The last time Carolyn Hayes, 90, saw a B-29 warplane was nearly 70 years ago, as a war waged abroad. But that change on Thursday when one landed near Olathe.
Hayes, who now lives in Holt, Mo.,, worked at the Boeing plant in Wichita during World War II. She and her crew — she was chief — installed cables in the iconic planes.
“I saw the first one and the last one,” she said. “Isn’t that amazing?”
She remembers watching the first one roll off the tarmac in the early 1940s and on Thursday, what’s said to be the last flying B-29 Superfortress touched down at New Century AirCenter.
Those who gathered to welcome the long-range heavy bomber know it more intimately than most who will see it this weekend at the American Wing Air Expo. Hayes and veterans of World War II and the Korean War — specifically those who worked on or with B-29s — and their families met the plane before a Commemorative Air Force luncheon.
Kim Pardon of the Commemorative Air Force helped organize the event.
“We’re here to honor these people who fought for our country and to teach people about these stories,” she said.
With their families around them, veterans gestured to where they would have worked as a member of the 11-person crew — in the back as a tail gunner, up front as a pilot, in the middle as a central fire control gunner. And Hayes showed her daughter the cables she would have worked to install.
“I’ve been all through this plane,” she said. “But I’ve never been inside a finished one.”
Pointing to the plane, a former B-29 panel engineer, Tony Martini of Olathe, acknowledged perhaps its most notable historical distinction.
“A lot of people don’t understand the work it did in World War II,” he said. “That won the war for us.”
When the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, they fell from B-29s.
Clyde Bysom of Lawrence flew 1,100 hours in a B-29 during the war. At the end of those hours, he was flying back from a bombing mission in Japan when his crew heard on the radio that the atomic bombs had drawn the war to a close. All 11 erupted into cheers.
“It was quite a moment,” he said.Not surprisingly, the memories surrounding the plane aren’t all happy.
Bob Smith of Overland Park was in the service in the early 1940s and he still feels fortunate to have lived. He said there were a number of “close calls” and one man left his group because of a tough emotional struggle with the war.
For some of the roughly 20 veterans at the event, it was the first time they’d seen the plane since they left the service. Others had encountered B-29s at reunions and memorials.
Jack Bebermeyer of Lake Lotawana cried as he watched the plane land.
“To see her fly again…it’s beautiful,” he said.
Unlike many of the people surrounding her, Hayes never flew in a B-29 — though she may today — but seeing it in the air again was still significantly moving. Her exclamations were continuous and exuberant as she walked around, showing photos and newspaper clippings related to the plane.
“If I die right here on the spot, I’ll have lived my life to the fullest,” she said.
The Commemorative Air Force Heart of America Wing Annual Air Expo will run 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. today and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday at the Heart of America hangar at New Century, near Gardner. The event will include more than 20 vintage military aircraft and vehicles, airplane rides and concerts. For more information, visit http://kcghostsquadron.squarespace.com/annual-air-expo/
or call 913-907-7902.