When Wayne Gomes joined the project to bring a run-down B-29 back to flight capability, everyone knew it was a tall order. There was only one B-29 left in the world that was able to fly, and just a handful still in existence. And after sitting in the Mojave Desert for 44 years, “Doc” was in rough shape.
“Windows were broken, part of the tail was missing, and the only thing it seemed good for was target practice, which is what it was slated for,” Gomes said.
Instead, this iconic World War II bomber, dubbed the Superfortress, set out on a journey back to the skies.
The B-29 was designed during the early part of World War II, before the U.S. even entered the conflict. A series of setbacks during the design and testing phase, including engine fires and magneto problems, delayed its use in combat until late 1942. By this time, the need for bombers was greatest in the Pacific Theater, which is where it made its combat debut.
“The long range of the B-29 made it ideally suited for missions to reach the Japanese mainland,” Gomes said. “In fact, the Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, was a B-29.”
After World War II ended, the B-29 continued to see combat in the Korean War, which lasted until 1953. By the time the U.S. got involved in Vietnam, the B-52 had taken its place. Remaining B-29s were used for radar testing and iceberg reconnaissance, but they had largely outlived their usefulness and no longer warranted the cost of upkeep and operation.
“The Air Force gave them to the Navy to be used for target practice,” Gomes said.
One of eight B-29s parked at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York during the 1955 Ice Capades performance, Doc got its name when the troupe toured the base after the show.
“One cast member quipped that they should be ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.’ The names stuck and each plane had a dwarf painted on its nose,” Gomes said.
Doc flew for the last time in 1956 before it was sent to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in the California desert to wait for its turn to be shot at by Navy missiles.
The plan to rescue Doc from that fate was hatched by the U.S. Aviation Museum, an organization devoted to the restoration of vintage aircraft. CEO Tony Mazzolini and his team located Doc in the desert, where it had sat for 44 years. Gomes came on board as public relations officer. They immediately set to work to reach a deal with the Navy to purchase Doc. After three years of negotiation, they got the title to Doc and could begin fixing it.
The first order of business was to get the plane out of the desert and into a protected environment. A four-day trek across 38 miles of open country got Doc a step closer. Pulled by cables hitched to a tractor, the 100,000-pound plane had a team walk beside it throughout the trip, making sure no damage was done to electric lines and roads they crossed. Nine cables were snapped in the process, but they made it to the highway, where Doc was dismantled and trucked to Boeing. There, a nonprofit group called Friends of Doc stepped in to restore it to its former glory.
“Boeing said, ‘If you get Doc here, we’ll take care of fixing him up,’” Gomes said. “We started work on May 18, 2000. So many people volunteered to help that we had to set up shifts. A lot of them were retired Boeing employees, or crew and mechanics from when [B-29s] were flown in Korea.”
The engines had to be rebuilt, the entire plane rewired, and the missing part of the tail refabricated before the Federal Aviation Administration would give Doc flight clearance. Luckily, Boeing was able to locate some old tooling equipment in a warehouse, dust it off and put it back to use.
“People were also finding old parts in their garage and bringing them in,” Gomes said.
As Doc was getting updated and refurbished, a new quandary surfaced. The original nose art had been painted hurriedly, and was not sanctioned by the Walt Disney Company. Two managers had tried getting approval from Disney to keep the name but their efforts got them nowhere.
As they began considering a new name, Gomes stepped in and started negotiating directly with Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew. In a series of letters with Disney and his then-vice president Paul Noland, Gomes was able to reach an agreement, which included use of the name and a choice of two approved images of the namesake dwarf to be painted on the aircraft’s nose.
“In 2006, Owen Hughes came in to paint Doc,” Gomes said. “He had been in the service in Europe and painted nose art on the B-17s in Germany. He only had about 30 minutes to paint the nose art back then, but this time he took six days.”
Hughes was 87 years old at the time.
Ready to fly
In 2015, restoration was complete and the bomber was ready for its first flight test. Doc took to the air for the first time with the crew from the only other flight-worthy B-29, Fifi. It was an emotional moment for Gomes, but there was more work to be done.
“There were 25 squawks,” Gomes said, referring to problems that needed to be fixed before the next test flight.
After another year of work on engines and landing gear, among other things, Doc was ready to take to the air once again. The second flight was on October 1, resulting in only one squawk, Gomes said.
Gomes and his team of restorers have accomplished what they envisioned more than 15 years ago. Doc, a beautiful reminder of days gone by, has returned to the skies.