Close Call at Cairo

Our B-29 was a huge dark shadow as crew approached its parking space. There it sat, on sun-baked earth so hard even the plane’s heavy load could not impress tire prints. We were in Cairo—scheduled for night takeoff to Karachi, India—arrival the following morning.

With preflight inspection completed, we taxied our “Hellbird” toward takeoff. The night was dark and hot—our wing lights revealed swirls of sand and dust in the air. Ahead, another B-29 was waiting to move onto the runway. We listened as pilot revved up his engines to clear fouling—common to low rpm ground operation, especially in hot weather. His engines were not clearing. We heard his call to tower requesting trial run down runway to attempt clearing them. Permission granted—plane turned onto runway—throttles full forward—gathered speed, then slowed, turned back and moved again to takeoff position. At full power, plane accelerated down runway and soared into the night.

We were having the same fouling problem—ran engines to high rpm—would not clear—chose to abort takeoff.

CrashThe following day, while ground crews tuned our engines, word came that the plane ahead had arrived over Karachi during a dust storm, low on fuel. Pilot made unsuccessful low-vision landing approach—pulled up for go-around—ran out of fuel—crashed. A major tragedy—no survivors!

Flight schedules were changed to daytime departure.

Next day, with freshly tuned engines, we made our takeoff for Karachi. Flight plan called for low flight (1,000 feet) until passing through a narrow corridor over the Suez Canal (dictated by Egyptian Defense Control). Once this corridor was cleared, moved throttles to climbing power—three engines responded properly—number two “ran away” (propeller spun out of control).* Flight engineer called out excitedly, “What are you doing—number two is way overheating!” So it was, and trails of dark oil were beginning to streak the nacelle.

I immediately started turning back toward Cairo, at the same time reaching down with my right hand to push the number two feathering button. Prop did not feather—knew the tech order specified that the button should be forcefully pulled up if the prop did not respond within 30 seconds—wrapped my fingers under the button and pulled—button was stuck—pulled harder. Button popped up—but my knuckle hit the adjacent number one button—number one prop started through a slow feathering sequence.**

Not a pleasant moment! Low altitude—in sharp turn—no power on the left side—number two prop spinning wildly (throttle pulled back)—number one prop slowly feathering (had to complete cycle before unfeathering could be started)—plane loaded to hilt—losing altitude to avoid stall.

When number one was finally up to power again, we were at 400 feet—90 miles back to Cairo (about 30 minutes at our speed). Full climbing power on three good engines would not hold altitude. At 200 feet, increased to emergency power (tech order allows this setting for five minutes max)—engines badly overheating—heavy streaks of leaking oil spreading over all nacelles.

Sand DunesFlight engineer again called out “What are you doing—these engines can’t take it—you have to reduce power.” I answered, “Look out the window.” He did—and turned ashen upon seeing we were dragging so low over the dunes. Somewhat later, about 50 feet above ground, we passed through a gap between sand dunes—right where two shepherds were grazing a large flock of sheep. Gunners told me the sheep took off like crazy in all directions—shepherds were mad as hell, jumping up and down and shaking crooks in our direction. Who knows what native cuss words filled the air—or ancient Egyptian curses were laid on us?

Beyond the dunes, the land turned green, gently sloping into the Nile valley. I turned straight toward the airfield—barely over palm tops. Could see the active runway to my right, with B-29s taking off. To my left was an inactive cross-runway. Tried to reach tower for emergency landing—could not get through—radio traffic too busy. Turned left for landing on inactive cross-runway—special care was needed, dipping left wingtip was lower than tree tops. Knew that drag of down flaps and gear would reduce speed—already minimal. Lowering takes time—must judge the just-right moment. Watched the runway approaching—called for quarter flaps (adds lift while reducing speed)—then gear down.

Wheels of B-29s come down in sequence, which, in emergencies, can seem agonizingly slow. Our right wheel-down indicator light flashed on just before reaching runway—our plane touched down on its right wheel while I held the left wing up with controls—full power still on—left wheel light flashed on—let the left wing settle and immediately cut power—holding nose up—waiting—nose wheel light flashed on—let the nose settle. Remaining runway short—full force on brakes—not enough—asked copilot to help. Both applying full strength, were able to slow plane enough for sharp turnoff at runway end. Sweating some by now—thankful to be down and having safely cut across an active runway between a stream of B-29s taking off.

