Nashua is the second most populated city in the state of New Hampshire, and within an hour’s drive from the larger cities of Manchester and Boston, Massachusetts. Boire Field, Nashua’s municipal airport, is categorized by the FAA as a general aviation reliever airport, and averages about a thousand flight operations each week. Aircraft based at Nashua include corporate jets, helicopters, and hundreds of general aviation planes that operate from a paved, 6000 foot long by 100 foot wide runway.
Nashua has become one of the stops of the Commemorative Air Force’s (CAF) AirPower History Tour over the past few years. In early June, 2016 the world’s only flying Boeing B-29, “FIFI”, plus a pair of other CAF aircraft, descended into Nashua for a five day-long history seminar. A Beech C-45 Expeditor named “Bucket of Bolts” accompanied the Superfortress to Nashua from its previous appearance in Pennsylvania, and the world’s only flying Curtiss SB2C Helldiver joined them, gracing the ramp in front of Nashua’s control tower building, for the weekend.
The CAF is a large organization spread across the four corners of the U.S., and is broken down into units called “squadrons”. According to their web site, “The B-29/B-24 Squadron of the Commemorative Air Force brings together the aircraft, pilots and crews from over 70 CAF units across the country to create the AirPower Squadron – an ever changing assortment of military aircraft touring together to bring the sights, sounds and smells of World War II aviation history to audiences across the United States.” Scores of CAF volunteers keep the Tour on the road and help to explain the mission of the aircraft, and the Commemorative Air Force. Some fly with the planes as they move between airports, others drive the logistical vehicles on the ground, which includes a trailer carrying merchandise available at each stop. There’s much pride and determination shown, as these volunteers present such important pieces of American aviation heritage across the country.
Hundreds of people from the local area… military veterans, historians, and those curious about the sounds of big radial engines in the air, descended onto the airport. Admission to the ramp area provided tours of the aircraft while they were parked. Small groups of spectators could stand up in FIFI’s opened bomb bays and hear a brief history of the airplane, then climb a ladder into the flight deck area to look at the cockpit.
For a (reasonable) fee, one could take a ride in a real, operating warbird too. The Beech flew throughout the week, while the Helldiver flew from Friday through Sunday. FIFI flew twice on Saturday and Sunday mornings too. Not surprisingly, the B-29 rides sold out each flight, while the other aircraft flew frequently, “as needed”.
Operating a 50-ton prop-driven warbird from the airport presented some rather unique challenges, but offered some exciting opportunities for the CAF to present its brand of a living history lesson. I was lucky to be able to correspond with David Oliver, the Director of Operations of the Commemorative Air Force, and one of a select group of aviators who pilot FIFI. Here are his thoughts about a few questions I posed, before FIFI arrived in Nashua.
What is a “routinely normal” runway size for the aircraft? What challenges does Nashua present to you?
“The B-29 is not a small aircraft by any measure. Most airports for large aircraft have wide and long runways. The problem is that large airports are not friendly, they don’t invite you in. Instead they keep you out with fences and security. Nashua is a perfect airport for the B-29 because it invites you in. I got my start in aviation because the airport was an inviting place for young people. So the CAF has a challenge to find airports that have a runway long enough and still be inviting and this is why we chose Nashua, for example. It has a runway long enough and yet friendly enough to have the public invited out to the airport to experience history. Technically speaking we always require, at a minimum, 6000 feet of runway. Putting a 100,000 pound airplane on 6,000 feet can be challenging and that is why we select only the best pilots in America.”
Are there any special loading restrictions needed to allow FIFI to operate from Nashua’s runways, with its operating restrictions (displaced threshold, etc)?
“Interestingly enough the B-29 was built to operate from gravel and dirt runways. In the South Pacific the B-29 flew from crushed coral runways and they did it very successfully. The larger double tires and special diamond tread make this type of operation possible. Most think FIFI will crush their runway but the truth is that it won’t at all. The restrictions of the airport always vary but we have never had any issues. Thresholds can make some approaches interesting but we always use all the available runway that we can.”
What would you (the pilot) say are the most demanding maneuvers for the pilot in the aircraft?
