FLIGHT TEST TO PRESQUE ISLE
Beginning in February 1944, the 40th Bomb Group began working furiously on their new B-29 aircraft to modify and upgrade them to combat ready status. Since hangar space was limited at Pratt Army Air Field, Kansas, much of the work was completed outdoors. The early spring weather can be best described as cruel.
The most difficult task to be completed was the replacement of all four factory engines with combat model engines. This was especially troublesome because the group's maintenance personnel had departed for our overseas station so they would be in position when the aircrews arrived with their B-29s. Each plane's Crew Chief and its aircrew worked long hours in very cold weather at Pratt to accomplish the job. The combination of extreme weather and absence of the group's maintenance team, slowed progress and brought criticism from visiting Generals stationed at Wright Field and the Pentagon.
We frequently heard statements that claimed some flight crews did not want to take their B-29s into combat, and that they were deliberately impeding the modification work. These comments caused much resentment among aircrew members. The combination of severe weather and the absence of the group's maintenance team, was the true reason why work progress was so slow.
My crew's early production model B-29, number 42-6254, was painted an olive drab color. We removed its old engines, and on the last day of March, we were assigned four combat model engines. After several days and nights of miserable working conditions, we finally hung the last engine, completed ground testing, and prepared our plane for the usual four-hour test hop. Unknown to us, the Generals in charge of Operations scheduled us to depart Pratt the next morning for overseas, and instructed a Boeing Wichita ground crew to install a spare engine as freight in our plane's rear bomb bay.
When we objected to being required to carry the additional weight on a test flight, we were visited by irate Major General Bennie Meyers who gave us a direct order to load the spare engine. General Meyers implied that we were intentionally trying to delay our departure because we did not want to go into combat. This was not true, and several of us told him so in a heated, face-to-face encounter in the Group Briefing Room on the Saturday night before Easter Sunday. Naturally, we lost, and subsequently were chewed out in public. Then we were briefed, and issued map kits for the flight to Presque Isle, Maine. We planned to complete a test flight Sunday morning, then land and make all required inspections before taking off for Presque Isle later in the day. General Kuter arrived from Washington, D.C. and changed our plans.
Generals Kuter and Meyers issued a joint order that all B-29s depart for Presque Isle as soon as they could be made ready to fly. Having already endured a verbal blast from General Meyers and his staff, we made a new plan that was a compromise. We would take off, circle Pratt for a short time, and if the engines were O.K., make the nine-hour flight to Presque Isle and complete the required inspections after landing there. Luck was with us. After circling Pratt for 30-minutes, the engines were running within limits, so we made the long flight to Maine. I say luck was with us, because we did not want any more to do with any General in Kansas. We were the only crew to test hop four new engines on the same flight without landing in Kansas for post test checks.
At Presque Isle, Maine, our B-29 passed all inspections, and was refueled and prepared for another flight. After our crew had a night's rest, we joined our squadron comrades and flew our B-29 to Gander Lake, Newfoundland, the last refueling stop before crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *