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In 1943, Capt. Harold "Cal" Calvert is sent to Smoky Hill, Kansas, with other seasoned Air Force pilots, to train on a new kind of aircraft, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Running the training program is Cal's cousin, Tom West, a self-effacing engineer, who, Cal is surprised to hear, has been promoted to major. During the first few weeks of rigorous training, the pilots learn that the B-29 can fly higher, faster and longer than the B-24s currently in use, and can carry more powerful weapons, but like a sensitive thoroughbred, the new plane needs careful handling. Although Tom is an excellent teacher, with twenty-four successful combat missions to his credit, the men barely hide their resentment of his promotion, as they believe he claimed engine trouble during his last mission, a major bombing raid over the Ploesti oil fields, in order to avoid combat. In the mess hall, a crewman taunts Tom in front of Helen Landers, the nurse Tom is seeing, and Cal, who is attracted to Helen, acts as bouncer. Tom quietly confides to Helen how fond he was of the young crewmen who were with him throughout the twenty-four missions and how hard he took it when two were killed. He explains that the twenty-fifth mission was to be their last together, but halfway to the target, they experienced engine trouble. He tells her that if only his life had been at stake, he would have continued, but because he wanted the young men to go on living, he turned back. Later, during the pilots' trial run on the B-29s, the overconfident Cal disobeys Tom by flying higher than instructed, causing a breach in cabin pressure. One of the men is sucked out of the plane, but saved by the opening of his parachute at the last minute. Tom reprimands Cal for putting the program at risk, as the Air Force brass is closely monitoring the B-29 program and Washington "bigwigs" are questioning its cost. The instruction continues and after several months of grueling training, Maj. Gen. Wolfe, who set up the B-29 program, pronounces the men ready for action. He leads them first to a base in India, where the voice of Tokyo Rose greets them, and then to a Chinese base, where landing strips are "handmade" using the limited equipment and resources available in that area of the world. As the time of their first mission approaches, Tom, struggling with his demons, tells Wolfe the truth about his unsuccessful mission. Wolfe reassigns Tom to design modifications for the B-29s, intimating that he, too, is being replaced. During their first mission, a night raid on Japan, Cal and his men lose one engine. They then narrowly escape the explosion of one of their own bombs when it gets stuck in a bay, before a young crewman, Sgt. Shaker Schucker, dislodges it and sends it on its way. Despite the difficulties, the crew returns triumphantly. Later, both Cal and Tom are transferred to Guam, where Helen, also assigned there, finds that she is falling for Cal. When the area is attacked, she and Tom are injured moving the hospitalized crewmen to safety. Meanwhile, Cal heroically performs many bombing missions, flying at high altitudes mostly out of reach of the Japanese retaliatory shots. However, when Gen. Curtis E. LeMay takes over command, the bombers are ordered to fly lower for more accurate bombing, which makes them more vulnerable to anti-aircraft missiles. Sensing the contempt of the other men, the grounded Tom waits for an opportunity to vindicate himself, but after Helen expresses her admiration of Cal's heroics, he asks to go on one more mission. When Cal leads a squadron of planes, including 452 B-29s, to Tokyo, Tom is assigned to accompany him. Their plane is hit by Japanese flak, and Cal and several others are wounded. Taking over the plane, Tom completes the mission with the damaged aircraft, but is forced to crash land. On the ground, Cal and the other men are evacuated, but when Tom returns to the plane to pull out a panicked crewman, he is killed in the explosion. Several weeks later, the war ends, and Cal and Helen remain together.