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WWII icon gets a birthday facelift

Sleek and silver, bright and shiny, this recently restored B-29 Superfortress is on exhibit at Heritage Park, the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History's outdoor exhibit area. It was delivered to the Army Air Forces 70 years ago today. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Sleek and silver, bright and shiny, this recently restored B-29 Superfortress is on exhibit at Heritage Park, the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History’s outdoor exhibit area. It was delivered to the Army Air Forces 70 years ago today. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

B-29 serial number 45-21748, sporting a new suit of silver paint, gleamed brilliantly in the hot afternoon sun as Jerry Hanks ducked under the big bomber’s nose and took refuge in the shade of one of the plane’s, long, sleek wings.

Restoration of the B-29 Superfortress was completed just last week. It’s on display at Heritage Park, the outdoor exhibit area of Albuquerque’s National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.

When Hanks, restoration coordinator for Heritage Park projects, gets near the bomber, his enthusiasm for the aircraft shines as brightly as the B-29’s paint job.

“The B-29 is a symbol of the greatest generation, an icon of World War II, and it played a major role in ending that war,” Hanks said.

This particular B-29 did not see service in World War II. Manufactured late in the war, it was delivered to the Army Air Forces 70 years ago today, which was also the day an atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. The Japanese surrendered less than a week later, ending the war.

Jennifer Hayden, marketing director of the museum, said that when it was known that funds for restoring the plane would be available in 2015, the goal was to get the job done by August – not to celebrate the anniversary of the war’s end, but to mark the anniversary of the plane’s delivery to the Army.

And even though this bomber did not see combat duty during World War II, it’s still special. It is one of only 17 complete B-29s surviving out of 4,000 produced during the war.

“And only one of those left is flying,” Hanks said.

Hanks, 73, retired from the Marine Corps with the rank of major in 1981 and from Sandia National Laboratories, where he worked as a computer scientist, in 2005. Before managing the B-29 project, he supervised the restoration of an F-16 Fighting Falcon, now on display at Heritage Park, and will next oversee the restoration of a B-52 Stratofortress.

Restoration jobs in the future include a B-47 Sratojet, an F-105 Thunderchief, an A-7 Corsair II and a MiG-21, the latter a Soviet fighter plane. Hanks is more like a boy in a roomful of model airplane parts than a man on the job.

“I can’t wait to get here and see what’s next,” he said. “This is just the neatest thing I’ve ever done.”

The B-29 is special to Hanks on a personal level. Born in Denver, he grew up in Los Alamos, a self-styled Manhattan Project brat. His father was a metallurgical engineer on the project that developed the atomic bombs that the B-29s Enola Gay and Bockscar dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively.

Hanks is not an aviator. His service in the Marine Corps, however, included work with weapons for the F8U Crusader and the F9F Cougar aircraft. On the B-29 project, he supervised a team of 40 volunteers – Air Force and New Mexico Air Guard personnel, employees of Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratory, and one guy from an electrical engineering firm in Denver.

“Coordinating 40 people was not a problem because they are all such professionals,” he said. “They do it because their hearts are in it.”

Volunteer Norm Scott makes custom engine cowling covers during the final stages of restoration work on a B-29 Superfortress bomber at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. The United States produced 4,000 B-29s during World War II, but the museum's Superfortress is one of only 17 complete B-29s still in existence. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Volunteer Norm Scott makes custom engine cowling covers during the final stages of restoration work on a B-29 Superfortress bomber at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. The United States produced 4,000 B-29s during World War II, but the museum’s Superfortress is one of only 17 complete B-29s still in existence. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

B-29s have a wing span of 141 feet 3 inches, are 99 feet long and 27 feet 9 inches high. They were powered by four 2,200-horsepower engines, cruised at 220 mph and had a top speed of 357 mph. The plane’s maximum altitude was 33,600 feet and it had a flying range of 3,700 miles. B-29s were armed with 10 .50-caliber machine guns and a 20 mm cannon. The planes could carry 20,000 pounds of bombs.

The museum’s B-29 is not the one that is still flying. In fact, the restoration was limited to the plane’s exterior. Its interior is off limits to the public.

Cost of the project, which started in April, is about $140,000, paid for with donations. Restoration included bodywork, coats of primer and paint, replacement of cockpit windows and the plane’s exterior lighting system.

The B-29 was also decked out in the numbers and insignia consistent with its service with the 509th Bombardment Group at the Roswell Army Air Field in late 1946 and part of 1947.

“The biggest challenge was the body fabrication,” Hanks said. “It had a lot of dings and crunches.”

No Limit Paint and Body, an Albuquerque company, was hired to do the bodywork and the painting. Hanks said 70 gallons of primer and paint were used.

Crews gave planes nicknames. This B-29 likely had one as well, but Hanks said research on the plane’s history, which is continuing, has yet to uncover it.

“We have tried to find the nose art,” Hanks said. “We found a picture where it looks like there were rabbit ears on the nose, but 90 percent of the nose art was blocked out by black paint.”

The underbellies of planes destined for nighttime bombing missions were painted black, so the black paint in that photo suggests that this B-29 was used for such missions during the Korean War. But Hanks said research has been unable to confirm that.

“The first thing at this museum is safety and the second is authenticity,” Hanks said. “We won’t say anything until we know it is a fact. We want it to be all the right history.”

Getting at the truth can be difficult, especially since so much information was classified during the early years of the Cold War when the B-29 was in use.

What is known is that, after a brief period with the Air Technical Service Command at Tinker Army Air Force Base in Oklahoma, the B-29 was put in storage at Davis-Monthan Army Air Field in Arizona. It was reactivated in April 1946 and assigned to the 4136th Army Air Force Base at Tinker. In December of that year, it was reassigned to the 509th Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force, in Roswell.

Hanks said it is known that the museum’s B-29 was used in the testing of the Tarzon guided bomb, which was used during the Korean War.

“And we know that the plane spent some time in Alaska in the Cold War period, but we don’t yet know why,” he said.

The B-29 had a gypsy career in the late ’40s and early ’50s, serving at Smokey Hill Air Force Base in Kansas, at both Biggs and Kelly Air Force bases in Texas, and Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

In July 1952, it was assigned to the 3345th Technical Training Wing at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois and, two years after that, it became part of Chanute’s collection of historic war planes.

When Chanute was closed in 1993, the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History acquired it. The plane was delivered to Albuquerque on seven flatbed trucks.

Now, more than 20 years after it arrived in Albuquerque and 70 years to the day since it first reported to duty, the B-29 is the brightest thing in Heritage Park. Not counting Jerry Hanks’ smile.

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