2013/06/14-16 Airpower History Tour at Allegheny County Airport


Close shave!  What was close shave?  I almost missed this opportunity to watch B-29 at Allegheny County Airport this weekend.

We have only handful of air shows this year.  The infamous budget sequestration almost closed 149 air traffic control towers, which was barely avoided, but then came cancellation of all military-hosted air shows and military participations in privately-hosted air shows including all Thunderbirds and Blue Angels flights.  It is a dark year for airplane fans and general-aviation pilots.  Since I am an airplane fan and a general-aviation pilot, it is doubly-dark year for me.

I am supposed to go to Dayton air show next weekend.  I was reading Dayton air-show web site, when it came to my mind that maybe some new air show is scheduled by now.  More than 60% of the scheduled air shows have been cancelled.  Air-show pilots suddenly got available.  Why not someone else assembled those pilots and planned new air shows?  Maybe someone did.  So, I searched for keywords "air show Pennsylvania", and what Google showed surprised me.  Airpower History Tour at Allegheny County Airport from June 14-16!?

I was totally caught off guard.  How off-guard was I?  I was scheduled to fly a Cessna 172 on this weekend.  I agreed to give a substitute math lecture at Pittsburgh Japanese School this Sunday.  I was that much off guard.

But, I knew there was going to be an air show in the weekend.  There was no question.  Go!  The biggest participant was B-29 FiFi, the currently only one flyable B-29 Superfortress.  FiFi was scheduled to fly 9am and 1030am on all three days.  I could take morning off on Friday, and my scheduled flight on Saturday was in the afternoon.  I should have four chances of watching B-29 flying.

Thursday night.  Weather forecast was predicting mostly cloudy.  Since B-29 is silver and gray, the airplane won't look clear in front of dark clouds.  Nonetheless, it should fly if the cloud is high enough, and I should be able to get photo parameters.  This B-29 is going to participate in the Dayton air show as well.  This photo parameters will help me take a nicer picture in Dayton air show.  Allegheny County TAF (Terminal Aerodrome Forecast) was predicting overcast 1500ft at 9am and broken 3500ft at 10am.  9am flight was iffy, but 10am may be possible.

Friday morning.  Allegheny County METAR was reporting overcast 700ft.  Not good at all.  But, the forecast was stubbornly predicting 1500ft at 9am and 3500ft at 10am.  I drove up to Allegheny County Airport anyway.  I was monitoring ATIS with my airband radio.  But, the cloud was sticking at 900ft at 10am.  The sun poke through the clouds a few times, but then dark thick cloud covered the sky again.  The wind shifted from west to north, and the temperature was dropping, which was a bad sign.  I had same experience many times while I was training for commercial certificate.  The cloud never go up as forecasted.  I gave up and came to CMU.  Later I heard that B-29 flew later in the afternoon around 5pm.

I came back to Allegheny County at around 730pm, about 20 minutes before sunset.  I thought I could take a dramatic picture of B-29 reflecting the setting sun.  But, the sun was already the other side of the airplane from the area I could walk.  So, it was a bit dark.  But, not bad.

B-29 Superfortress "FiFi"

Also participating was C-45

Saturday.  Sky clear!  I packed my car with my photo gear and flying gear so that I could directly go to Beaver County airport after watching B-29 flying, and drove up to Allegheny County airport.  The sun was still a little bit behind the airplane from my position when I arrived.  I took some pictures with different exposure compensation, but I had to wait a little more until the sun comes behind myself.  I can capture details of the airplane with exposure compensation when the sun is behind the subject.  But, that kills the blue sky.

At around 9am.  The sun was still the other side of the airplane.

C-45 and P-51

DIRECTV Blimp was also tied at the west side of the field.

Then the passengers who paid for flying in B-29 were called.  They boarded after getting a pre-flight briefing.  B-29 Superfortress was the product of serious unforgiving competition between U.S. and Japanese aircraft engineers during the World War II.  The U.S. aircraft engineers finally developed a large bomber that could go up to the altitude that no Japanese interceptor could climb up, or could not practically maneuver at that altitude.  It was B-29.  The exact same type airplane is now flying a sight-seeing flight.  Japan is now a close ally of the United States.  I came from Japan and got Ph.D degree in the U.S., and am watching B-29 flying.  This B-29 FiFi is living a happy retirement.  I wish this B-29 flies forever!

I saw this currently only one flyable B-29 once before, but that time it was just for static display.  I really wanted to see it flying.  Finally, the time had come.  B-29 FiFi rotated a few rotations of the propeller blades starting from the right-most engine to the left-most.  By the way, this procedure was not in the second flight.  Maybe it was required for the first flight of the day.  Then the inner-right engine started with white smoke, followed by outer-right, inner-left, and outer-left engines. All four engines started spinning.

