World War II bomber stars in historic aircraft show at Mather

The fuselage of a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber is a hot, unwelcoming place, full of sharp corners and so loud that it’s almost impossible to carry on a conversation.

Walking, or more accurately, crawling, from the tail to the cockpit brings home the message that it is a machine made for war, not for comfort.

There’s only one B-29 Superfortress bomber still flying and it – Fifi – landed at Sacramento’s Mather Airport on Thursday afternoon with the escort of a P-51 Mustang fighter plane.

Fifi and other historic planes, including the P-51 Mustang and an SB2C Helldiver, are open for cockpit tours and flights this weekend at the AirPower History Tour​ at Mather Airport. Tours run from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. today, Saturday and Sunday.

Fifi never saw combat, but many airplanes of the same model flew in huge groups – hundreds at a time – to drop bombs on Japan during World War II.

The United States used two B-29 Superfortresses – nearly 4,000 were built – to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 that contributed to Japan’s surrender.

John Flynn, a Fifi crew member, said the plane’s engines would often catch fire during World War II because of the warm conditions in the Pacific theater and overheated air that was pumped into the engines by the plane’s exhaust system. More B-29s crashed during combat because of engine failure than enemy gunfire, Flynn said.

Fifi’s crew does not have to worry about that, with four new engines and more than $3 million in repairs.

Fifi was built at the end of the war and was transferred to a facility in Southern California’s Mojave Desert, where it stayed until 1971, according to the tour’s organizers.

Army Air Forces veteran Vic Agather rescued the plane before it was given over to the scrap yard. The Navy donated the plane to a group called the Commemorative Air Force of Midland, Texas, that restored the plane and named it Fifi, after Agather’s wife.

A large white “A” in a black square on the tail commemorates Agather for saving the nearly 100-foot silver bomber, and “Fifi” in blue on the nose adds color to the otherwise monochromatic plane.

Starting in the mid-70s, Fifi has been a regular in air shows across the country, but she was grounded in 2006 after pieces of the four engines started to disintegrate.

Four years and $3 million later, Fifi was back in the air with a volunteer crew, performing in shows and acting as a gateway to the lives of World War II veterans who spent countless hours in the dark compartments of the B-29 Superfortresses.

“If it was just about flying an old airplane around the country, I would say we missed our mark,” said David Oliver, aircraft commander of Fifi’s six-person crew. “It’s about preservation, education and honoring our veterans.”

Oliver became the aircraft commander by making his way up the ladder from washing the plane to eventually becoming one of the crew members.

He has accumulated about 200 hours of flight time in his four years with Fifi and said the crew is always looking for volunteers to help work with the plane.

“We love getting people involved,” Oliver said. “That’s what it’s all about.”