David Oreck is known to most New Orleanians as an irrepressible TV pitchman for vacuum cleaners and color TVs years ago. But before that, he did something more important: He flew about a dozen missions in B-29 bombers over the Pacific during World War II.
Oreck, 92, flew his last mission in 1945. But on Thursday, some 70 years after he last climbed into the cabin of a B-29, he was at Lakefront Airport to do it again.
Oreck was a radar navigator flying out of Saipan as World War II wound down.
“I’m not nervous,” he said as he waited to climb into Fifi, the last remaining flying B-29. But when asked what emotions he expected to feel when he entered the plane, he couldn’t answer.
“I can’t explain it. When we left the field in Saipan, we were over water for 16 hours. You knew, if you went down in water … ” his voice trailed off. “It got us there and back, and that means a lot.”
Oreck was one of three World War II veterans getting a ride in Fifi, along with a handful of other people who had come to the airport at the start of this weekend’s World War II AirPower Expo.
Fifi was piloted by Tom Travis, a colonel in the Commemorative Air Force, who told the assembled group to enjoy the ride.
“Our cellphone policy is: Use ’em, take as many pictures as you want,” he said, while warning that the ride might not be like what people are used to nowadays.
“This plane was not built for your comfort but for your freedom,” Travis said.
David Fisher, 89, was another of the veterans on the flight. Fisher flew out of Guam in a B-29 known as Round Trip Ticket. This was his second ride on Fifi.
He recalled the bombing missions, describing the 15 to 18 hours the crew would spend in the air.
“You get close to the plane,” he said.
Fisher noted the two most famous B-29 missions in history were to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and he said he was sad that has become the plane’s primary legacy.
“I hate to see the B-29 associated with just the two atomic bombs,” he said. “We shortened that war.”
But before Oreck and Fisher and the others could get a ride in Fifi, a problem familiar to all who have flown cropped up: a delay.
Another of the planes in town for the AirPower Expo, a B-17, had blown a tire on the runway, and it had to be cleared before Fifi could take off, a process that delayed the B-29 flight by nearly three hours.
Finally, however, Oreck and Fisher climbed up the ladder into the front cabin, where Oreck took the bombardier’s seat just in front of the two pilots. Fisher sat behind, near the radio station he had manned as an airman.
Another group climbed into the rear cabin, just aft of the two bomb bays, which, during the war, held 10,000 pounds of bombs apiece.
The B-29 was the first pressurized-cabin bomber the U.S. produced, and the two cabins were connected by a long tube through which the 11-man crew could move back and forth. A smaller, unpressurized passageway connected the rear cabin to the tail gunner’s perch at the rear of the plane.
Once all the passengers were strapped in, Travis and the crew members with him went through the preflight checklist, making sure everything was properly stowed and giving thumbs-up signs. Then Travis started the engines, four 2,200-horsepower custom-built engines that have been on Fifi since 2010.
In good World War II tradition, the engines have been given names: Betty, Ingrid, Rita and Mitzi. The four make a lot of noise, and the B-29 shuddered as they started up.
Cables and wire snake through the plane, prompting an admonition from the crew: “The cables are how the plane is flown, so don’t grab one of those when you are walking around.”
Once cleared for takeoff, the four engines were turned loose, and Fifi shot down the runway and off the ground, climbing quickly to about 1,200 feet, its cruising altitude for the 20- to 25-minute flight.
In the rear cabin, World War II veteran Clarence Mingee smiled in his seat. “It was a thrill getting on,” he said later. “I have such great respect for the plane.”
Mingee, 89, was a Navy Seabee, acting as ground support for the B-29 crews in the Pacific.
Travis circled New Orleans and brought the plane back over Lake Pontchartrain.
The crew encouraged passengers to explore the aircraft, clambering back to the tail gunner’s phone booth-sized compartment or climbing into the main gunner’s seat in the rear cabin, one’s head sticking out above the plane in a clear plastic dome called a blister. In it, one could swing around 360 degrees and put one’s hands on the triggers crewmen used to defend the B-29 from enemy fighters.
Too soon, the crew warned the passengers to get back to their seats and buckle up, and a few minutes later, two hard bumps announced that Fifi had returned to the ground.
As he climbed down the ladder, Fisher’s face shone.
“It was emotional,” he said, describing the feeling as nostalgia. “It’s just like the feeling I had the first time.”
Oreck, too, shared Fisher’s enthusiasm.
“It was great, déjà vu all over again,” he said, smiling.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.