B-29's engines occasionally made some distinctive whistling noise.  It reminded me of the whistling noise that a F-22 make when it is flying low speed at high angle-of-attack.  But, the whistle of B-29 made me sentimental.  B-29 was not invulnerable.  Japanese Imperial Army and Navy did their best to intercept B-29 formations.  For a short time, Japanese interceptors killed many B-29s with upward-pointing guns.  A very rough shortcut explanation of the upward-pointing guns is just like a anti-air artillery mounted on an airplane.  The ground-based AAA couldn't reach the altitude of B-29s.  So, Japanese engineers came up with an idea of shooting a gun from the airplane upward.  It was somewhat effective until the U.S. Army Air Corps realized the strategy.  Once they knew what it was, it was not difficult to evade though.  B-29s had other problems with the engines.  Those engines were the technological limit of that time.  The crews experienced engine failures many times and had to ditch the airplane.  The whistling noise of FiFi's engines sounded like mourning other B-29s that went down during the mission.

Then this B-29 turned away from the spectator area in the main ramp.  (By the way, I didn't know that the ramp in front of the Allegheny County control tower was called "main ramp" until I heard the radio-communication between the tower and the B-29.)  It was running some more checks for a while and then stopped two outer engines and taxied to runway 28 on taxiway alpha with only inner two engines spinning.

Finally, all engines started!

Running up.

C-45 also started engine for ride.

P-51 also taxied out.

The tank behind the airplane is a convenient reference point for the traffic pattern.  We call it "Checker Tank" (as it is).

At the end of runway, B-29 was going through before-takeoff checks, which took another two minutes or so.  While B-29 was running up and preparing for take off, other airplanes, including Cessnas from Pittsburgh Flight Training Center was flying in a pattern.  Many of them were directed to runway 31 to give way to B-29.  When B-29 was finally ready for take off, Cessna N596CS, which I have flown many times, landed on runway 31.  The tower told hold short of runway 28.  Then B-29 was cleared for take off.  Actually, N596CS was at the best spot to watch B-29 taking off.


B-29 Took off!

According to the radio, B-29 flew runway heading for four to five miles and then made a left turn.  I was expecting it to fly over Oakland, North side, and Squirrel Hill, as B-17 usually did when it visited Pittsburgh.  But, B-29 flew to the south.  Probably it made a left turn before entering Pittsburgh class B and made a very large traffic pattern, and came back to Allegheny County.

I kept my radio tuned to Allegheny tower.  B-29 called tower about 20 minutes after take off and requested overhead fly-by.  Photo opp!  But, it requested an overhead pass, not low approach.  Probably it was going to stay high because it was carrying passengers.  I pushed an envelope a bit.  I chose ISO 100 and F13.  The shutter speed went down to 1/100 sec.  It was a tough condition, but if I use a fast shutter speed, only I could get would have been just a black silhouette of the airplane.

Overhead pass

My gamble somewhat paid off.  I think this was the best photo I could get within my photo skill.

Landing and landing roll

Made 180 and back taxied on the runway

Clearing the runway.

In the second flight, it didn't rotate four propellers before actually starting.  It started the inner-right engine, and then inner-left engine .... didn't start.  The fuel spilled from the inner-left engine.  Obviously it was over-primed, or the engine was flooded with fuel.  If it happens in Cessna 172, I just wait for 30 seconds or so and try again, but B-29 seems to need to stop the all the engines and try again.  It stopped the one that was already spinning, and then tried to start inner-right and then inner-left engines.  This time both two engines started.  It didn't start the outer engines, and taxied out.

I tried to capture nice take-off shot, but I made a basic mistake.  I forgot waking up my camera by pressing the shutter half way down.  When I tried to focus, my E-5 slowly woke up, instead of locking on to the airplane.  Well, that's the difference between a professional photographer and myself.  A professional photographer is not a photographer who can shoot strange weird artistic shots.  Rather, a professional photographer never misses a basic.  Because they don't miss a basic, they can put an additional value on their photos.  I have a lot more to learn.  So, I missed the best angle.  I'll try again in Dayton.

Take-off roll


I tried the same in the second overhead fly-by as the first time, but this time I had no luck.  All the picture came out blur.  In Dayton, B-29 is scheduled to fly for sight-seeing flight in the morning and in the late afternoon, but it is supposed to fly a demo-flight in between.  I hope I can see low pass, hopefully a few photo passes there.  I'll see.

Second landing.  A little bit obscured by the heat haze

Came back to the ramp.

This Stearman was also participating the tour.

I was supposed to leave Allegheny County at 11:30, but the flights of the B-29 delayed, and I actually left the airport around 12:15.  And then I was stuck in a huge traffic jam.  I arrived at Beaver County airport almost 2pm.  Luckily nobody was taking my airplane after my slot.  So, I switched to the next time slot.

While I was pre-flighting my Cessna, C-123K Provider (nickname Thunderpig) taxied out and took off, it seemed.  But, it aborted take off.  It used almost entire length of the runway and stopped with full thrust reverser.  I thought it may have been just doing fast taxiing test.  But, it came back to the hanger, and came out again, and this time it took off.  It took off runway 28 and made a left-downwind departure to the south east.  It was about the direction of Allegheny County airport.  I wondered if it landed at Allegheny and put side-by-side with B-29.

C-123K Provider taxiing and taking off runway 28.
Video taken from the cockpit of Cessna 172 that I was pre-flighting.

I was originally planning to fly to Allegheny county and do some touch & goes so that I could see B-29 from the air, but because it was late, I gave up the plan.  Instead, I flew to two non-towered airports that I've never visited and came back.

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