For nearly the last four years, craftspeople in the Smithsonian's aircraft restoration shop here have been poring over each of the B-29's nearly 100,000 parts in their effort to completely restore the Enola Gay for museum display as early as 1992.
By then, the Smithsonian hopes to have an annex to its Air and Space Museum built at Dulles Airport, west of Washington. The plane's size - 65 tons, 141- foot wingspan and 99-foot length - makes it impractical to showcase it at the museum in Washington.
The Enola Gay was largely intact when the Smithsonian received it in 1954.
IN GOOD SHAPE
"It's in very good shape," said Richard Horigan, foreman of the workshop at the National Air and Space Museum's Paul E. Garber restoration facility. ''We basically just have to take it apart, clean it and put it back together. The airplane will be taken apart to the last nut and bolt."
When completed, the Enola Gay should be up to 95 percent flight-ready, although it will not be flown. Its fuel system will be coated with preservatives, its batteries neutralized, and worn parts, perhaps not up to the rigors of flight, will be on board.
"We want the Enola Gay to look like it did just after its mission to Hiroshima," said Horigan.
A vital component to the plane could not be built until some old-fashioned lobbying persuaded the Pentagon to declassify the few existing photographs of the custom-made bomb rack that held the 9,000-pound uranium-fueled "Little Boy" atomic bomb.
Karl Heinzel, who has spent nearly 15 years preserving aviation history, including eight months on the Enola Gay, has done some reflecting on the plane's controversial past.
"The first time you go in it, it does feel weird," he said.
"You sit there and you just start to think about it," Heinzel said, standing beneath the plane's distinctive greenhouselike nose containing its once top-secret Norden bombsight. "I think that's one of the main reasons for restoring this plane - it makes you think about the atomic bomb - and that's important."
CHRISTENED FOR MOTHER
The plane rolled off the assembly line on May 18, 1945, and was flown to a top-secret base on Tinian Island in the Pacific. During the six weeks the plane was based on the island, Col. Paul Tibbetts and his crew dropped four dummy nuclear weapons. The day before its final mission, Tibbets christened the plane in his mother's honor and had her name emblazoned on the left front fuselage.
At 2:45 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, Tibbets and his 12-man crew took off for Japan.
The bombing run over Hiroshima, Japan's eighth-largest city, lasted seven minutes, during which the bombardier, Maj. Thomas Ferebee, fixed his sight on the T-shaped Aioi bridge and released the bomb at 8:15 a.m. The plane, suddenly five tons lighter, shot 100 feet higher as the crew pushed it into a tight turn to head back to Tinian.
The B-29 was seven miles from ground zero, in the middle of a U-turn, when the bomb detonated 43 seconds after it was dropped.
Cobblestones melted as Little Boy, set to explode 1,890 feet above the city, turned into a 50-million-degree Celsius inferno, vaporizing everything around it.
After returning to Tinian, each airman was given four bottles of beer and the plane had the boast "First Atomic Bomb - Hiroshima, Japan - Aug. 6, 1945" painted on its right front fuselage.
A second bomb was dropped three days later on Nagasaki by a different crew in another plane.
Tibbets, who is now 73, recently retired as president of a jet charter firm in Columbus, Ohio. Other members of the Enola Gay crew, who occasionally gather for reunions, have mostly thrived despite a variety of rumors that they were haunted or driven insane because of their role in the war.
"After the war, it flew around a little bit on bond tours, and then it
went back to the Pacific to the Bikini atoll atomic tests," Horigan said. ''It functioned as a full military aircraft up until it was delivered to us in 1954."
Also given to the Smithsonian several years later was a largely intact original atom bomb, which lacked the nuclear components. But when U.S. government officials discovered the bomb in 1986, the device was taken away, museum officials said.
The bomb was in no danger of exploding but the mechanical parts inside could prove an intelligence bonanza to eager bomb-makers, Smithsonian officials were told.
As the Enola Gay sits at the Garber facility now, it awes tourists who come by to visit. Some try to pilfer souvenirs.
Numerous Japanese tourists come to the workshop specifically to see the plane, Horigan said. "They are very respectful - they see it as part of their history, and that's why they want to see it," he said. "There are tears from some of the Japanese visitors."
But some Americans have a markedly different view of the aircraft. "We get hurrahs from some Americans who say if it wasn't for that airplane they would have been killed" in the planned Allied invasion of the Japanese home islands, Horigan said.
"Our job is to save history - good, bad or indifferent," he said. "We can't change history. All we can do is save it."