Climbing from the plane, our bombardier knelt and kissed the ground. Flight engineer—“You saved our lives.” (See Footnote) Pilot to crew—“All of our mothers’ prayers were answered today.”***

That afternoon I was told all B-29s were grounded—too many accidents, too many losses. Before moving on, troubles would be investigated and all planes checked by Boeing maintenance specialists, to be sent over from USA.

There we sat, grounded at Cairo—days to burn. Problem was, the B-29 deployment was secret and all crews were restricted to this limited facility base. Confined, while nearby stretched a grand, history-rich city and great, ancient pyramids.

After a few days our chains were loosened—we were allowed two days for sightseeing. Must wear civilian clothes—we would be on our own.

Through the miracle of television, we all know how Cairo now looks. But, for a guy from the West Coast, USA, it was like stepping into to a Saturday movie “Mummy” matinee with everyone in costume! We visited elegant mosques of marble and alabaster—found the Blue Mosque especially awesome. Saw City of the Dead where tombs rested within houses where families could gather. What was unique? The houses—not mausoleum style, but regular home-appearing houses.

Downtown—with Nile river front. Many boats—all with same uniquely curved sails. Street traffic was hectic and aggressive. Main market place with countless shops and stalls—crowded—bargaining was a way of life—groups of pesky kids following foreigners—hands held out—pulling—bumping—pleading for a coin, cigarette, anything.

SpxKhafreNext day we visited the pyramids. We were surprised to find them so close to outskirts of Cairo. Camel owners offered picture taking at a price—hawkers selling ancient coins and carved beetles (scarabs). On to the Sphinx—its head propped with tiers of stones to protect it from war damage—small compared to pyramids.

Short walk to first pyramid. A guide explained how, over the centuries, townspeople had removed gleaming smooth pyramid facing stones, used them for their own purposes—leaving current rugged-surface appearance. This rugged surface played a tragic part at the Great Pyramid. As I walked its length and around a corner, I caught sight of something falling—tumbling down from huge stone to stone—realized it was a person. A British soldier had fallen—body crumpled—face already turning pale purple—an indelible sight. His companions, another soldier and two young ladies, looked down from the place of fall above—horrified.

As a crowd gathered I moved away, deeply saddened and meditative. My crew and I, so recently through harrowing experiences, were safe and well—and here a young soldier lay dead from a single miss-step on a joyful occasion.

Back at the base, Boeing maintenance crews were hard at work on our aircraft—life went on. The deployment delay stretched over several more days. Then the announcement came: Let’s move on.

*After checking number two propeller failure, a maintenance specialist told me it was caused by a grain of sand! Feathering gear is activated by oil pressure, with oil kept at proper temperature by cowl vanes opening and closing as needed. A grain of sand had found its way into the small cylinder which drives the cowls, causing a jam in the ‘closed’ position. With no cooling, the temperature climbed quickly, thinning oil beyond usefulness for feathering operation.

**This is an example of how combat crew experience filled in for lack of normal flight testing of the war-rushed B-29. The four feathering buttons were placed close together in a row, with a plastic shielding extending around all. Learning from this experience, Boeing changed the shielding to surround each button individually so that any one could be used without risk to others.

***While 462nd (Hellbird) Group Commander, Col. Kalberer submitted this incident for award recognition, it was returned by the Board with comment that pilot was only doing expected good job.

Footnote by lifetime “copilot”:

Many years later, in Seattle, while attending Boeing’s 50th anniversary of the B-29, a soft-spoken man introduced himself to me. He caught sight of Dick at a memorial service for fallen comrades. His name was Howard Lapin (then a professor), flight engineer on Dick’s crew—this flight and many others. He wanted me to know my husband had saved his life, time and again and, regardless of hazards, had gotten all his crew home safely from every flight.

He went on to mention a vivid, almost comical, memory of this particular flight—of Dick standing upright on the brakes, with all his might, trying to stop the plane—and how, in his usual polite and unflappable manner, he asked his copilot, “Would you mind helping me with these brakes?”