Monday, July 6, 2009
TheLegend and I experienced a bit of aviation history on Sunday when we flew a "mission" on the Aluminum Overcast, a B-17 Flying Fortress that is touring the Midwest on it's way to the EAA airshow in Oshkosh at the beginning of next month. I've wanted to fly in one of these things since I was about 10 years old. My dad was in the 9th USAAF, which flew twin engined attack bombers, A-20's and A-26's, and their base at Wethersfield, England also had a group of 8th Army Air Force B-17's. My godfather Owen was the top turret gunner on a B-24 and was shot down and spent the last year of the war in a Luft Stalag. My bro' in law's dad, as unassuming a fellow as you would ever meet, was a waist gunner on a B-17 and flew over 20 missions. When I was in England a few years back I ran into an elderly English gent with a chest full of WWII decorations on his suit coat. I noticed an 8th USAAF pin and commented that I noticed he had an 'allied' medal. He told me he was at his RAF base when the first 'Flying Fortress' landed in England. "When I saw those airplanes I turned to me mate and told him that old Hitler was in for it now!" After reading, listening to first person oral histories, and watching documentaries about the B-17, I finally decided it was time to pull the trigger and figured TheLegend, who watched these planes on the movie newsreels as 14 year old kid and is as much of a history buff as I am, would get a thrill out of it as well.
We lured him down here under pretense of a 4th of July beer and burger feed with the GraciousPartier and No1 daughter, the VOR, in on the surprise. I told him I had a tip that the B-17 was at Anoka Co airport and that if we got out there early, we could see them fire up the big radial engines for the first time of the day. He was all over that and off we went. He didn't realize we were going up until the crew chief came over, introduced himself, and asked TheLegend to sign the wavier. I'd been excited for 24 hours and now he was equally excited. We got our preflight briefing which did not involve exit rows, seat backs and tray tables, or lit seat belt signs. We boarded the B-17 with shoes on, jacknives in pockets, 8-10 ounces of any liquid we desired, and a sense of excitement and anticipation rather than the usual 'cattle to the slaughter' feeling you have as you shuffle down the jetway staring at the back of the poor SOB in front of you. We strapped into the webbing seats with military seat belts,plenty of leg room, and rumbled to the take off point. Smoke from the engines was wafting up through the belly turret and the four Wright Cyclone engines were pretty loud. We were told we were free to wander around right after wheels up which is exactly what everyone did. We went through the bomb bay on the catwalk, to the radio room, flight deck, and the awesome view from the plexiglass nose where the bombardier sat with his Norden bombsight. A bunch of pictures can be found here if you're so inclined. We were cruising at around 160mph and the top hatch was open so you could stick your head out a bit and look around. It was the highlight of the year and perhaps the decade for me. TheLegend put it on par with his sailing trip across the Atlantic in a 42 footer, which was high ranking indeed.
When we landed, the VOR and GP toured the plane on the ground. The GP commented that it was pretty sparse, much more spartan than she had thought. All the control cables run along the ceiling and under the deck and we were told that if we grabbed them, the pilots could feel it in the controls. All function and no frills. Creature comforts were completely lacking and we all thought about what it would be like to fly a several hour mission at -40F with anti aircraft fire and enemy fighters a constant worry.
During the briefing the crew chief told us that he had never had anyone get off the aircraft and say that it wasn't worth it. TheLegend and I would have to agree completely. The sheer physical pleasure combined the the historical background and perspective made it the perfect end to the 4th of July weekend.