“Keep going nonstop for 4000 miles—on gas for 3000.” Impossible as it sounds, our B-29 crews carry out that order regularly—as a Post editor learned on a jittery run aboard the erratic Jugbug.
We trudged past most of the B-29’s in Arizona, and found the one called Jugbug. The bomber had grown cold in the night. Now, pinked by the new day, she was icing the air for yards around. A chill settled in the shadows of her wings; we drifted to the sunny side for roll call.
There were seventeen of us. That’s six more than a B-29 usually carries, and just to be sure, Maj. Harold E. Mignola counted us twice. He was adding to his regular crew an extra navigator and an extra flight engineer, because the trip would be long and punishing. He had a ground-crew chief to go, and two mechanics; spare engine parts were in the bomb bay. And he had me, the inquisitive, horn-rimmed taxpayer. Seventeen men, check. He counted parachutes, Mae Wests and one-man rafts. Sixteen sets for the Jugbug’s crew, check. And one set for the taxpayer.
This time, however, the engines thundered with power in the run-ups. We taxied slowly, watching B-29’s take off before us.
When three got away, it was our turn, and M/Sgt Leonard M. Barnes, Jr., was on the interphone, speaking quickly: “Engineer to pilot. Take-off weight one hundred and twenty thousand pounds; stalling speed one hundred and twenty-one miles an hour. Mixture controls auto rich. Fuel-booster pumps on, generators on, inverters on and check. Intercoolers set. Standing by on cowl flaps. Engineer ready for take-off.”
Far back in the tail, gunner-scanners pressed their foreheads against transparent sighting blisters, and phoned Major Mignola, “Left flap coming down, sir….Right flap coming down, sir.”
I braced my feet against the forward gun turret. She ran heavily. Then the bumps smoothed out and the soprano scream of propellers eased to an endurable tenor. Scanners phoned again; they could see the wheels tucking up. The navigator noted the time and made a log entry: “Off the ground at 1502Z.”
Now we existed in Z Time. A thousand feet below us, Tucson wives poured breakfast coffee on Mountain Time, kissed their husbands on Mountain Time and reminded the breadwinners that it was two minutes past eight, get going. But globe-girdling airmen recon time like mariners. It ticks on a twenty-four hour clock, and it is counted from Greenwich, England—zero meridian. Z time.
At 1529 Z Time the Jugbug was three miles high. Major Mignola lowered her nose to level cruise, an attitude that seems like a shallow dive in a B-29. Pilots call it “getting her tail on your back.” We crabbed into a thirty-two-knot crosswind, on the first leg of an 8000-mile flight to nowhere.
Nowhere, to the Strategic Air Command, may be a point in space over Europe. Or over the Gulf of Mexico, or over Long Island Sound. In our case, it was Shemya, a tiny island near the tip of the Aleutian chain, not far from Japan. Wherever it is, nowhere must be so far off—one way or round trip—that a B-29 has to fly 4000 miles nonstop. And the catch is this: You make the 4000 miles on fuel that used to be enough for 3000 miles. Or not quite enough. Splash.
SAC headquarters is not fooling. It is now an order that every B-29 commander must take his ship 4000 miles on the gas in his wing tanks, plus a mere 200 gallons in the bomb bay. You carry bombs, lieutenant, or leave room for them. You make this flight at least once every three months, to prove ability. And you don’t land with dry tanks and get towed off the runway; you have 500 or 600 gallons in reserve.
The answer is that regular crews have logged more than 300 of these 4000-milers in recent months. Next year the goal may be 5000 miles. As larger bombers come into use, flights of 10,000 miles may be commonplace. A reach like that, with an A-bomb on the end of it, is something to think about.
The Air Force uses tricky calculations in long-range work. Flight engineers know, for example, that a tankful of cold gasoline goes further than a tankful that has been sunboiled. They get more power in dry weather than in shirt-soaking humidity, for the same throttle-propeller settings. They have even learned that a four-engine bomber sometimes flies farther on three engines.
In the briefing room at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson.
With one fancy stitch after another, the Strategic Air Command has spliced 1000 extra miles into the B-29’s range since V-J Day. The basic rules for long-range flying remain unchanged. The first one is known to every motorist: You stretch fuel by slowing down. The second rule depends on the fact that a bomber’s take-off weight may be almost half gasoline. So you fly low the first few hours. The engines get plenty of air, the weight burns off and the climb with a lighter ship uses less fuel. Some of the boys weren't’t too clear on Rule I when the war started.
