GENERAL ARNOLD IS WAITING
It was early February 1944. We were waiting for take off clearance from the airport control tower at Marietta, Georgia, to fly the first Bell Aircraft Company's B-29 to Pratt Army Air Field, Kansas. Unknown to us, General H.H. (Hap) Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Corps, was visiting the Air Training Command Headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas. He wanted to see the first Bell Aircraft B-29, so he issued a verbal order that we change our flight plan and fly direct from Marietta to Tarrant Field, Fort Worth. I changed our flight plan, and three hours later I landed the B-29 at Tarrant Field -- but not before making a heart-in-my-throat approach to the runway.
There were two complete B-29 aircrews aboard my plane. Capt. Bobby Shanks and crew had delivered a B-29 to the Bell factory for major modification, and were flying as passengers to our home base at Pratt, Kansas. After landing at Tarrant, we were grateful that Capt. Shanks was on board. Here is a description of what happened.
Bad weather covered the Fort Worth area when we arrived over the local radio range station. The Tarrant control tower reported that although landing conditions were marginal, it was possible for us to land. During our descent to the minimum safe altitude, rime ice collected on the Bombardier's nose windows and the Pilot's windshield. Severe turbulence in the clouds made controlling the aircraft difficult. Static on the radio beam frequency was so strong we could barely hear the directional signals. We leveled off at the minimum altitude, but could not see the ground. As we executed a missed approach, my Copilot and I had a spirited conversation with the tower operator. We told him the figures he gave us did not accurately describe the real conditions we found at the minimum altitude. We asked for an updated weather report.
The new report agreed with the conditions we found where we executed a missed approach. The operator stated, "Ceiling obscured. Visibility one-half mile. Blowing snow. Surface wind gusting from the northeast at 30 miles per hour." It was no small wonder that we did not see the ground on our approach. While we were making a decision to attempt another approach or to give up and fly to Kansas, the tower operator called and said four magical words, "GENERAL ARNOLD IS WAITING."
We requested permission to make another approach, and received immediate approval. Our passenger, Capt. Bobby Shanks, was a veteran Instructor Pilot who had been flying B-24 type aircraft at Torrance Field for the previous year. He was familiar with the local area and all landmarks near the airport. He volunteered to exchange seats with the Bombardier, and to guide us if he could see the ground. I gladly concurred.
After making another descent to minimum altitude, we extended the landing gear and turned onto final approach to the runway. Most of the plane's nose and my windshield were still covered with rime ice, so I opened my sliding side window to be able to put my head out to see the runway in case we broke out of the clouds. Suddenly, our guide saw the ground straight below us, but I could not see anything through the ice-covered windshield or through the open side window. Soon, a blinking marker beacon light on the instrument panel, indicated that I should advance the throttles and make a missed approach. At the same time, Capt. Shanks yelled that he could see the aircraft factory located on the west edge of the airport. Luckily, there was a big opening in the clouds, and by following his hand signals, I turned the plane and could see the opening through my side window.
Capt. Shanks guided us over the lake on the north edge of Tarrant Airport to a point where the Copilot saw the runway by looking out his side window. Shanks and the Copilot gave me directions to fly until I saw the runway out my side window. I made a downwind landing that was not very pretty, but it was a safe one. Despite a hellish landing speed, our big bird stopped on the runway.
We parked the plane in front of Base Operations near a small fleet of GI staff cars. As we stepped out of the wheel well, it was easy to spot General Arnold -- he was the big man with stars all over his shoulders. He returned my salute, shook my hand warmly, and said, "Captain, I want to go aboard and see how Bell Aircraft is doing with the B-29." My Flight Engineer and I followed him up the entrance ladder. The great General spent almost an hour inspecting the new bomber from its nose to its tail. We scrambled after him, explaining the modifications the Bell Factory had made to the original design. By the time we worked our way from the nose to the tail section of the plane, we realized that General Arnold knew a lot about B-29 bombers.
When he finished his inspection, we exited through the rear entrance hatch, and paused for a minute on the ramp. He told us that he was aware of the risk we took by making two approaches and a landing in very bad weather just so he could inspect Bell's first B-29. I explained that Captain Shanks was an Instructor Pilot at this airport, and was responsible for guiding us to the end of the runway. He shook our hands and thanked us for making an extra effort for his benefit. We watched his plane as it took off for Washington, D.C.
NOTE: General Arnold never knew how close I came to pulling up for a second missed approach and proceeding to Pratt, Kansas. My friend, Captain Bobby Shanks, deserves full credit for acting as our third set of Pilot's eyes to make the landing possible. The cliche Happy Landings applied this time to General Arnold.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *