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101-year-old WWII B–29 pilot honored with Superfortress flight101-year-old WWII B–29 pilot honored with Superfortress flight

Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Vaucher joins ‘Doc’ crew

Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Vaucher, a Boeing B–29 pilot during World War II, was again on the flight deck of a Superfortress September 26. The flight over northern Virginia honored the 101-year-old’s distinguished military service.

Vaucher flew 117 combat missions during 46 months of service, and was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, among other decorations. Vaucher the “show of force” formation of 525 B–29s that flew over the Japanese surrender ceremony aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945. Decades later, he was chosen to serve as honorary air boss for the Arsenal of Democracy 75th World War II Victory Commemoration Flyover that was to have included 70 aircraft passing in waves over the nation's capital to honor of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II.

That was the plan, but the flyover had to be scrubbed because of bad weather on September 25, and again on September 26.

Ragged, low ceilings; mist; and an occasional glimpse of blue sky taunted the pilots and crews of lovingly restored aircraft. They had all toiled at airports around the nation’s capital for the better part of a week leading up to the planned event, practicing the formations that would re-create a show of force for 2020, formations of aircraft arranged to celebrate their respective military roles, one following the next over the National Mall.

For many, the gathering at Manassas Regional Airport/Harry P. Davis Field and Culpeper Regional Airport was a labor of love. The days leading up to the planned flyover were an intense mix of aircraft maintenance and proficiency flights, pilots perfecting their formations of historic flying artifacts.

Crews alternated between practice runs and oil changes. Wax and polish were the order of the day as aluminum skin and military paint schemes were buffed to a fine luster that would have reflected the sun—if it could be seen through the clouds. Though mechanical issues are routine, finding parts for airplanes that rolled off the factory floor eight decades ago challenged maintenance teams until nearly the last minute.

A bad magneto in one of the four Curtiss-Wright radial engines temporarily grounded the Boeing B–17 Flying Fortress Sentimental Journey. It rumbled to a stop with a load of guests and visitors after an aborted takeoff during a preparation flight.

But the crew of Doc, one of the last two Superfortresses still flying, was determined to get Vaucher in the air.

Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Bob Vaucher, 101, who flew Boeing B-29 Superfortresses during World War II, joins the B-29 ‘Doc’ crew at Manassas Regional Airport/Harry P. Davis Field after a local flight in the aircraft which was scheduled to take part in the Arsenal of Democracy flyover of Washington, D.C., before it was scrubbed for weather September 26. Photo by David Tulis.Vaucher was accompanied by Veterans Airlift Command volunteer pilot John Gabriele, Donna Lazartic, and family members as he ascended through a bomb bay stairwell into the navigator’s position on the port side of the fuselage. His eyes sparkled under a shock of grey hair as Vaucher surveyed the reconstructed aircraft that had languished for 42 years in the Mojave Desert before a cadre of volunteers led by Tony Mazzolini swarmed in to save it.

The flight from Manassas brought back memories for the World War II U.S. Army Air Corps pilot who also delivered to the armed forces the first Boeing B–29 when it rolled off the Wichita, Kansas, assembly line in July 1943.

The massive front windscreen provided Vaucher a superb view of rolling terrain near the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains as the 99-foot-long aircraft smoothly rotated and entered a left crosswind. Two large television monitors aft of the bomb bay broadcast an outside view of the flight, a graphical representation of airspace, and the current weather conditions, while the bomber quickly ascended to pattern altitude. The situational awareness was a vast improvement over the instrumentation Vaucher relied on during his years of active service.

Less than favorable weather conditions kept the honor flight short and in the local area.

After the successful flight, which had attracted a crowd to the airfield despite secrecy surrounding the anniversary mission, Vaucher regaled B–29 Doc pilot Steve Zimmerman with a few stories he encountered as a World War II bomber pilot.

Engines start on the Boeing B-29 Superfortress ‘Doc’ for a local flight at Manassas Regional Airport/Harry P. Davis Field in northern Virginia after the Arsenal of Democracy flyover of Washington, D.C., was scrubbed for weather September 26. Photo by David Tulis.Weak brakes, a lack of reversible props, and a nosewheel collapse cut one wartime B–29 mission short. During another, his heavily laden long-range bomber struggled to gain altitude when one of the four supercharged 2,200-horsepower Wright R-3350 Duplex Cyclone engines feathered unexpectedly on takeoff.

