Aviation Icon Returns: Fifi Takes Flight

The following article was written and photographed by Chronic Wanderlust contributors James Pritchard and Jacob Pelham in Midland, Texas.

Young child enjoying the Air Show. (Photo: James Pritchard)

The creator of Chronic Wanderlust once said that using the phrase “Hidden Gem” is a cliché. I hate to say it but he’s correct. But sometimes there really is no other way to describe something that truly is unknown to most people. In Midland, Texas, a city known mainly for oil and natural gas production is the hometown of a few people such as Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Spud Webb, George W. Bush, Matthew McConaughey and my personal favorite, “FiFi”.

Boeing B29 Superfortress with bomb doors open, Japan's worst fear. (Photo: James Pritchard)

Nestled at Midland International Airport in Texas is the headquarters to the Commemorative Air Force (formerly known as the Confederate Air Force) which houses the world’s only flying B29 Superfortress, named “FiFi”. I absolutely love this airplane. Each year the CAF holds an annual Air Show on Runway 10 at Midland International and for the most of the show, “FiFi” is a fan favorite. They will usually invite special air teams such as the Navy Blue Angels, Canadian Snowbirds or the Air Force Thunderbirds. The CAF has the only flying B29 in the world.

P-51 Mustang of the famoue Tuskegee Airmen

In 2006, after performing the annual air show the mechanics were performing routine maintenance on the plane and noticed metal shavings in the engine oil. The world once again, had no B29s that were airworthy. These engines are huge piston radial supercharged powerplants, and there are four of them. Immediately the plane was grounded by the CAF and FAA. The CAF contacted Boeing and spent millions of dollars and about four years to restore the plane and had some completely new engines cast, machined and assembled.

On August 5th, 2010, I was loading my luggage into CW contributor Jacob Pelham’s truck so he could give me a ride to the airport so I could leave for Europe. Above my head I noticed a familiar sound I hadn’t heard in a few years. The rumbling sound of four radial engines on a literal flying piece of history as “FiFi” flew over the driveway on its test flight. The B29 was airworthy and once again cleared by the CAF and FAA for flight. The new engines did not come with the original superchargers from the old engines; therefore, “FiFi” in her current form cannot fly at extremely high altitude. That’s ok though; it is normally used for air shows and doesn’t need to fly at high altitudes.

Taxiing down the tarmac at Midland International Airport for the 2010 Air Show (Photo: James Pritchard)

This year in Midland the CAF held their AirSho for 2010 on October 9th and 10th. The AirSho is usually geared toward reenacting history for enthusiasts, veterans and anyone wanting to learn about history of aerial warfare. The special acts invited this year included a Beech 18 and the world’s only jet powered sail plane (both of which performed night acts) an Extra 300 stunt plane, a pair of F15 Eagles, a pair of F16 Vipers and a B1B Lancer supersonic bomber. Also on display inside the CAF museum is the world’s largest collection of authentic nose art.

Texas (Photo: Jacob Pelham)

The AirSho usually follows a schedule in which gates open early in the morning and people are allowed to walk around on the tarmac and In hangars where aircraft is displayed from World War I and II, Korea, Vietnam and some modern military aircraft such as a C5 Galaxy, C130, C17, F14, AH64 Apache and a few others. Around Noon the show kicks off with flyovers of World War II aircraft preparing to reenact the bombing of Pearl Harbor using real Japanese Zeros, reenactments of the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo, and a reenactment of the only time there was aggressive use of nuclear force with the B29 Superfortress. After those acts are performed, the special acts begin including the F15s, F16s, B1B Lancer, The Fina Extra 300s stunt plane piloted by Fina’s Jan Collmer, the Beech 18 and the jet powered sail plane. At 5:00 the CAF held a retro USO style concert featuring patriotic songs reminiscent of World War II. At the end of the concert the sun was nearly set and people started to gather off the taxiway again to view the night show featuring the jet powered Super Salto Sail Plane piloted by Bob Carlton and the Beech 18 as they perform their aerial acrobatics.

Low altitude fly-over (Photo: Jacob Pelham)

The City of Midland and the CAF are proud to have the only flying B29 in the world. Rides in “FiFi” can be purchased for $595 for a thirty minute flight around Midland in the cargo/bomb area or for $995 in the front of the plane with pilots and bomb specialist. Everyone can appreciate this plane whether you are an aircraft enthusiast or not. My favorite thing about it is when I hear the rumble of it flying on the horizon, or when I see it take to the skies from Midland International I know that I am witnessing something truly great. I tip my hat to Boeing, the CAF and the people who spent countless hours working hard to make this once again, the world’s only Flying B29.

2010 Air Show at Night (Photo: James Pritchard)

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Climber’s Paradise: Hueco Tanks State Park

This article was written and photographed by ChronicWanderlust contributor Jacob Pelham.

View from the Hueco Tanks

Hueco Tanks State Park is a place that travelers have used for hundreds of years, from the ancient Paleo Native Americans to being a stop on the Butterfield stage route, travelers have used this area as a lifeline in the desert. Travelers of today flock to this area for many reasons including bouldering, birding, hiking, camping, and to just escape the pace of the city. 

Hueco is a Spanish word for hollows, referring to the swiss cheese type holes and indentions in the boulders

Hueco is a Spanish word for hollows, and refers to the swiss cheese type holes and indentions in the boulders that make up this unique area .These holes collect water during rain and tend to retain much of the water within crevices and caves hiding the water from the hot sun. Many types of grasses, cacti, succulents, and trees have sprouted up in the areas adjacent to the massive rock formations which in turn attracts wildlife to this area. Native Americans used this area for many different purposes including hunting, gathering and collecting water, some believe this a a very spiritual place, and in certain areas you can find huge collections of pictographs and petroglyphs telling unknown stories on the rock.

