SAINT-HUBERT, Que. – At over 70 years of age, the Second World War-era bomber known as “Fifi” is among the last of its kind.
The Boeing B-29 Superfortress, which was delivered in 1945, is one of only a few dozen of its model still in existence — and one of only two that still flies.
On Sunday, onlookers huddled under umbrellas at Montreal’s St-Hubert airport as smoke billowed from Fifi’s propellers and her engines began to roar.
Moments later the plane was airborne, its slim silver nose cutting through rainy skies as it took off for one of several daily demonstration flights on the fifth day of her first ever Canadian tour.
Half an hour later, the plane landed and was taxied in so Fifi could meet its waiting fans, all of whom seemed eager to get a close-up view of a piece of aviation history.
While it has touched down in Canada before, organizers with the Dallas-based Commemorative Air Force said it’s the first time the plane has stopped for a tour, where visitors can explore the plane’s interior or even take a ride — although those don’t come cheap.
A half-hour flight starts at just under $600 USD — about $800 Canadian — and range up to almost $1,700 USD for the best seat in the cockpit.
After it leaves Montreal on Monday, Fifi will make seven stops in Ontario, including in Ottawa, Kitchener and Hamilton.
Retired commercial airline pilot Allen Benzing, who has been flying the plane for three years, says the 73-year-old bomber can be “cantankerous” while on the ground.
It has to be directed with brakes and levers since there’s no steering wheel, and while its engines start reliably, that’s only if you know what you’re doing.
“If you don’t, she’ll make a fool of you,” he said in an interview from the pilot’s chair.
But in the air, it’s a different story.
“At slower speeds it’s quite ponderous,” he said.
“However, once you get to near cruise speed, it flies very well, it’s very stable, it’s very much like a Boeing you’d fly otherwise.”
Fifi entered service shortly before the war ended, meaning this particular plane was used for training and never saw combat.
But as a group, the B-29s made history in the Pacific theatre. Their bombing raids were so furious, it was said, that the planes flying the tail end of the formation came back with debris from Japanese buildings stuck in their propellers.
It was a B-29, the Enola Gay, that dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
Despite being credited with helping to end the war, Benzing said most of the surviving B-29s met inglorious ends in scrapyards or as military target practice.
Fifi was left in the desert for 15 years and was scheduled to be used as a target before the plane was located by the Commemorative Air Force in the early 1970s and restored by a man named Vic Agather, who named the plane after his wife.
Keeping the plane in the air is no small endeavour, even though almost the entire crew, including Benzing, are volunteers.
Benzing said Fifi requires more than 1,500 litres of gasoline per hour and costs over $10,000 an hour to keep in the air — which is all financed by the revenue from the tours.
Montreal-area couple Rose and Gerard Plamondon were some of those opting to take a flight on Sunday morning, even though they acknowledged they could have flown to Europe for the same cost.
Afterwards, Gerard Plamondon said it was worth it for the experience of being “transported back to another time.
“We read a lot of history, but now we get to live it, that’s how it feels,” he said.