FOUR BLOWN TIRES
In August 1944, we flew B-29 aircraft of the 40th Bomb Group from our home base at Chakulia, India, to our forward staging base at Hsinching, China. From Hsinching, we launched a strike against the Japanese empire. On the day following the mission, the new Group Commander, Colonel William (Butch) Blanchard, decided to return to India with my aircrew. His total B-29 flying time was less than 50 hours. Our crew had logged about 600 B-29 hours in less than 1 1/2 years. When we boarded the plane, he informed the crew that he would fly as the Pilot.
The Colonel committed many minor deviations from normal operating procedures during engine start, takeoff, and departure from the field. He was accustomed to flying older and smaller bombers that had different flight characteristics than the B-29. He did not like to be told the location of a switch, the next action to take, or the proper method of doing something. The most serious error he made was in maintaining an extremely high rate of climb, and an airspeed 50 miles per hour below the normal climb speed. This forced the Flight Engineer to open all engine cowl flaps to keep the cylinder head temperatures within limits. The extended cowl flaps increased air drag and compounded the problem until, at one point, he almost stalled the plane. When I explained to him what was happening, and what the correct procedure was, he told me to mind my own business. We finally reached our cruising altitude of 22,000 feet where he leveled off and took up the heading to our next check point -- the small Yunnan-Yi Airport along the Burma Road.
A few minutes after we passed the Yunnan-Yi radio beacon, the number four engine began to backfire and emit a cloud of black smoke. As we attempted to find the cause of the malfunction, Colonel Blanchard became visible agitated. After trying various fuel and power settings to correct the situation, we were forced to shut down the engine and to feather its propeller. By then, the Colonel was very concerned, and he told me that we should abort the flight immediately and make an emergency landing at the Yunnan-Yi Airport. Obviously, he did not trust us to fly on three engines for the remaining half of the Hump crossing. I explained that we had good weather ahead, and from 22,000 thousand feet we could easily fly to India on three engines. He did not agree. He called the Yunnan-Yi control tower, declared an emergency in lurid terms, and started a diving left turn back toward the airport.
As we descended from 22,000 feet, the radio chatter between the control tower and airplanes suggested that there was much activity at the airport. We could see a layer of dust that covered the entire field. When we ended our descent and entered the traffic pattern, there were many cargo planes flying ahead of us, and a line of them parked nose-to-tail on the airport's taxiways. The unusually large amount of activity for such a small airport was caused by the movement of a Chinese Army on its way to clear Japanese forces from Paoshan, a walled city on the Burma Road 75 miles west of the Yunnan-Yi Airport.
During our descent, I had checked the airfield directory for Yunnan-Yi, and learned that its east-west, graveled-surface runway was 6,800 feet above sea level and was 5,000 feet long. A caution note read: PROP AND WING FLAP DAMAGE LIKELY FROM HEAVY GRAVEL SURFACE. BRAKING POOR WET OR DRY. I suggested that I make the landing. The Colonel's reply was a stern-faced NO! Stifling my thoughts, I completed the Before Landing Checklist, then told the crew to take crash landing positions.
During the final approach, I monitored the indicated airspeed and glide path carefully to ensure we did not overshoot the short runway. I was pleased when the Colonel set the plane down nicely on the first portion of the strip. As the main gear touched down, a thunderous barrage was caused by gravel striking the underside of the fuselage. The noise completely unnerved Colonel Blanchard. Although half the runway was ahead of him, he slammed on maximum braking action and brought the plane to a sliding halt. While skidding to a stop, I heard four separate dull thumps as the main gear tires blew out. Colonel Blanchard, with sweat dripping from his face, calmly locked the parking brakes and told me to have the engines cut.
Pandemonium erupted on the tower radio frequency. It seemed as if every cargo pilot on and over the field demanded the B-29 be moved off the runway. Colonel Blanchard did not hear any of those protestations because he was already out of his seat and was moving to the exit hatch. I told him that we must move our plane off the runway. I released the brakes and taxied the crippled B-29 on its flat tires onto the nearest taxiway. Immediately after the Flight Engineer cut the engines and opened the hatch, Colonel Blanchard carried his B-4 bag down the ladder and hurried away from the plane and never looked back.
When the crew assembled outside the plane, the Colonel had already stopped a passing jeep and was on his way to Base Operations. About 15 minutes later, while the crew was assessing the damage to the landing gear and tires, a C-46 cargo plane taxied by. The Pilot in the left seat waved vigorously to us. It was our good old Commander -- Colonel Butch Blanchard. He had hitched a ride back to India, and obviously "persuaded" the pilot to let him fly the plane. We wondered if he had ever been inside a C-46 before. As we watched, the plane took off in a cloud of dust and disappeared over the Himalaya hills.
It took ten days to repair our plane. Then we returned to India. Colonel William Blanchard never became our favorite Commander, and I'm certain we were never his favorite aircrew.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *