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The WASP and the B-29

wasps imageIn 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.

wasps image 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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Tour the B-29 | The B-29: A Brief History | The WASP and the B-29 | Video Clips of the B-29 | Book Excerpt