The B-29 Superfortress and the WASP

The B-29 Superfortress, Boeing’s newest generation long range heavy bomber, was rushed through development in the early 1940s. Unlike its predecessor, the well-known B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-29 had not been put through years of testing. As a result, it debuted in early 1944 to a rather uncertain future. The B-29 was known for engine fires. In fact, in February 1943, Boeing’s renowned test pilot Edmund T. “Eddie” Allen and eight crewmen, as well as 19 civilians on the ground, perished when the engines caught fire and the plane crashed into a meat-processing factory close to Boeing’s test field in Seattle. The daunting task of training Army pilots to fly this advanced bomber with its dangerous reliability problems was assigned to Lieutenant Colonel Paul W. Tibbets. He knew he had a problem right from the beginning. Tibbets was in charge of training pilots on the Army Air Forces’ newest, biggest and most complicated bomber for a top-secret mission. The B-29 could fly at an altitude of 31,850 feet at speeds of 350 mph which no Japanese plane could match that altitude and speed.Tibbets’ handpicked men were putting up unprecedented resistance and refusing to fly the aircraft. Tibbets was in a jam. To show the men that the B-29 was both safe and reliable, Tibbets decided that if he could train women to fly the B-29 proficiently, then male pilots could be persuaded to fly the behemoth. So he began his search for two women to fly the B-29. In June of 1944, he showed up, unannounced, at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida in search of candidates.As the story goes, he walked right up to WASP Dorothea “DiDi” Moorman, 43-W-4, while she was reading a magazine in the lounge of the nurses’ barracks. Without ceremony, he asked, “Do you have any four-engine time?” Startled at first, DiDi just sat there. Tibbets, realizing he had caught her off guard, backed up a step or two and continued, “I’m looking for two WASP to check out in the B-29.”She didn’t know if she should respond or stand at attention. In an instant, the mood in the nurses’ lounge became military. She jumped to attention and replied, “I have a little time in a twin-engine trainer, sir. That’s all any of us have, sir, except Dora. She’s checked out in the A-20. She’s up there now.”She meant Dora Doughtery, graduate of WASP class 43-W-3 on July 3,1943. The A-20, a twin-engine medium range light bomber was a powerful, yet maneuverable, aircraft. Tibbets knew that her experience in this plane would provide valuable skills in her training and flying of the B-29. Shortly after his conversation with DiDi, he decided that both she and Dora would be perfect as his B-29 demo pilots.Neither woman has ever been in a four-engine plane before. Now they were about to show their fellow male pilots how to handle the world’s most advanced high-altitude “superbomber.” Under Tibbet’s guidance, the two women trained for only three days before he decided they were ready for their demonstration. Tibbet’s advantage was that these women pilots were highly motivated, well trained and, unlike their male counterparts, followed Tibbets’ instructions to the letter. One of the keys to Tibbets’ training was managing the B-29s engine temperature prior to takeoff. He taught the women pilots to avoid the standard “braked” power check and, instead, to use a rolling start to check the magnetos thus allowing air to constantly flow over the engines to keep them from overheating while on the ground. This technique greatly reduced the chances of engine fire prior to takeoffs and made the B-29 much safer and more reliable.In fact, Tibbets did not inform the women about the engine fire problem. Yet, during one of the training flights, an engine caught fire and filled the cockpit with smoke. Dora was flying left seat at the time; she didn’t hesitate for a second. Without missing a beat, she instructed her male flight engineer to feather #3 and pull the fire extinguisher. Handling the emergency by the book, she got the fire out and, with the remaining three engines turning, landed the plane safely.From that point on, DiDi and Dora were ready to solo. Tibbets moved quickly. He had a plane painted with the nose art that included Fifinella, the WASP mascot, and the words Ladybird. Then sent them on their demonstration flights — allowing them to ferry pilots, crew chiefs, and navigators from the heavy-bomber base at Alamogordo, New Mexico across the state to other bases.These demonstration flights lasted only a few days, but Tibbets’ plan was a resounding success. The WASP convinced their male counterparts that the B-29 was safe and reliable if it was managed properly. Tibetts pointed out that it was “so easy to fly even a woman could fly it.” DiDi’s and Dora’s achievements had an amazing effect. The men stopped complaining, got over their inhibitions and began training to fly. As a result, the B-29 went on to play a decisive role in the Allied victory in World War II — thanks in large part to two skilled women pilots.The historic flight of the Enola Gay (the B-29 piloted by Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets) over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and the release of “Little Boy” the first atomic bomb in wartime, may never have been recorded if it were not for the skill and talent of the Women Airforce Service Pilots.Although the WASP never flew combat missions, they inspired the female aviators of today who fly the B-1B bombers in combat whenever and wherever they are needed.