Strategic Air & Space Museum officials are throwing a 70th birthday party for an old warhorse that needed six years to get ready for inspection.
The museum will unveil one of the world's last surviving Boeing B-29 Superfortresses in a special event at the museum on Sept. 22, 70 years after the plane's first flight.
“We are thrilled to unveil the newly restored B-29 to the public and place this incredible artifact on display in one of the world's finest collections of military aircraft,” said Scott Tarry, executive director of the museum. “Finishing the B-29 gives us the opportunity to turn our attention and the energy of our extraordinarily talented restoration staff and volunteers to new projects.”
The 6 p.m. event will include a cocktail hour and buffet dinner at a cost of $75 per person or $600 for a table of eight. The museum near Ashland, Neb., can be reached by taking exit 426 off Interstate 80.
The B-29 will be on permanent display inside the museum. It was one of nearly 4,000 Superfortress planes built by Boeing, including 531 at the Martin bomber plant near Bellevue.
The B-29 is a four-engine propeller-driven heavy bomber flown primarily by the U.S. toward the end of World War II and in the Korean War. Among the B-29s built at the Martin plant were the Enola Gay and Bockscar, the planes that dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Enola Gay is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., but no visitors are allowed near it. The Strategic Air & Space Museum, however, will allow guided tours of its B-29 on three or four special occasions per year.
Duane Dilts, one of the museum's three co-managers of restoration along with Mark Hamilton and Dan Kirwan, said dozens of volunteers have done “an unbelievable job” of returning the B-29 to its former glory, although the plane will never fly again.
“We had a function here where we opened up the plane for veterans to get on board, and it was pretty moving,” Dilts said. “One veteran got on and teared up, which made us tear up. He would start to talk and then choke up. ”
Dozens of restoration volunteers were kept busy sanding, painting and welding the bomber's gleaming airframe. With the aid of about $40,000 in donations, they patiently restored its flight deck, crew areas, bomb bays and tail-gunner station.
“We have one 93-year-old man (Roger Ihle) who worked as a paint grinder,” Hamilton said. “The dirtier he gets, the better he likes it. We had to blow the dust off him every day when he was leaving.”
Hamilton said lots of research material, including photographs, was needed as the volunteers worked to get the B-29 back to the pristine condition of when it rolled off the assembly line.
Dilts said this restoration is probably the biggest the museum has attempted, surpassing its B-1 bomber. He said the B-29 sat outside at Offutt Air Force Base for more than 40 years ago before coming to the museum.
“It was basically baked by the sun for 40-some odd years, and inside it looked like it had been on fire,” he said. “There's a requirement, when you work here, that you have to care about these old planes. This one needed a lot of love.”
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