If all goes as planned, the B-29 Superfortress undergoing restoration inside a Boeing Wichita hangar should fly by the end of the year.
It will be the culmination of decades of work to find and secure the B-29 – called “Doc” – and bring it out of a California desert where it was used by the Navy as target practice.
“Thank God for the Navy. They kept missing,” said Tony Mazzolini, who found the deteriorating B-29 and brought it to Wichita for restoration.
The giant bomber will be one of only two restored B-29s in flying condition.
Volunteers must still install the plane’s fourth and final engine, install avionics and fuel cells, check all the electrical systems and flight controls, and obtain an airworthiness certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“We’ve got to raise some more money to do that,” said Jeff Turner, chairman of the board of Doc’s Friends, a Wichita nonprofit group restoring the historic bomber. Turner, who retired last year as CEO of Spirit AeroSystems, gave an update on the project to members of the Wichita Aero Club at a luncheon on Monday. The organization also hosted a late-afternoon open house inside the hangar where the plane is being restored.
It will take $750,000 to $1 million to complete the restoration, Turner said.
Besides finishing the airplane, the group must find a permanent home for it and secure the funds to build a hangar and to maintain it. The plan is to keep the plane in Wichita, where it was originally built, but that will depend on funds.
“If we can raise the money to build the building in Wichita, it will be in Wichita,” Turner said. “We very much want the airplane housed in Wichita.”
Building a hangar will cost from $3 million to $9 million or more, depending on its size and scope. A simple metal hangar won’t cost as much as a larger museum-quality building where Doc and other historic planes could be on display for the public to see.
“We’re not sure yet what really makes sense,” Turner said.
The first choice of location is Wichita Mid-Continent Airport, he said.
The airport has easy access for visitors, a control tower, two long runways and a crosswind runway, which is important because the B-29 does not have nosewheel steering like traditional planes, Turner said.
The massive restoration project began in Wichita in 2000 but was on hiatus for a few years, the victim of a poor economy and lack of hangar space.
Restoration restarted early this year after a group of business leaders and aviation enthusiasts formed a nonprofit organization, Doc’s Friends, and acquired the airplane from Mazzolini in 2013.
Boeing donated a military hangar on the east side of Oliver in south Wichita, providing a work space that would facilitate completion of the restoration.
The plane was built in 1944 inside Boeing Wichita’s Plant II. It was first assigned to a squadron of eight bombers named after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This one was known as “Doc.”
The plane was built too late to fly bombing missions during World War II. It served as a radar trainer during the Korean War.
Mazzolini, backed by the United States Aviation Museum in Cleveland, rescued Doc from the Mojave Desert in California, where it had spent 42 years as a sanctuary for birds and other desert creatures.
In 1987, he formed a plan to restore the airplane and eventually contacted Turner, who was then at Boeing, for help.
“He is the man who gave us the help,” Mazzolini said. “He said ‘If you can get this plane to Wichita, we can help you get this plane in the air.’”
On May 19, 2000, it arrived in Wichita by truck.
Volunteers have put in roughly 250,000 hours of work so far.
“There’s a love affair with the volunteers and this airplane,” Mazzolini said. “We know it’s the right place to have this airplane because of the talent.”
Marvin Martin, 88, who grew up in Wichita, served as a radar operator on B-29s during World War II.
Martin, 19 at the time, was on the longest and last B-29 bombing mission of the war. He and his crew bombed oil refineries over Akita, Japan.
They learned Japan had surrendered on the way back from the mission.
Martin attended the open house to view the restoration project.
“Memories,” Martin said while viewing Doc.
T.J. Norman, a long-time volunteer on the airplane, serves as project manager and flight safety officer.
Norman’s mother, father and grandmother all worked on B-29s at Boeing during World War II.
“They carpooled from Towanda,” Norman said.
It’s more than likely they would have worked on Doc, he said. They are now deceased.
He volunteers to keep the memories of the people who worked on them alive.
“You just don’t get an opportunity like this,” Norman said. “This is once in a lifetime.”
The final phase of the project, Turner said, is to operate the airplane as a flying museum – dedicated to the men and women who built, flew and serviced B-29s – and to preserve history.
“That phase, we think, will pay for itself,” Turner said.