A climber bouldering over his crash pads

From October to approximately February, the population of this remote location explodes with climbers from all over the country and even other parts of the world. Most of the climbing that goes on here is bouldering in which you do not use ropes but portable crash pads in case you fall. The usual maximum height of these boulders that are climbed is around 30 feet and even with the use of crash pads this extreme sport is dangerous. There are hundreds of possible climbing routes throughout the park some of  which are very technical and challenging, but possible. As you walk through the park you notice white marks along the rock where climbers climbed using chalk for grip. Some of the routes seem impossible for anyone to climb and about the time you start thinking that, a climber will come along and climb the impossible.

Freedom to climb wherever you want...

During the last of February this unique area hosts the Rock Rodeo, a multiple day competition where some of the best climbers in the word come to compete. This is a great time to visit and climb on the rocks, even if you are just starting in bouldering someone will come along and give you a few pointers or even let you tag along in their group.

The Hueco Rock Ranch's welcome sign...

The Rock Ranch is a camping area just outside of the park that host to climbers but anyone is welcome. For 5 dollars a night you can have your own personal patch of dirt to set your stuff up and all the stars you care to sleep under. During the Rock Rodeo this camp area is packed with campers, tents, and even a few hammocks (reservations mandatory). At night at the Rock Ranch expect to be invited to join everyone around one of their monstrous bon fires where stories are told and the beer flows freely.

Beautiful rock formations

At Hueco Tanks, it doesn’t matter your background, where you are from, or what your political beliefs are, you are guaranteed to meet friendly interesting people wandering the desert just as you are, and just as the people who came before you were.

Photo of the week: Hueco Tanks

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ChronicWanderlust contributor Jacob Pelham sent me this picture from Hueco Tanks, TX and I think it may be one of the coolest travel pictures I’ve ever seen… Jacob knocked it out of the park with this shot. He just finished up a rock climbing trip across the Hueco Tanks and took lots of amazing photos which will all be featured here shortly…

Hueco Tanks, Texas (Photo: Jacob Pelham)

Photo of the Week: Quitman Mountains, TX

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This photo was taken by ChronicWanderlust contributor Jacob Pelham. He snapped it south of Sierra Blanca, in the Quitman Mountians, only 8 miles from the Mexican border in Texas.

Photo: Jacob Pelham

Photo of the Day: The Alamo

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The Alamo

Midland: The Tall City of Texas

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The “Tall City” of Texas, Midland is famous for three things; oil, high school football, and George W. Bush.

If it wasn’t for my friend living in Midland, I would most likely have never bothered visiting this city. It’s not very large, has nearly no public transportation and the airport only does regional flights in the southwest. It’s 300 miles from any other city and doesn’t even have a train station. These are not negative things, however, I think they preserve the city’s Texas charm.

Downtown Midland, TX (photo: Imagematters1)

Midland gets it’s name from being built as a stopping-point half way between El Paso and Ft. Worth. Their economy is largely based on petroleum; there are oil fields, refineries, laboratories, factories, and anything else involving oil. Pump jacks, those big oil-pumping doohickeys, checker the landscape. When you drive down the highway, you can see pump jacks fenced off in the middle of parking lots! If there’s oil to be pumped, Midland will drill.

Midland certainly lives up to the Texas persona; cowboy hats, pickup trucks, country music and Mexican food are abound in this small city. What really impressed me was how wide the roads are in Midland… I felt like I had a lane-and-a-half everywhere I went. My local friend explained to me that the city built most of these roads after the oil boom, so they wanted to accommodate all the people who drove big trucks.

By no means is Midland simply an oil-town, they have plenty of other options for employment. It’s not a large city, only about 250,000 people. There is a shopping mall, an airport, a drive-in movie theater, a multiplex, Target, Walmart, and basically any other store you would find in the US. What they do lack, however, is any form of a downtown or walking-area… if you don’t have a vehicle, you’re not going to be doing very much.

Go

Getting to Midland is easy for the simple reason that you only have 2 choices; drive or take a regional flight. Midland International Airport (MAF) is serviced by Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and local carriers such as Mesa Air. Southwest has the most flights to and from Midland, but all flights make stops at either Dallas or Albuqurque. The aiport is located a few miles outside of town and has plenty of rental car agencies.
Eat
The “Tall City” isn’t short on places to eat – you have tons of options to stuff your face full of fajitas and chicken fried steak.
Doqa Anitas –
The Barn Door (Odessa, TX) –
Crystal River –
Cattleman’s –

See
Midland is not a big tourist destination, so you don’t get a wide selection of tourist attrations… basically, pick either the George W. Bush childhood home, or the Commemorative Air Force Museum.

W's childhood house

Politics aside, Bush’s house is just a small, normal middle-class house with 60’s furniture… don’t waste your time, unless you really really care enough to bother looking at his 50 year old couch.

WWII fighter plane at the CAF Museum (Photo: Kensaviation.com)

The Commemorative Air Force’s American Airpower Heritage Museum is impressive. Located at the Midland International Airport, the CAF Museum features a full history their program, as well as a dozen or so WWII aircraft and plentiful memorabilia.

"Friday Night Lights" is a movie, turned TV show about high school football in west Texas

If you can swing it, get tickets to see either Midland Lee or Midland High play high school football. The stadiums are bigger than most minor leagure  teams and the fans are just as crazy as any big league game. Remember the movie (and book) Friday Night Lights? They took place in Midland.

Photo of the Day: School Bus Graveyard

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License plate said 1971

I came across this abandoned school bus left behind on a deserted runway somewhere north of Coyonosa, Texas. The old airstrip had been turned into a creepy auto graveyard sometime in the 1970’s, but hasn’t been touched since. There was something eerily beautiful about it.

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