When Ralph Kelvington of Letart, Mason County, learned from his son, Brian, that the Commemorative Air Force was offering rides aboard one of only two still-flying B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers during a stop at Charleston’s Yeager Airport on Monday, three words immediately came to mind: Get us tickets!
The Kelvingtons are the son and grandson of Staff Sgt. Wesley E. Kelvington, a B-29 crew chief who flew from bases in China and India to bomb Japanese positions and supply routes in Southeast Asia, as well as cities in the Japanese homeland during the final two years of World War II. Wesley Kelvington died in 2006.
“Pop was one of 13 men on board the ‘B-Sweet,’ a B-29 flying over the Himalayan Mountains from a base in India to a base in China,” on Aug. 19, 1944, said Ralph Kelvington.
One of the B-29’s engines caught fire, and Kelvington managed to extinguish it, but it was too badly damaged to function. A short time later, a second engine shut down and couldn’t be restarted.
Since all four engines were needed to carry the fully loaded bomber, with two extra crewmen, over “The Hump,” as the world’s highest mountain range was known to Allied airmen, the aircraft’s pilot ordered the crew to bail out, Kelvington said.
“All 13 of them landed safely in China, where people there took care of them and showed them the way to the bomb group’s Chinese base,” Kelvington said. The crew was assigned a new B-29, and later began flying bombing missions to Japanese cities from Tinian, in the Mariana Islands.
Kelvington remembered his father, whose job it was to keep his crew’s B-29 repaired and maintained, telling him about raiding the dump at Tinian for beer cans to use to patch the smaller holes from ground fire in the bomber’s fuselage.
It was from Tinian that two other B-29s, the “Enola Gay” and the “Bockscar,” departed for Hiroshima and Nagasaki carrying the deadly atomic bombs that hastened the end of the war.
The Boeing B-29 began flying combat missions in 1944, and was used exclusively in the Pacific Theater of War during World War II. Ninety-nine feet long, with a 141-foot wingspan and a gross weight of 105,000 pounds, it was one of the largest aircraft flown during the war, as well as one of the most technologically advanced. B-29s were equipped with remote-controlled gun turrets, to help keep Japanese fighters at bay while exposing fewer gunners to incoming fire, and fully pressurized crew compartments to keep those on board comfortable at altitudes of more than 30,000 feet.
“Fifi,” the Commemorative Air Force’s B-29, has seating for 10 passengers and made three 30-minute flights from Yeager Airport on Monday. Ticket sales, which started at more than $500, help the nonprofit group cover the cost of maintaining the historic aircraft and flying it to events across the country. Fifi turned turned 75 on July 31.
“This Superfortress represents the crews who flew it in combat,” aircraft commander Al Benzing of Dallas, Texas, told those about to board the second flight of the day. “When you hear the sounds and feel the vibrations of its engines, keep in mind the sacrifices of the men who flew in these aircraft during the war.”
Among those on the Fifi’s first flight of the day was Huntington chiropractor Jon-Tyler Roach, who rode in the bombardier’s seat in the plexiglass-covered nose of the bomber.
“The view was amazing,” said Roach, the grandson of a B-24 Liberator pilot. “I took video of the takeoff. The whole flight was super-cool.”
Fifi’s flight path included a circle around Charleston and an overflight of Poca, a loop around Winfield and a northward run almost to Ripley before turning back to Charleston, cruising at about 200 miles per hour at about 3,000 feet.
Seating was more limited on “Gunfighter,” the Commemorative Air Force’s North American P-51 Mustang, the iconic U.S. fighter of World War II, with only one seat available for passengers behind pilot Jeff Linebaugh.
Worldwide, 125 to 150 Mustangs remain in flying condition, Linebaugh said. This one left the factory in March 1945, was shipped to Europe, arriving in July, too late for combat. It was flown by Air National Guard units in Illinois, Wyoming and New Mexico before being retired from military service in the late 1950s. It then began being flown by a series of civilian owners before the Commemorative Air Force acquired it in the late 1970s, Linebaugh said.
The CAF had big plans this year for Gunfighter and its four volunteer pilots, but most of those plans had to be put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We had 25 events scheduled for this year,” Linebaugh said, “but we’re down to five that we will actually do.”
The low number of cross country stops lessens the possibility of making contact with veterans who flew or maintained Mustangs during their military careers. The aircraft was used in combat as late as the Korean War, where it mainly supported ground troops and strafed infrastructure targets.
“We really pull out all the stops when we meet veterans” of Mustang flying, Linebaugh said. “There are so few of them left.”