The WASP and the B-29
In the summer of 1944, the 25-year-old U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Paul W.
Tibbets had a problem. He was in charge of training pilots on the Army Air
Forces' newest, biggest and most complicated bomber yet, and the task was
turning out to be much more onerous than he'd anticipated. Tibbets' men were
putting up unprecedented resistance. In point of fact, the pilots had every
reason to be wary. The B-29 was not only much larger and heavier than any
bomber the U.S. had flown before, it also hadn't gone through the years of
operational testing to which Boeing had subjected its predecessor the B-17.
Initially engine fires were one of the major problems. The planes' Wright
engines were often called the Wrong engines. Part of the trouble could be
traced to the engine cowlings that were too tight and often caused fires even
before the planes had taken off. Although engine improvements were made over
time, fires remained a problem throughout World War II.
Tibbets decided that the way to convince the men to fly the plane was to show
that women could do it. The young Colonel recruited Dora Dougherty and
Dorothea Moorman to be his demo pilots. Dougherty remembers that at that
point, she had never even been in a four-engine plane before. Tibbets did not
warn his new recruits of the engine fire problem. Instead he trained them to
take off without the standard power checks. After three days, the colonel
decided his women pilots were ready for their demonstration. For several days,
Dougherty and Johnson ferried pilots, crew chiefs and navigators from the
very-heavy-bomber base at Alamogordo, New Mexico across the state. Tibbets'
plan was a terrific success: After watching the women fly the four-engine
bomber, the men stopped complaining about the plane. Air Staff Major
General Barney Giles brought the demonstrations to an abrupt halt after just a
few days, telling Tibbets that the women were "putting the big football players
to shame." Giles was also worried that an accident would unleash tremendous
adverse publicity. The two women were sent back to Eglin Field, Florida, and
never flew a B-29 again. But the plane they'd demonstrated went on to play a
decisive role in the Allied victory in World War II.
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