Many years ago I was having a hard time getting to sleep every night. Night after night – which turned into week after week, and month after month – I watched Twelve O’clock High. I can’t remember if I fell in love with the B-17 before, during, or after that, but the love has remained for many years. I’ve got a B-17 alarm clock with turning props and machine gun fire, B-17 posters and pictures of all kinds, a wooden B-17 model, and one large plastic one I built with my grandson. Next to the Stearman that I fly, the B-17 is my greatest airplane love. So when I had the chance to get a ride in one I jumped at it…big time.
From the time I scheduled the flight to when it actually took place was only a few months. For me, it might as well have been years. I was like a little kid counting the days to Christmas. So when the day finally came and the weather called for a 500 foot overcast ceiling with 100% chance of rain, I was almost in a state of depression. I had to drive about two hours to get to the airport, but nothing was going to stop me from at least going to the airport and getting as close to a real B-17 as possible. When my wife and I drove up to the tarmac, it was as if I was being transported to England on a rainy day as the B-17’s waited patiently on the ramp for the weather to clear.
There she was, EAA’s Aluminum Overcast. She was sitting wet from the rain that had just passed. The props were all turned to match in perfect military order. I felt like “this is it”. This is England in 1943 and I’m here to do my part to end the war. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the feeling was there and I felt as if I could get at least a little sense of what those thousands of airmen must have felt in some small way. What I didn’t feel was the sense of knowing that the odds were against their return.
I made my way to a tent where I met with several members of the EAA and other passengers waiting for their ride. Not everyone scheduled had shown up. The weather must have kept the others away. At the tent, I met the crew chief, the pilots, and one of the coordinators. After thirty or forty minutes past our scheduled take off time, the flight for the day was officially canceled. But it wasn’t a total washout. I got to spend “hanger time” with the pilots and found we had a lot in common. In my Stearman flying I had flown kids, grandmothers and fathers, current civilian and military pilots, and a wide range of men who had trained in a Stearman and gone on to fly in WWII aircraft. (Some of those men got teary-eyed when climbing down off the wing.) The B-17 crew could certainly relate to my experience in the Stearman.
While the B-17 crew had similar experiences, they flew many more of the men that had flown in combat. They described them in many of the heroic terms that define the “Greatest Generation”. As they described their distinguished passengers, they talked about something I hadn’t really thought of: their stature. You would never find a guy the size of John Wayne in a ball turret or rear gunner’s position on one of these bombers. The Duke was too big! I heard many descriptions of men of small stature with hearts and courage bigger than words could express.
For me, that rain was a blessing because I was given the time to connect with the pilots in a very personal way. I learned more than just how heavy the controls are, or how they perform the start up, shut down, landing, or various other procedures. I got to connect through them to the men who actually lived through those battles in the air.
Overnight the rain stopped and the clouds disappeared. The next day was a somewhat mild summer day. Aluminum Overcast had been moved from Illinois to the Spirit of St. Louis airport in St. Louis, Missouri. I thought I got there early but by the time I arrived there was already a big crowd looking through the fence on the edge of the tarmac at that beautiful machine.
As with the day before, I was wearing a replica of my dad’s World War II Army uniform, and was easily identified by the ground crew. Without knowing protocol, I asked if I could sit behind the pilots while riding in the B-17 and was granted permission. I’m sure you’ve seen in movies like “12 O’clock High” and “Memphis Bell”, where the pilot and copilot grabbed onto the doorframe under the cockpit, threw their legs up and climbed into the belly of the plane. In real life, that didn’t happen. The crew had graciously provided a ladder for easy access.
I was right behind the pilots and crew chief, number four in the nose of the airplane. My seat assignment brought good news and bad news. The good news: I was right behind the copilot. The bad news: it was a fairly low seat with my eyes just barely above the bottom edge of the right window. But I was able to twist and turn enough to watch and listen to checklist items being read and confirmed one at a time for engine started up and taxi.
There is no other sound like the sound of a radial engine, especially a B-17 radial engine, starting and running. At first they each seem to not want to start because they cough, almost in protest, until they belch blue smoke and suddenly start proudly producing horsepower. I got what I could on video and I’m so glad I did. I don’t care how many times I have flown because each time, maybe to varying degrees, there is always, and I mean always, a sense of excitement when an aircraft engine starts. Whether it is piston or jet, it’s always fun to be around an airplane engine starting.
And there was more music to the ears. I remembered the movies and was amazed at how accurate the movie sound effects were. Even now I get chills up and down my spine thinking of those sounds. If you can, close your eyes and try to imagine engines coughing and sputtering, props turning, blue smoke emanating from the exhaust, the squeaking brakes, the vibration of aluminum, and that beautiful, patriotic, World War II machine, coming to life.
I’m sure for the men of the greatest generation there was no such feeling of romance. Instead I imagine it was quite the opposite, especially during the early years of World War II. But for me and the others on that plane I can’t imagine it being anything else but excitement. As we taxied into position I kept thinking, “please, please let me flying it. I don’t want much just let me do the take off and I’ll get out of the seat!” No such luck. But like they say, it was just about the most fun you can have with your clothes on, even sitting where I was sitting.
There was no sensation of the tail coming off the ground because the whole plane climbed in an attitude much the same as it sat on the ground. It was a smooth and gentle takeoff. I watched the pilot intently as he manipulated the yoke, which didn’t seem to take that much effort. While he used both hands to fly, I was surprised at the ease with which he flew. On a World War II B-17 there are no hydraulic or mechanical boosts to the control surfaces. I was torn between using my eyes to take in everything visually and looking through the viewfinder of my camera. I tried to divide my time half and half.
Once airborne, I climbed back past the bomb bay to the waist gunner’s area. I viewed the tail from where the top turret gun would have been. Then I went on down to the nose of the aircraft and then finally back up to my seat. I’m glad I shot as much video as I did because it helps preserve the memory. The only regret I have is that it didn’t last longer. I was able to get some beautiful video looking out on each wing and what it must have looked like to those who actually had to fly missions in a B-17.
Too soon we turned to base leg and then to final. Once we landed and everything was secured, onlookers who would not be flying that day gathered around to look at this piece of flying history. They gawked at the airplane and asked a lot of questions. I did not see one face that didn’t have a smile on it. There was a professional photographer present taking pictures, and I got one in my dad’s uniform standing next to a prop. Of course I had to get another photo with my World War II garb on “playing” pilot, proof that I was there. All in all it was a fantastic experience – way too short. If I had the funds I would do it again, and again, and again.
One final thought. If you have flown in EAA’s aluminum overcast, you are qualified to buy a crewmember flight jacket. It has a B-17 patch on the front and embroidered on the back is a beautiful rendition of Aluminum Overcast. I bought one as an early Christmas present to myself. It’s been interesting to hear the comments I get. Some think I’m a vet and I have to correct them, while others don’t give me a chance and simply say “thank you”. But there have been a few that have realized the significance of the patch on the front and the B-17 on the back and have asked questions. Describing what it’s like to fly in a B-17 is worth the price of that jacket. Flying in that glorious old bird is an experience I will never forget.
By Phil Wilhelm, Tally One Assistant Editor and life-long pilot.