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Friday, April 22, 2011


The front page of the Flagstaff Daily Sun I picked up had a lead story that a B-17 was now at Killian Airport.  Not only was it there to be looked at and toured, but you could also get a ride on it.   After reading the article again to make sure I understood it correctly I raced into the Associate Faculty office, sat down and dialed the quoted 800 number.  Upon reaching a live person I requested a seat for the flight the following day.  I was told I’d have to call the ground crew since they were in town and would know the availability of seats.  Quickly the number she gave me was dial and Dale answered the mobile.  After offering to pay for a seat on tomorrow’s flight I was informed that the last seat had just been sold about 5 minutes ago.  I was devastated how many seats do you were available?  Ten was the answer and the last one was purchased by Richard Cook.  I inquired as to whether there would be another flight as the new article had mentioned that possibility.  Didn’t know was the answer as there had been no more calls for seats.  Could I get on a list for a second flight if one was in the offering?   Where will you go next I inquired and was told that their next stop would be Torrance California.   Dale said let’s just see what happens here tomorrow or tonight.  So he took down my name insuring me I’d get a call that evening if the second flight was to happen.   I asked if it would be possible for me to purchase a ticket for that flight if there was not second flight here in Flagstaff.   I taught my classes for the evening and headed home and by 10:30 pm getting ready to fall asleep no call had been received.
The next morning I woke early have breakfast and drove to the airport which I pass on the way to town.  Being there far before the flight was supposed to happen in order to look over the plane and hope someone had canceled.   There was a line outside the trailer set up to take tickets and I waited as each when in, received their ticket, and then wandered around the plane.  As I waited a gentlemen walked up and asked if I was on line for my ticket.   “No, I’m waiting to see if there are any cancellations.”   We talked for a bit and I explained why I wanted to get a chance to ride on the plane.   The fellow stood there thinking for a bit then turned to me and said “You can my reservation.  I’ve flown in lots of old war birds don’t need to fly in another.  Jumped out of lots of the also.”   He added “My son was going to pay for this as a birthday present, but I really don’t need to do this.”   My eyes were beginning to tear up when I asked “Are you sure?”  He answered in the affirmative “Let’s go in and tell the guy handing out tickets.”  Weak kneed I climbed the steps unto the trailer and stood quietly as the gentlemen gave his name and explained what we were doing.   The explaining done Richard Cook turned to leave, we shook hands as I explained that there was no way I could ever thank him enough for his generous gift.
I paid Dale for my seat and when outside to view and take pictures of the plane.  I was already walking on air, still not believing that this was really going to happen.  I was going to fly on a B-17 an event undreamed of in my life.   My hand touched the wings as I walked under them, and then the tail as was asked by a young boy if I were lucky enough to be flying on her.  Heading back to her after taking some shots from a distance I joined a group that had gathered around one of the crew.  He was instructing them on how to spin the propeller to get the engines ready to start.  I joined the line that pushed the huge rotary piston engine through several turns until it was in the correct position.   We did two of the four engines and my mind put me in an Air Force base in England reading the bomber for a run against Germany.  Much of the history of the B-17 II that I had read came back to me while I pushed on the prop, and then listened to the flight pre-flight briefing.
The Americans were the only one’s doing daylight bombing against Germany.  It was a given that 50% for the aircraft sent on a bombing run would not return.  Through much of the war we did not have any escort planes with the range to follow the bombers all the way to Germany and then return.   So somewhere over France the escort fighters had to turn around and leave the bomber to carry on alone.  The German fighters knew this so they waited until the fighter escorts turned back and the attacked.  Each plane had six guns so they were not an easy target to take down especially when they stayed in formation.  But, losses were heavy and many never returned from the run.  There was a Lucky Bastards Club and to become a member you had to fly 25 successful flights.  This became an elite group in each squadron as plane after plane was shot down or crew members were killed by the German fighters or flack.
We climbed into the plane as I bucked in to an ancient harness it was still inconceivable to me that this was actually going to happen.  I had on my cell phones to take pictures with as I had left the house this morning thinking I only get to see it.  Now here I was sitting inside listening to the engines warm up.  I listened with my eyes close to the raw power of those four rotary engines as they roared to life.  The plane trembled, shook, and squeaked as we sat waiting for the engine oil pressure to build.  The plane had real unusable guns in all positions.  There was a mannequin in the back pretending to be the tail gunner.   The waist guns were pointed toward some unseen enemy bandoleers coiled beneath them.  The bottom or ball turret sat in front of us with its oxygen tank ready to keep the fellow inside alive as he sat hanging out the belly of the aircraft. 
Now we began to taxi toward the end of the runway and the reality hit that I was really going to fly in a B-17.  We were told that we would be given a signal once we were airborne when we could move around.  There were no fasten or unfasten you seat belt signs on this bird.  The engines were revved up, gages checked, and we pulled onto the runway.  I tried to think what it would be like for a nineteen or twenty-something boy taking off into the truly unknown.  No ides if they would ever return to England or home.  They knew full well that 50% of them were going to be killed that day, but who would it be.   We began to roll down the runway slowly picking up speed.  Whenever I’m in a plane I try to guess when there is enough air speed to lift off.    I did the same today, but unlike today’s jets this plane has a tail wheel so the back of the plane has to be raised before the plane can take off.  I was sitting in the back quite close to the tail wheel and I felt the rear of the plane lift , then the whole plane was air born.  I look forward and no sooner where we in the air the signal came for us to begin moving about.
There was some turbulence and the plane jumped up and down, swung sideways which make walking about a chore, but we quickly learned how to maneuver about.  I was interested in getting into the bomb bay, then behind the pilots.   Slowly I worked my way forward around the ball turret and now out over the bomb doors.   I studied the bomb racks and the control wires that ran down both sides of the fuselage.   After passing through the bomb bay I was standing in the top turret gunner position, who would also have been the flight engineer.  This position in the B-17 took the most casualties because they would be standing during most of the flight.  There was nothing to protect you from bullets that ripped through the aircraft from side, bottom, top or front.  I was beckoned to crew into the space below the pilots which held the front gunners and the bombardier.
The front part of the aircraft, nose, is 360 x 180 of glass or Plexiglas.  The bombardiers chair sits in such a position as to be full visible to anyone from any side.  The bomb site was directly underneath him and as I sat in this chair I have a full unobstructed view of the Sedona Red Rocks we were flying over.  Now I’m not one for heights, and usually get queasy when I’m near the edge of anything high, but this was breathtaking.  Not at any time did the fear of looking out bother me, I could have sat there all day it was such a view.   I slowly returned to the seating area taking pictures and relishing every minute.  We turned all too soon and began to head back to the airport.  We passed over my house then made the long slow turn to line up with the runway.  All to soon the flight would be over, it seemed we had just taken off.  I was thinking of driving to Torrance for another flight, wondering if I could pay to flight on this plane to Torrance then find a way back to Flagstaff.  Slowly the plane settled as it flew close to the tree tops and then the rear wheel touch down followed by the front.
I was still in shock as I climbed from the plane it was a “I need to pinch myself moment.”  Was this a dream?  No it was not I have the pictures to prove it.  Upon reaching my car I sat there looking at the plane calling the first person who would want to hear about this; my Mother.  You see my Dad was the top turret gunner on B-17's during WW II.  I was able to stand in behind where he stood during the flight and to some extent experience what it was like for him.  The cables he repaired, mentioned in the article below,  were in the bomb bay who's doors were open.  He had to straddle the open doors one foot on the cat walk the other in a small ridge in the aircraft fuselage while fixing the broken control cables.  No time to rig safety lines so had his foot slipped he would have fallen out.

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