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Enola Gay: The Story of the Most Historic Boeing B-29

Enola Gay Was a Specially Modified Aircraft for an Unthinkable Secret Task

Image via Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

There once was a B-29 Superfortress bomber known to entire generations of Americans. That B-29, actually a B-29-45-MO, Army Air Forces serial number 44-86292, was built not by Boeing, but by the Glenn L. Martin Company at its plant in Bellevue, Nebraska. By no means unique but certainly rare, 44-86292 was one of the first 15 Silverplate B-29s. Specially modified to do an unthinkable but necessary job, this well-known B-29 was named Enola Gay- the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb.

Colonel Tibbets in Enola Gay. Image via USAF

Silverplate B-29s were modified to enable them to carry the atomic bombs of their day. Revisions to these special Superforts included pneumatically operated bomb bay doors, dual redundant British bomb attachment and release systems, improved Wright R-3350-41 Duplex-Cyclone turbo-supercharged radial engines with revised fuel injection and cooling systems turning reversible propellers, and the removal of the dorsal and ventral remote-controlled gun turrets. A weaponeer crew position was added in the cockpit area.

B-29 Enola Gay. Image via USAF

Colonel Paul Warfield Tibbets Jr. personally selected 44-86292 while the aircraft was still being assembled at the Martin plant on 9 May 1945. Tibbets, the commander of the 509th Composite Group, later named the bomber Enola Gay after his mother. After the B-29 was accepted by the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) on 18 May 1945 it was assigned to the 393rd Bombardment Squadron (BS) of the 509th. The aircraft was flown to the 509th base at Wendover Army Air Field (AAF) in Utah, on 14 June 1945.

Colonel Tibbets with Enola Gay. Image via USAF

Just shy of two weeks later, 44-86292 was on its way to Guam in the Marianas Islands. There the aircraft had its bomb bay modified, after which it was flown to North Field on Tinian on 6 July 1945. From there the bomber flew eight practice/training flights, usually flown by a different aircraft commander- Captain Robert A. Lewis. Lewis also flew two missions in late July to drop 10,000 pound pumpkin bombs on industrial targets- first on Kobe and then on Nagoya. The tail identification markings on 44-86292 were those of a different squadron to maintain secrecy. On 31 July 1945, 44-86292 flew a rehearsal flight for the atomic bomb mission.

B-29 Enola Gay. Image via USAF

During preparations for the atomic mission on 5 August, Tibbets officially named 44-86292 Enola Gay. Allan L. Karl painted the name in the aircraft. This did not please Lewis, who believed as aircraft commander he was being slighted. Lewis flew the mission with Tibbets as co-pilot. The B-29 had to be lifted using a special rig so the atomic bomb could be loaded into its forward bomb bay. Enola Gay departed North Field in the company of two other Silverplate B-29s:  The Great Artiste, carrying instrumentation, and an additional B-29 to take photographs.

B-29 Enola Gay returning to North Field on Tinian. Image via USAF

The three B-29s proceeded to Iwo Jima, where they rendezvoused and set course for Japan. The three bombers arrived over Hiroshima with clear skies and unlimited visibility (CAVU) conditions at 32,333 feet altitude. The weapon, unarmed to that point in the mission, was armed and the safety devices were removed. Released at 0815 local time, the “Little Boy” bomb took 43 seconds to fall from 31,600 feet. Enola Gay traveled 11.5 miles before the shock waves from the blast were felt onboard. Enola Gay returned safely to North Field at 1458 local time after 12 hours and 13 minutes in the air. Tibbets received the Distinguished Service Cross after the return of the Enola Gay.

B-29 Enola Gay post-mission. Image via Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Enola Gay was flown by a different crew as a weather reconnaissance ship during the Nagasaki mission on August 9th. After that the bomber did not fly another wartime mission. The 509th and Enola Gay flew stateside to Roswell AAF and operated there from November 1945 until May of 1946, when Enola Gay flew west to another Pacific destination- this time Kwajalein for Operation Crossroads. 44-86292 was not selected to fly the mission to drop an atomic bomb on Bikini Atoll. Later in 1946 Enola Gay was removed from USAAF inventory and transferred to the Smithsonian Institution. The well-known bomber was then ferried from one Air Force Base to another until 1961, when Enola Gay was disassembled and trucked to the Smithsonian Institution storage facility in Suitland, Maryland.

B-29 Enola Gay restored. Image via Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Enola Gay was embroiled in controversy during the 1980s when veterans groups expressed interest in displaying the historic aircraft in Washington. Politics ensued, delaying display of the Enola Gay until only the fuselage was displayed at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima mission- amid inevitable controversy. Enola Gay was restored, completely assembled, and has since 2003 been on display at NASM’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

B-29 Enola Gay. Image via Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

The crew of the Enola Gay on her 6 August 1945 mission were pilot and aircraft commander Colonel Paul W. Tibbets Jr., co-pilot Captain Robert A. Lewis, bombardier Major Thomas Ferebee, navigator Captain Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, weaponeer and mission commander Captain William S. Parsons, USN, radar countermeasures officer First Lieutenant Jacob Beser, assistant weaponeer Second Lieutenant Morris R. Jeppson, tail gunner Staff Sergeant George R. “Bob” Caron, flight engineer Staff Sergeant Wyatt E. Duzenbury, radar operator Sergeant Joe S. Stiborik, assistant flight engineer Sergeant Robert H. Shumard, and VHF radio operator Private First Class Richard H. Nelson.

Crew of the Enola Gay. Image via USAF

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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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