraft that are currently airworthy. Bearing the logo ‘Fifi’, this beautifully preserved aircraft paid an extended visit to Hamilton International Airport in the province of Ontario, Canada, in 2018. The visit presented me with an opportunity to travel back in time some sixty-six years; one I simply could not miss.

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Fifi on the CWH Museum ramp at Hamilton Airport, Ontario

The last time I had seen a B-29 airborne was in 1952, at which time I was a very young (22 year old) sergeant flight engineer serving with 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron, based at RAF Coningsby. The Squadron was then equipped with ‘Washington’ aircraft, as the B-29 was named in RAF service. The Squadron had disbanded at RAF Wyton at the end of November 1950 and had bid farewell to its Avro Lincoln B2 aircraft. The process of re-equipping with the B-29 aircraft was conducted at RAF Marham where, under the guidance and instruction of the staff of the Washington Conversion Unit (comprising a mixture of both RAF and USAF personnel) the nucleus of the new squadron learned the new skills necessary to operate this, what was then, advanced aircraft. Many new experiences awaited us …. pressurised comfort combined with a realistic heating system, remotely controlled gun turrets, turbo-supercharged engines allowing cruising levels of 30,000 feet, and many others, including hot in-flight meals.

The crew complement of the Washington was significantly greater than that of the Lincoln; the number of gunners, for instance, (now referred to as Scanners and Central Fire Controller) doubled from two to four. A second pilot was also added to the crew. The role of the Flight Engineer was also much changed. In the Lincoln he acted as not much more than the pilot’s ‘secretary’ (recording engine data and fuel state), plus operator of undercarriage and RPM levers. He now played a crucial role. This was especially so when long range flights were involved, since it was his responsibility to ensure that the correct airspeeds were flown in order to obtain maximum range. Considering the weight change that occurred in a flight of 18 or more hours, when some 6,000 gallons of fuel would be consumed, this was no mean task and called for a pre-flight preparation lasting several hours. The results of his calculations were then passed to the Nav/Plotter for use in the overall flight planning process.

Another change from the Lincoln was the size of the bomb bays. There were now two of them, one front and one rear, separated by a 1,000 gallon central fuselage fuel tank, with a combined capacity for 20 x 1000 lb bombs. The normal training load of 8 x 25 lb smoke/flash bombs in each bay were almost lost within the spacious caverns. The two pressurised crew compartments were joined by an access tunnel which ran through the length of the two bomb bays.

The conversion course lasted until early April 1951, during which time I flew some 76 hours as flight engineer in the Washington and completed 220 hours of ground school training. No 44 Squadron re-formed at Coningsby and I remained a member until posted to ITS at Cranwell for the start of pilot training in 1952. Happily, my FTS was based in the then colony of Southern Rhodesia.

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‘This hatch never used to be this small!’

In August 2018, I arrived at Hamilton Airport with mixed emotions. I was anxious to see ‘Fifi’ and hoped to be able to visit the flight deck and occupy my old seat at the flight engineer’s panel once again. I was. however, prepared to be disappointed in my hopes for two reasons: the first being one of aircraft security and the second my own agility, or lack thereof! The prospect of climbing the vertical ladder mounted in the nose wheel bay (the normal front crew entry) left me in doubt that I would be able to negotiate such a climb these days. However, once out on the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s parking ramp, I quickly realised that I had no need to worry. The operating crew and associated staff accompanying Fifi on her visit to Canada had given every consideration to this very matter. Not only was the flight compartment open to the visiting public but an access ladder was provided in the from bomb bay, which gave entry via the forward bomb bay pressure bulkhead door.

Being early in the day, the line-up to visit Fifi was short and my wife and I had but a brief wait before entering the front bomb bay itself. Here a member of the staff, a charming lady well-versed in Fifi’s history, gave a comprehensive introduction to visitors, which included specific instructions on entry via the access ladder. Once the previous group had exited the flight compartment we, the next group, were directed up the ladder. I will admit that it certainly challenged my agility but I was determined to pass the test - and pass I did.

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“Ready for engine start.” Re-living the past after a gap of 66 years.

On reaching the familiar forward compartment, we were greeted by yet another member of the CAF staff who offered a verbal tour of this part of the aircraft. The most convenient position for him to give his briefing was from ‘my’ seat. Out of courtesy to the other visitors, I waited until he had finished his short talk and then asked if he would mind vacating his position so that I could travel back to 1952. As soon as our host realised I was a former crew member, he swiftly made way for me and I was instantly transported back through 66 years. In a flash, I was back home.

The years fell away like water off a duck’s back. Although, sadly, he is no longer with us, I sensed the presence of my old captain , Flt Lt (later Sqn Ldr) G W O’Donovan in the now empty left seat. The instrument panel before me was as familiar as if I had last looked upon it just the day before. All the switches, controls and indicators came readily to hand - I could even recall the full extent of the Flight Engineer’s Before Landing report, which was verbally passed to the captain during the landing preparation. It all proved to be a most emotional occasion.

Having had my fill of memories and conscious of the line-up behind me, anxious to enter this historic aircraft, we exited via the normal nose wheel entry ladder. I then sort out Fifi’s current Flight Engineer. Once it became known that I was a former B-29 crew member, he, along with the remainder of the visiting staff, were most interested in my presence and prompted many queries regarding the time and place of my experience. It soon transpired that they were completely unaware that the Royal Air Force had operated the B-29, but fortunately I had prepared myself by coming equipped with a copy of the excellent Air Britain publication ‘The Washington File’. It contains a concise history of the B-29 in RAF service and includes many photographs of the aircraft and its crews. A detailed history of every Washington is also included.

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Together again, in spirit

Needless to say, the occasion was one which I gladly allowed my memory to recall those that I flew with and other contemporaries of 44 Sqn. Unfortunately, few remain with us today. Nevertheless, I carried a photo of WF508 and her former crew so we were together once again, at least in spirit, and beside a great example of aeronautical preservation.

The visit produced a most happy occasion for me and my wife insists that I fell asleep that night with a proud smile on my face! Who says, “You can never go back”?

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