“Typically in training we always train to the worse-case scenario. This means we could have engine failures, and two engine failures on the same side of the aircraft is definitely a bad situation. Your final maneuver before you are qualified as a new captain is to demonstrate a successful approach with only two engines still running. It can get quite interesting and there is no go-around. You are committed to landing once you get below a certain altitude.”
Is there another airplane that you’ve flown that is similar in handling to the B-29? How easy is it for the flight crew members to manage the aircraft, compared to say, a C-47 or DC-6?
“The B-29 is a fairly simple airplane despite its size. Our Maintenance crew chiefs are the best in the business and they know the airplane well. We travel with a full time crew chief all the time and they are constantly working on something. We always say that FIFI is better maintained than most commercial aircraft. We estimate there are 100 man hours of maintenance for each flight hour. It is a labor of love and our volunteers do it joyfully.”
Any quirks about the airplane that are unusual and interesting to tell readers?
“It would have been nice if they installed power steering. Instead only cables and pulleys steer the airplane and there is no hydraulic assist. This means the average B-29 pilot has large biceps and you might develop a sweat. We compare it to driving an 18 wheeler with about 9 flats. But I don’t let me give you the impression I’m complaining. You won’t miss a moment when I’m flying that I don’t have a smile on my face.”
Have you (the pilot) or anyone you’ve spoken with ever stalled the aircraft – intentionally or otherwise?
“Absolutely. During training maneuvers we take the aircraft to the verge of a stall and bring it back. We don’t have any simulators that accurately represent a B-29 so we practice all of our training maneuvers in the real aircraft. No doubt it can get exciting but it is important to know and recognize the stall before it happens.”
I’d like to include a bit on anecdotal information too… like what speed is a normal landing speed, liftoff speed, max weight you’ll ever fly with…
“We normally lift off around 120mph. We approach at about the same speed. All engines combined are about 8000 horse power and we burn about 400 gallons per hour of very expensive aviation fuel. Max weight is 145,000 pounds but we rarely fly it heavier than about 90,000 pounds. In fact FIFI has lost weight over the years as we removed some armor plating below the floors which nobody ever saw. This helps make the airplane safer to fly and perform fantastically.”
Interestingly, the flight and ground crews took many visible safety precautions when FIFI flew. The local Nashua Fire Department crews were briefed about special needs and systems on the B-29, and were on hand to deal with any issues of that sort when FIFI was started up for each flight. All four of FIFI’s engines were started while she sat on the ramp, but the outboard pair were shut down before taxiing, as the wings and those engines sat over unpaved portions, and near taxiway lights, enroute to the runway. When the B-29 lined up on the runway, the outboard pair were restarted, and off she went.
If one had a ride coming up in one of the trio of warbirds, detailed pre-flight briefings were held planeside. FIFI’s pressurization systems are not operational any more, and the other pair never had the capability in the first place. In any case, none of the three aircraft on hand never climb to altitudes where oxygen/pressurization is needed.
After Nashua, the AirPower History Tour would continue on a westward trek that would stop at Albany NY, Pittsburgh PA, South Bend IN, Aurora IL, Dubuque IA, and Janesville WI, before arriving for the EAA Airventure in Oshkosh WI at the end of July. After that, a full dozen more stops would be made before the Tour ends in Texas in mid-October.
This is the second consecutive year that the AirPower History Tour has stopped in Nashua, and all of the volunteers that I spoke with were enthused about the reception and spectator turn out at Boire Field. Not only is the Tour a great opportunity for veterans and historians to gather at and learn from, but it presents history to younger generations that just might be attracted to aviation as a career and indeed, a passion through life. Like the third grader next to me watching FIFI depart… he recited the names of all of the World War II airplanes he’d ever seen, and had ridden in a few of them too (smart parents!). For the city of Nashua and the airport users, it presented an opportunity to attract people from all walks of life who could catch a glimpse of an already vibrant airport offering something very special and definitely out of the ordinary.
Special thanks go out to Kim Pardon, who arranged to have my questions answered by David, and who took the time during my visit to explain to me how the AirPower History Tour operates, what it costs (in dollars and in “people hours”) to present this living history exhibit each tour, and how volunteers make the Tour happen. Also, to David Oliver, who took the time to answer my questions about FIFI and how the B-29 handles – what a great job to have!