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It’s not often one has a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There aren’t many experiences that deserve that designation.
Flying in a B-17 qualifies.
Known as the Flying Fortress, the B-17 is a World War II-era heavy bomber. Over a span of nine years, between 1936 and 1945, Boeing produced 12,731 B-17s. To put that in perspective, as of July 31, 2019, Boeing has only delivered 10,559 units of their 737 since its first delivery fifty-two years prior.
The world needed that many bombers. Primarily deployed in Europe, the quad-engine planes also did some damage to Axis forces in the Pacific Theater. But those forces did plenty of damage themselves. The enemy shot down B-17s so fast that the highest number of airworthy craft at any time was around 4,600. Incoming soldiers knew that they would be taking the bunk of someone who didn’t make it, and that they probably weren’t going home, either.
Three percent of the world’s population died during World War II. Seventy to eighty-five million people. In six years.
Read “The B-17: The Flying Forts” by Martin Caidlin
And yet, that devastation is being forgotten. “They’re not teaching it in schools any more,” said Tom Ewing, a pilot with the Experimental Aviation Association (EAA).
Ewing pilots Aluminum Overcast, one of the last remaining airworthy B-17s. He and fellow EAA volunteers fly the restored Flying Fortress across the country. Their mission is to keep the history of World War II, and the lessons learned, alive, and they do so by offering both ground tours and flights.
Meet Aluminum Overcast, a B-17 Flying Fortress
My husband and I were afforded the great privilege of participating in one of those flights.
It was a perfectly balmy summer day, and I wasn’t sure how we’d feel as we pulled up to the tarmac at Waukegan National Airport. We knew it would be an emotional experience. My husband’s uncle was a POW in Rangoon, and like so many, too many others, he never made it home.
Gleaming in the sun, Aluminum Overcast waited while Ewing, fellow pilot Kenneth Morris, and Crew Chief Jeff Martin filled us in on her history.
This B-17 rolled off the assembly line on May 18, 1945, ready to save the world, but her destiny diverted while she was still getting all of her nuts and bolts. Ten days before her entrance, Nazi Germany had surrendered.
At first, she lived in surplus storage, with all the other no-longer-necessary weapons of war. She was a carriage turned pumpkin. Soon she was sold for the paltry sum of $750, which included a bellyful of fuel.
With a capacity of 1700 gallons, she had quite a big belly.
For awhile she flew over the Middle East and Southeast Asia, helping to map those then-remote countries. She hauled cargo. She bombed the fire out of forests, and fire ants out of Alabama.
That last assignment was almost her last, but it’s also what saved her. For years, she sat behind a hangar and waited while weeds invaded her fuselage.
Then, a group of B-17 Flying Fortress enthusiasts found this hidden treasure and rescued her from an ignominious fate. They expected her to be falling apart. Instead, the linseed oil in the fire ant insecticide had seeped into all of her nooks and crannies and protected her from corrosion.
Today, Aluminum Overcast is one of fewer than a dozen air-worthy Flying Fortresses.
Although she never flew a combat mission, she’s outfitted as her predecessors would have been. The 398th Bomb Group Association funded her restoration, and the EAA used their colors and insignia to honor those veterans.
A small group of us entered, ducking to fit into the small opening, and took our seats. Jim and I buckled in near the rear-entry door and a machine gun fed by a strip of ammunition filled our view. We held on as the revving engines buffeted the plane, and we wondered how bumpy the flight would be.
We needn’t have worried. We took off and she climbed smoothly into the bright blue sky. As soon as we leveled, Crew Chief Martin told us we could get up and walk around, but to be careful where we stepped, and what we grabbed onto.
“There are 27 places you can hit your head,” Kenneth Morris had told us during our briefing. “I’ve found 47 of them.”
You can’t put your hand up to steady yourself without looking. This plane is manual, and the controls for the flaps and rudder are exposed. As Ewing and Morris changed directions in-flight, we could see the cables moving back and forth through the wooden brackets.
We passed the radio room and squeezed through the narrow bomb bay, careful not to slip. Entering the space behind the cockpit, the wind through the openings brought to life the danger World War II soldiers experienced simply flying to battle.
For us, it was a summer day and this was a joy ride at low elevation. Wartime flights reached 180 MPH at 26,000 feet with temperatures down to 40 to 60 below zero. Once the plane exceeded 10,000 feet, the soldiers would don oxygen masks, the risk of hypoxia ever present.
One by one we filtered into the chin turret, taking turns sitting in the glass bubble. What would the gunner have felt, I wondered. Fear? Anger? Resolve? All of the above?
I didn’t ask what Jim felt. This was a private experience for him. He carried his uncle’s wings in his shirt pocket.
After the flight, Ewing talked about the people he’s flown during these tours. “The most choking part is when somebody brings ashes, or the flag that draped a soldier’s coffin.”
“As soon as you see somebody like that, you clear the line.”
Martin called us back up to the cockpit and we strapped into the jump seats. Outside my window, I could see Lake Michigan beyond the blur of the propellers. Soon, we landed.
Our flight in this living piece of history ended, but because of this once-in-a-lifetime experience, my increased understanding and appreciation of the sacrifices made by those soldiers continues.
Related: Meeting the Greatest Generation
How to fly in a B-17 Flying Fortress
The Experimental Aviation Association offers several flights to the public. These take place all over the country.
They’re not cheap, but those fees help keep this airplane afloat. Rates are $409 for EAA Members and $449 for non-members.
There are also ground tours, so you can step inside the plane and see this history for yourself. Those are $10 per person or $20 for families. Tours are always free for veterans and active military. Check EAA’s website for information on upcoming events.