On the wings of a Superfortress

On the wings of a SuperfortressBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” — Leonardo Da Vinci

Hundreds congregated last week to welcome “Doc,” the ’40s-era B-29 Superfortress, on its brief visit to the Indian Wells Valley. While many got to watch the behemoth of the skies soar over the Ridgecrest and China Lake, a fortunate few got to be passengers as it circled the valley.

“It was awesome,” said resident Jon Riddick, one of the lucky few.

“Everybody has been asking me what it was like, and all I can say is that it was just awesome.”

Riddick, a former jet engine mechanic with a long-time love for aircraft, was eagerly awaiting Doc’s arrival when he got a call from his son, Spencer.

“Dad, they’re going to be giving rides,” said his son. “Do you want to ride on it?”

“Yes!” was all Riddick could say and a short time later he got a text from his son with the ticket confirmation.

“I was smiling for days,” said Riddick. “I’m telling my workmates about it, people walking down the street, complete strangers, everybody.”

When Doc came gliding in on Tuesday morning, Riddick was parked as close to the end of the runway as he could get so he got a view from directly under the plane as it came in for a landing.

Doc, so named for the dwarf from Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” never saw combat, but was involved in radar calibration operations in a squadron with eight other aircraft – “Snow White,” “Wicked Witch” and the other six dwarves.

While the plane was manufactured in Witchita, Kansas, it spent decades after World War II here in our valley. It sat retired on a China Lake range as a munitions target, which begs the question: how did it survive?

When Riddick was mingling with other Doc greeters, he met Sammy Ford — a former China Lake range control manager — and his wife Carol.

“He was the guy who said, ‘It would be a shame for this thing to get destroyed,’ and had it moved somewhere where it wouldn’t get hit,” said Riddick. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Riddick said he felt a little guilty that he had a ticket and Sammy didn’t, but was pleased to learn that the Fords got a lift from Doc all the way to Albequerque when it left the valley.

Years after Sammy had the bomber moved, Tony Mazzo-llini of the U.S. Aviation Museum showed up and said “I heard you have a B-29?”

After local volunteers helped move Doc to Inyokern, Mazzolini later moved it to Wichita where an indoor hangar and more volunteers were available. Since then the plane has been under the care of Doc’s Friends, an organization that raises funds to keep the piece of history airworthy.

“While stepping on the plane, there were a lot of emotions happening,” said Riddick. “I’m a history ‘feeler.’ I love museums and places I can go that give me a sense of history because I feel it. I saw them start to crank the engine over and immediately I was a young airman in the ’70s again. Then with a familiar “boom,” the engine fires up. We lift off and it’s just exhilarating!”

Riddick said it took a while for the rush to wear off before he could “sober” up and start to really realize where he was.

“I’m sitting there and I realize this is a WWII-era plane and I’m sitting with an aircrew just like the one that would have piloted this during the war,” said Riddick. “And just as I was thinking it to myself, another guy turns to his friend and says, ‘This is something.’”

Riddick said the plane had a crew of six, with about as many passengers. His ticket was for the left gunner seat. He noted that from the bombardier seat in the cockpit, it looks like you’re in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon.

“The whole thing was not fast – it was a very slow deal,” said Riddick as he described the leisurely flight around the valley. After taking off he had the opportunity to explore the other seats, including the CFC gunner seat which allows for a 360-degree view from the top of the plane.

Riddick said he was aware of the B-17 crash which killed seven and injured others in Connecticut earlier this month. The tragedy raised questions about the safety of novelty flights on older aircraft.

“It crossed my mind,” said Riddick. “But when you watch them prepping for the flight, you can tell that they know it’s serious. This thing was restored to pristine condition.

“It was like stepping into a scene from the past. If you’re a lover of history – you definitely need to try and do something like this.”

Pictured: Local resident and former jet engine mechanic Jon Riddick (right) chats with Doc’s flight engineer Frank “Hawkeye” Berry shortly after their flight. — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2019-10-18