Master Sergeant Barnes, flight engineer of the Jugbug, was an engineer of sorts on antiquated bombers before Pearl Harbor. He was wounded in that attack. “We were mostly gunners,” he says. “We just rode along.”
Pilots complained that engineers read comic magazines in flight. M/Sgt. Alex Pawluk, another veteran gas miser, says engineering got started with the B-29’s. “But we didn't’t really know how to fly the B-Twenty-nine until a year ago.”
The first raids taught the boys not to trust fuel-quantity gauges. Capt. Gore Roberts, a flight engineer now serving with the 8th Air Force at Fort Worth, Texas, saw gasoline streaming from a shot-up tank in 1944, after an air battle. He pumped gas into sound tanks, checked his gauges, and penciled calculations--gross weight, altitude, rpm’s, carburetor-manifold pressure.
“Two hundred miles from home I told the pilot our tanks were dry. But we made it; the engines quit on the runway. Cruise-control charges? We didn’t even have a table for nautical miles per gallon.”
Nobody was sure how far a B-29 could fly. Maj. Allen B. Rowlett, a pilot who is now operations officer of the 43rd Bomb Group in Tucson, recalls a fifty-four-plane strike from Ceylon to Palembang. Bomb loads were cut to make room for gasoline.
“At the briefing, the colonel told us he didn’t think we would reach the target, and we could turn back when we saw fit. After eighteen hours of flying my engineer threw his logbook on the floor, saying, ‘I was out of gas ten minutes ago, according to my figures.’ We were over the Indian Ocean, two hours from our base. Yet we got home with sixteen hundred gallons. Another B-Twenty-nine on the same mission ran out of gas and ditched. Everybody else came back with a thousand gallons or better. The fuel-quantity gauges were no good, and we had no rate-of-flow meters in those days.”
“We tried everything,” says Rowlett. “At the weekly critique, the pilot who had come back with the most gas got up and told how he did it.”
Crew chiefs snipped three inches off the engine cowl flaps to lessen drag. Engineers leaned out fuel-air mixtures to the danger point. Gunners ran back and forth during flight, seeking the ship’s best center of gravity. Pilots hunted tailwinds; and if some pushed throttles too far, there were engineers smart enough to steal back precious fuel. A controlled boost in carburetor air temperature does it, and you don’t tell the pilot, Mac.
By the spring of 1945, when China-based bombers went to Saipan, the boys were using something called a composite cruising chart. Closely printed tabulations told what power settings to use at various combinations of gross weight, altitude and outside air temperature. The chart is well remembered by Col. C.S. (Bill) Irvine, then deputy chief of staff in the Marianas, presently commanding Carswell Air Base in Roswell, New Mexico.
You needed an Indian guide and a lawyer to read the chart,” he says. “How could young men study it while they were getting shot at fifteen hundred miles from home base? Their logic was not so good. So we revised the chart, made it pictorial and simple. I gave them a separate page for each segment of flight. If the plane was at ten thousand feet, the pilot pulled the page for ten thousand feet.
“Then we went to canned flight plans, with exact data or each hour of flight. We got out canned procedures for flying with one or two engines dead, at various weights. That part began to save us airplanes. We worked engines harder with leaner fuel mixtures. Engine time between overhauls shortened, but we could off-load gasoline and load on fifteen hundred more pounds of fire bombs, which, multiplied by seven hundred airplanes, is not potatoes. We were carrying eleven tons of bombs as far as we had once carried three tons, and fewer engines were failing. Then all of a sudden the Japs quit on us.”
Colonel Irvine crammed bomb-bay tanks in the B-29 Pacusan Dreamboat after V-J Day, and flew 8198 miles nonstop. Later he took the Dreamboat from Hawaii to Cairo, about 9500 miles. Passing over London en route, he deliberately shut down one engine to save gas. This maneuver is guaranteed to lengthen range, if the ship has burned off enough gas to weigh less than fifty tons and you survive to tell about it. No three-engine shenanigan was attempted, I might say, during our flight to Shemya. The Jugbug met risks enough in Aleutian weather, and there were bugs in her jugs after all.
A voice asked, “Has anybody ever made Shemya?”
Well, I thought, Mignola is a major; we ought to make it. And the colonel over there should get his plane through. So it is up to the lieutenants commanding the other two B-29’s.