“I staggered out” as the 138,000-pound aircraft slowly gained altitude, he recalled to Zimmerman, who had just landed the meticulously restored B–29 Doc on 6,200-foot long Runway 34R. “What happened was that when the co-pilot ganged the power down from our takeoff engine speed of 2,900 rpm to 2,600 rpm or so, one of the toggle switches stuck and an engine went into feather mode. I could barely keep the airspeed up above a stall. Fortunately, we took off at sea level and remained at sea level for the next 10 miles, so I was able to baby the thing up to get going.”

Vaucher later joined the flight crew on the ramp for a postflight photo where he flashed a smile and an enthusiastic thumbs up. Earlier the honorary air boss repeated the advice he dispatched to dozens of warbird pilots who diligently trained and prepared themselves and their machines to overfly the Potomac River, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Mall. He admonished them to “get in line and stay in line,” just as he did at the tip of the spear in Japan more than 75 years ago.

The Boeing B-29 Super Fortress "Doc" and "FiFi" participate in formation practice September 25, 2020. Photo by Chris Rose.

The Boeing B–29 Superfortress Doc and FiFi participate in formation practice September 25. Photo by Chris Rose.

Boeing B-17 ‘Sentimental Journey’ crew member Russ Kozimor prepares one of the four 1,200 horsepower Curtiss-Wright engines before weather postponed the September 25 2020, Arsenal of Democracy flyover of Washington, D.C., by one day.  AOPA Photo by David Tulis. Signatures of World War II veterans line the bomb bay doors of ‘Fifi,’ a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, during preparation for the September 25, 2020, Arsenal of Democracy flyover of Washington, D.C. Seventy warbirds will fly over the National Mall in two-minute intervals from the slowest to the fastest. AOPA Photo by David Tulis. Weaponry flanks the nose gunner position of ‘Sentimental Journey,’ a Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress bomber during preparation for the September 25, 2020, Arsenal of Democracy flyover of Washington, D.C., to recognize the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. AOPA Photo by David Tulis. Arsenal of Democracy 75th World War II Victory Commemoration Flyover A Consolidated P4Y Privateer takes off during preparations for the September 25, 2020, Arsenal of Democracy flyover of Washington, D.C. AOPA Photo by David Tulis. The Douglas C-47 Skytrain "That's All, Brother" participates in formation practice. Photo by Chris Rose. Spectators gather to watch crews ready a Bowing B-17 Flying Fortress and two Boeing B-29 Superfortresses for local flights at Manassas Regional Airport/Harry P. Davis Field after the Arsenal of Democracy flyover of Washington, D.C., to recognize the seventy-fifth anniversary of Victory in Europe Day was scrubbed for weather September 26, 2020.  AOPA Photo by David Tulis. Guests aboard the Boeing B-29 Superfortress ‘Doc’ trade photos on a local flight near Manassas Regional Airport/Harry P. Davis Field in northern Virginia after the Arsenal of Democracy flyover of Washington, D.C., to recognize the seventy-fifth anniversary of Victory in Europe Day was scrubbed for weather September 26, 2020.  AOPA Photo by David Tulis. Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Bob Vaucher, 101, recounts his World War II Boeing B-29 Superfortress flying experiences with B-29 ‘Doc’ pilot Steve Zimmerman after a flight from Manassas Regional Airport/Harry P. Davis Field in Manassas, Virginia. The aircraft was scheduled to take part in the Arsenal of Democracy flyover of Washington, D.C., before it was scrubbed for weather September 26, 2020.  AOPA Photo by David Tulis.                A variety of aircraft such as Vought F4U Corsair joins in on flight practice. Photo by Chris Rose. The Boeing B-29 Super Fortress "Doc" and "FiFi" participate in formation practice September 25, 2020. Photo by Chris Rose. A general aviation aircraft lands near ‘Sentimental Journey,’ a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress during preparations for the September 25, 2020, Arsenal of Democracy flyover of Washington, D.C. AOPA Photo by David Tulis.
One of the original ‘Rosie the Riveters,’ Connie Palaciozas, joins crew members for the Boeing B-29 Superfortress ‘Doc,’ which she helped construct during World War II. AOPA Photo by David Tulis.

One of the original Rosie the Riveters, Connie Palacioz, joins crew members for the Boeing B–29 Superfortress Doc, which she helped construct during World War II. Photo by David Tulis.

David Tulis

David Tulis

Associate Editor Web/ePilot
AOPA Associate Editor Web/ePilot David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a private pilot with single-engine land and sea ratings and a tailwheel endorsement. He is also a certificated remote pilot and co-host of the award-winning AOPA Hangar Talk podcast. David enjoys vintage aircraft and photography.
Topics: Warbird, People

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