MT. COMFORT — George Collins gazed proudly, a hint of disbelief in his eyes, at the familiar mass of shining metal.
The 100-year-old veteran gave “FIFI,” the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber on display this week at the Indianapolis Regional Airport, a knowing smile, like greeting an old friend.
It was the first time in decades Collins of Greenfield had laid eyes on the same kind of bomber he serviced as a mechanic in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II.
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The plane, a four-engine propeller-powered bomber is one of two B-29s in the U.S. that has been fully restored and is able to fly, officials said.
The bomber was acquired by the Commemorative Air Force in the early 1970s when it was found at the U.S. Navy Proving Ground at China Lake, California, where it was being used as a missile target, officials said.
Today, it serves as part of a the National Air Tour of Historic WWII Aircraft, a traveling air museum that gives history buffs and aviation lovers like Collins an up-close look at the past. The plane will be on display at the Indianapolis Regional Airport until 5 p.m. Friday and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
For Collins, a 1935 Wilinkson High School graduate who now lives at Springhurst Health Campus, getting a chance to see the B-29 bomber just like the ones he worked on as a mechanic was a thrill.
“I don’t really know how I can express what it’s like seeing this plane again,” Collins said. “It brings back a lot of memories.”
The B-29, first flown in 1942, replaced the older B-17s and B-24s and was considered one of the most technologically advanced warplanes of the time, boasting a longer range and greater bomb loads, officials said.
In addition, it included two crew areas, fore and aft, connected by a pressurized tube, and guns that could be fired by remote control, according to Boeing.
Pam Riley, Collins’ daughter, and Jerry Grilliot, a family friend, brought Collins and a scrapbook full of military photos to the airfield so their loved one could reminisce.
Grilliot had heard countless stories from Collins about how much he enjoyed working on the B-29 bomber back in the early 1940s. When Grilliot heard the plane was coming to Hancock County, he jumped at the chance to bring Collins.
Collins, who turned 100 years old July 22, wasn’t able to get out of his wheelchair and see the inside the bomber, but his daughter went in his stead.
She enjoyed seeing stories from her childhood come to life as she saw the plane her father worked on all those years ago, she said.
“I’ve just heard him talk about these planes all of my life,” Riley said. “To now actually be able to go inside and be in it and be next to it, I never would have thought it was possible.”
Collins was trained to be a mechanic on the bombers in Mississippi, Alabama and Texas before being stationed in Seattle during WWII.
This particular bomber, built in 1944, is 73 years old and based out of Fortworth, Texas. The plane is flown by a crew coast to coast.
Cheryl Hilvert is one of the Commemorative Air Force member who travels with the bomber and said FIFI never had to fly or bomb overseas — a key reason the bird’s still able to get airborne.
Hilvert and fellow crew members Paul Maupin greet patrons who come to see the Superfortress and answer questions, as they know the plane inside and out.
All Commemorative Air Force members either have a love of aviation or history and enjoy talking about the bomber, they said.
“The story behind these airplanes and what they did during the war is just amazing,” Hilvert said.
“But what’s even more amazing is the men who flew them and the families who stayed behind to build them.”