Shemya put the hex on one of the lieutenants right there in Spokane. Five minutes after a night take-off, he was turning back for an emergency landing with raw gasoline pluming from a wing tank and stutters in his radio system. He gave up at midnight and sent his crew to bed. By that time the Jugbug was 100 miles westward, the bomber called “4071” was north of Seattle at 15,000 feet, and “2312”—that would be the colonel’s ship—was heard reporting over Cape Flattery.
The Cape was land’s end. Blacked out by night and ocean mists, it passed beneath us unseen. Lt. Hansard W. Manton, navigator, took his bearings, and Lt. Leslie H. Armen, the mickeyman, identified it by radar. Cape Flattery was a green smear oozing down the face of the ‘scope. After that, blankness; we were over the ocean.
Manton took star shots. The second navigator, Lt. Leslie R. Fels, peered into the Loran ‘scope, translating scribbles of light into radio bearings. We were on course, but badly slowed down. Head winds expected to be thirty knots were blowing, but neared fifty. The radioman, S/Sgt. Walter W. Bies, intercepted a message: somewhere ahead of us, 4071 was bucking a seventy-knot gale. The Gulf of Alaska was much rougher than Spokane had forecast. Flight time to Shemya, estimated at eight hours, thirty minutes, might stretch to sixteen hours or more. Was there a point of no return?
Barnes, the engineer, passed the beam of a flashlight over his gauges. Fuel-flow meters said we were burning 2400 pounds of gas an hour; call it 400 gallons. We had enough in the tanks to make Shemya despite the wind, if the wind got no worse, if all engines ran well, if GCA could get us down, if—
“Pilot to radio,” Major Mignola phoned. “What’s the last report on terminal weather at Fairbanks, Anchorage and Cold Bay?”
Sergeant Bies picked code out of a jumble of static. Anchorage and Fairbanks were still clear. Cold Bay had low ceilings and a rough surface wind. Shemya: ceiling 200 feet, visibility one mile, rain, fog and a falling barometer. The major weighed our chances.
“Shemya is apt to be zero-zero by the time we arrive,” he told me. “With this wind we would get there having only two hours of fuel remaining. The nearest alternate field is fifteen hundred miles away. Can you imagine three B-Twenty-nines making GCA landings in that kind of sweat? It could be done, but it isn’t smart to try. I’m going to Cold Bay. It hasn’t got the best weather, but it’s right on course, and closer to Shemya than other fields are. If we find Cold Bay socked in tight, we’ll still have enough gas to turn around and make Fairbanks.”
The Loran transmissions slowly faded away. Fels napped in the tunnel, leaving the stars and the navigator’s desk to Manton. He put a can of beans on an inverter to warm up, and gave the radioman half-hourly reports on our position. Sergeant Bies had trouble sending to the mainland. Ten radio channels were cluttered with urgent queries from ashore. Where was 2312? The colonel’s ship hadn’t been heard for almost an hour. Bies listened.
“Static trouble and skipping,” he said. “I can hear Twenty-three-twelve right now, sending to Maxwell Field in Alabama, asking for message relays. Their position is a hundred miles north of us. You think they are going into Kodiak?”
The night wind blew harder. Barnes gave his place at the engineer’s panel to S/Sgt. Dale H. Seymour. I knelt on my raft to ease an aching back. The major changed seats with the copilot, Lt. Clyde R. Denniston, Jr. The navigator nudged the radioman, “You awake?” and handed him a fresh report. The head wind was now blowing eighty-three knots.
Manton phoned the tail section, “Navigator to mickeyman. Hey, Armen, wake up. What’s on the radar?”
“Nothing yet. Where are we, as if you’d know?”
A light flickered over the engineer’s dials. Barnes and Seymour had caught the first hint of engine trouble. It showed as a jerking indicator needle on the air-flow meter. Cabin air pressure was affected slightly, but never mind that; the pressure was being supplied by No. 2 engine, and the needle jerks meant that No. 2 was backfiring. Something was leaning out the fuel. It began to show on another gauge as a rise in cylinder-head temperature.
Barnes could guess the trouble. The engine had two fuel-injection pumps, each feeding its own row of cylinders. One pump evidently was failing, and the other pump was trying to feed the entire engine. We had bugs in our jugs. Barnes advanced throttles slightly and notified the major.
We slammed into the cold front after dawn. In the space of two minutes the Jugbug picked up such a load of wing ice that it shuddered toward a stall. Denniston put the nose down quickly to regain flying speed. The de-icer boots went to work and kicked the stuff off in chunks. Barnes stared out the window at No. 2 engine. It was shaking in its mount.
