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History in flight: Last operational B-29 Superfortress bomber visits Mesa

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MESA – As an Air Force mechanic in the 1950s, Jim Mathews worked on the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, the bomber that earlier rained destruction on Japan to end World War II.

On Thursday, he traveled back through the decades as he watched the world’s last operational B-29 bomber land here.

“It’s kind of nostalgic,” Mathews said. “I’d sure like to fly in it.”

The bomber, along with five other historic military planes operated by the Commemorative Air Force, will be at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport through Sunday for visitors to view or fly in.

A flight on the B-29 costs between $600 and $1,500, depending on the seat choice.

Mathews, who was stationed at Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base from 1951 to 1955, said he visited just for the B-29.

He and his wife have seen B-29s in museums, but he said he needed the chance to watch a B-29 actually fly again.

“That airplane was kind of a challenge for us,” he said, adding that the construction was unique and difficult for mechanics and pilots to master.

The Commemorative Air Force’s history tour brings together an assortment of military aircraft to honor the men and women who built, maintained and flew in the planes in wartime. The planes move Monday to Deer Valley Airport, their last stop in Arizona, for two days.

Mike Selk, a pilot with the Commemorative Air Force’s Arizona wing, volunteered to fly a 1944 Navy SNJ trainer plane in the tour. He has worked for years with the Commemorative Air Force, a private organization that collects, restores and flies military planes.

“It’s just a privilege to be in this airplane,” he said. “It’s fun to clean it. It’s fun to take pictures of it. It’s just a nice piece of history.”

Tour visitor Thomas Moeller came from his retirement home to see a B-29 fly for the first time.

He said he has kept a model of the B-29 in his bedroom for nearly 60 years. When he was 14 and suffering from rheumatic fever, classmates gave him the model to build while home sick.

“When I put it together, I was so proud I took it to class and showed it to them,” he said. “I’ve kept it ever since.”

As the memory of World War II fades, the chance to experience history is important, said Patrick Oakley, the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport community relations coordinator.

“It’s a win-win for us,” Oakley said. “People just love airplanes.”

Debbie King, the first female pilot to fly the B-29 since World War II, called the plane a flying museum.

“It’s a little overwhelming if you think, ‘Wow, this is the last one,’” she said. “We need to keep these airplanes out in front of the public.”