BLOUNTVILLE — Sean Lucart may not be FIFI’s regular pilot, but he takes pride in showing folks around the restored Boeing B-29 Superfortress.
Lucart, a former USAF C-130 Hercules transport pilot, is also a volunteer pilot with the Commemorative Air Force and was on rotation with this week’s CAF Air Power Tour at the Tri-Cities Aviation ramp.
FIFI arrived at Tri-Cities Airport a day early Monday, and Lucart led an impromptu tour of the former Army Air Force strategic bomber while her temporary crew got ready for the first day of public viewing.
Climbing inside FIFI is not as easy as boarding a modern airliner, as Lucart showed how to dodge around the front pair of bomb bay doors and up a narrow ladder between two dummy bombs and into the front cabin. Inside, the legroom was better than in a modern airliner. Seats and panels for the navigator and flight engineer were well behind the pilot and co-pilot’s seat under a streamlined greenhouse canopy.
While one had to crouch some to go forward, the view covered a wide area to the side and in front of the aircraft. The bombardier’s position had the best view of all, with a framed Plexiglas cap shielding the vintage Norden bombsight.
Each of the cabin positions had its own electric fan, and the layout once sitting felt as roomy as a postwar luxury car.
Lucart, who usually flies the CAF’s B-24 Liberator, said the difference between the two in comfort and accessibility was almost like night and day.
Facing aft, Lucart pointed to two circular hatches. The lower was the access hatch; the upper led to an approximately 30-foot tunnel between what were two pressurized cabins in operational Superfortresses.
“You basically crawl back between the front and rear through this,” Lucart said, looking down the shoulder-width tube lined with olive drab mats.
Since FIFI — named after the wife of her chief pilot Victor Agather — was on the ground, Lucart avoided a cramped trip by climbing back out and heading toward a hatch in the right rear fuselage. After another ladder climb and crouch into the entry, he pointed toward the back end of the tunnel.
Under a Plexiglas bubble in the upper fuselage sat a pedestal-mounted seat that looked like the upper blaster turret seat in the Millennium Falcon.
“From there, one gunner could control all four remote gun turrets,” Lucart said, also pointing to two observers’ seats where gunners could also control individual turrets as needed. A fifth turret in the tail was manned by another gunner.
The gun turret used what was basically an analog fire control computer, Lucart said.
While much of the original aiming equipment has been removed from FIFI, the complete system could compute target speed through hand-operated tracking controls the gunners aimed at incoming fighters.
A few feet aft of the gunners’ seats is an auxiliary power unit — basically a gasoline engine used to generate electric power while FIFI is on the ground.
“It’s pretty noisy back here with it running,” Lucart said.
Walking outside FIFI, Lucart pointed to names painted on each of the Wright R-3350 Duplex Cyclone engine nacelles.
“Each engine is named after a female CAF volunteer,” Lucart said as he started with engine number 1 — Ingrid. Number 2 is Mitzi, number 3 Rita and number 4 Betty. When asked if the engines reflected the personalities of their namesakes, Lucart just grinned.
During World War II, the B-29s’ engines were notorious for unreliability or simply catching fire. Many wartime photos of Superfortresses on the ground included groundcrew with fire extinguishers at the ready, but Lucart said things changed in the last eight decades.
“They’re very reliable engines and don’t give us any problems.”
Lucart said the Soviet Union and Communist China both used copies of the B-29 — the Tupolev Tu-4 “Bull” — reverse-engineered from B-29s forced to land in Russia during WW II.
“They engineered the good qualities, but they also copied all of the problems from the early B-29s,” Lucart added.
While FIFI may be the biggest aircraft on the Tri Cities ramp this week, Lucart also showed pride in two smaller military types parked nearby. The T-34 Mentor — a military development of the Beech Bonanza — was the primary trainer for USAF and Navy pilots through much of the 1950s and 1960s.
“If you were an Air Force pilot, you flew the T-34 and then the T-28 before you went on to qualify in combat types like the F-4 Phantom and F-105 Thunderchief,” Lucart said. “It’s fully aerobatic, but we don’t do aerobatics in it.”
Nearby stood a T-6 Texan, a variant of the main advanced single-engined trainer used by the United States in World War II. Marked with 1943-pattern national insignia, the Texan is a reliable and also aerobatic-capable aircraft, Lucart said.
“That’s what we’re here to do, to tell the history about these aircraft, the people who flew them and what they did for this country,” said Lucart.
Also scheduled for display this week are the CAF’s restored P-51D “Gunfighter” and a wartime PT-13 Kaydet biplane trainer.
The display area will be open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. through Saturday. On Sunday, the display area will be open 9 a.m.-noon.
Parking will be available at Tri-Cities Airport’s long-term express parking lot for air show attendees. Parking will also be available at the Tri-Cities Aviation parking area and near the hardstand.
Admission to the display area is $20 per adult, $10 for children 11-17 and free for children 10 and younger.
More information can be found at the CAF website: www.airpowersquadron.org/tricities-tn.