Cold Bay was reporting a 300-foot ceiling as we approached. GCA talked us down, and we broke through streamers of mist. The runway was just ahead but we were drifting sideways. Denniston crabbed the Jugbug to line up, crabbed more sharply; we were almost—“Look out!” the major shouted. He rammed throttles forward and we roared away in a wide circle over derelict wartime huts, over the ugly wreckage of a crashed Air-Sea Rescue plane, for another try at landing. The crosswind was blowing thirty knots.
This time Denniston sidled down exactly right, kicked the rudder at the final moment and set us down with a reassuring bump. We taxied past two B-29’s with familiar painted markings. Everybody from Tucson had made Cold Bay, barring the lieutenant who grounded in Spokane.
“I wonder who that major was,” Armen mused. “The one they told us made Shemya.”
We packed into muddy jeeps and bumped over freezing roads to a mess hall. The cook grumbled. He wasn’t running no all-day restaurant. “You bomber guys from the States always get here between meals. I stuff food into guys three times a day, I don’t get no sunshine, and I’m chasing them Kodiak bears outa my kitchen. So what do I get, some more bomber guys yelling for eats, drop dead, it ain’t lunchtime yet.”
“What do you hear from the Dodgers?” asked Armen.
“The radio should reach so far,” said the cook. “Okay, scrambled eggs and coffee.”
We were hungry, dirty and pink-eyed from lack of sleep. It had taken us twenty-six hours to get here from Tucson, counting the delay at Spokane. We couldn’t go on without rest, and we couldn’t rest until the Jugbug’s ground crew had worked over No. 2 engine. That night, right after supper, we fell into cots in the Hotel de Gink.
Major Mignola roused us at the first sign of gray light. Dirty clouds raced overhead, but Shemya radio was reporting a miraculous sky—visibility thirty miles, broken clouds at 2500 feet. It was an easy run from Cold Bay—only five and a half hours. Shemya flittered in a blue ocean, an island hardly larger than Times Square, it seemed, and covered from rim to center with buildings, runways and storage tanks. Next stop, Asia.
Our troubles weren’t quite over because No. 2 engines had been backfiring again. Mechanics pulled off sheets of cowling. They found an exhaust stack wet with oil. It led to No. 17 cylinder and an oily spark plug and a fuel-injection nozzle that hadn’t been passing fuel. Cylinder No. 17 was a very dead jug, and the fuel pump was plainly to blame. Repairs at Cold Bay had done no good. M/Sgt. Philip N. Phillipson, the crew chief, advised against further tinkering. He had a factory-new pump in the bomb bay. Sergeant Barnes wiped oil from his hands and stared at No. 2’s nakedness, remembering the old trouble in Japan.
“The engine hasn’t been right since it was set,” he said. “Put in the new pump. It’s four thousand miles back to Tucson.”
We left Shemya at sunset, after refueling, and flew all night. I sat on my raft, which had all the resilience of concrete paving. We flew all the next morning. I crawled through the tunnel and pillowed my head on a parachute; buckles stabbed my cheek. We were still flying that afternoon, making a dogleg over California so that a full 4000 miles could be logged for the Strategic Air Command. I sat on a ledge of metal with rivets.
“Engineer to pilot,” Barnes phoned. “Landing weight ninety thousand, stalling speed ninety-five, emergency hydraulic pressure eleven fifty; the putt-putt is on the line and engineer standing by for landing.”
The major was talking to Davis-Monthan tower at Tucson. We were almost home. Scanners watched from the aft blisters. “Left gear down and locked, sir…Right gear down and locked, sir.”
We landed with 816 gallons of gas left from our allotment of 6700 gallons. It would make a very nice report for the Strategic Air Command. And I could testify, as an independent observer, that SAC is really getting 4000 miles out of it’s obsolescent B-29’s. Four days in the Jugbug convinced me.
“You ought to try an eight-thousand mile flight in one of the new B-Thirty-Sixes,” said the major. I tottered on my feet.
“They carry cots in the tail,” he said.
Article taken from The Saturday Evening Post, March 12, 1949
(SM/Sgt Philip Norman Phillipson (R) is in the roster and photos section for the 509th/58th composite. He was the Crewchief of the B29 Suella J 44-61477 (an F13 model of the B29) which was equipped with aerial recon cameras for the Able and Baker Day Test Blasts. After leaving Kwajalein Island, he spent the next 9 years with the 43rd BG out of Davis Monthan in Tucson.)
Jo's parents below!
I wish to than Jo for sharing this article with us and the photos of her family! ~ Sallyann