Flight of a Lifetime, Part I

I knew that they were going to be coming to town and I had made darn sure that my schedule was open. There was no way that I was going to miss this.

I have always found history in general to be fascinating and Second World War history, in particular. Perhaps it was because of all the ‘Victory At Sea’ episodes that I soaked up or maybe the fact that there were still so many veterans of that war still around. What ever the reason was, it captured my imagination completely and I spent a lot of time researching the various bits of equipment used, the vehicles that carried men into battle and where and when those battles took place. Having been born an aviation junkie, I naturally put a lot of effort into learning as much as humanly possible about as many of the war’s aircraft as I could find. Knowledge, like anything else, fades away with disuse and I doubt that I could talk in anything close to the complexity now, that I could back when I was young. At my height of research, I could have easily been employed at the Air and Space museum, if they let sixteen year olds lead tours.

A job at an air museum would have been welcomed with open arms by me but alas, there were none anywhere near my home town. I spent my time scrounging up bits of WWII history to fill my own personal museum in my room. So, with no job to discuss the intricacies of how a Bendix ball turret works or what the overhaul time was on a Merlin Kestrel engine, I was reduced to a more perfunctory job of working behind a counter at a retail shop. Even then, I managed to work Second World War aircraft into the odd conversation.

One day as I ground down the hours until I could close up the store, an elderly man came up to the register, took a look at my t-shirt and remarked with a smirk, “Mine was faster.”

I glanced down. Emblazoned on my chest was the GeeBee R-1 racer.

James Dolittle had raced it in 1932 and in it had set the land plane world speed record at 296 miles per hour. It’s top speed was printed directly under the image of the aircraft.

“So… What did you fly then?” I enquired.
“Oh, mostly P-47’s. I was based in England”

Well, that kicked off a lively chat. The two of us had a ball, I was amazed just to find someone willing to share some stories and I think he was surprised to find a kid who knew what the stories were about. We talked about fighters and bombers long past and about the visitors that were expected at the local airport some time soon. We would both be there.

The visitors were two old bombers that flew together all over the U.S. One is the “All American”, the last flying B-24 in the world. The second is the “Nine O’ Nine”, one of about ten flying B-17’s left in the world. I love these aircraft with a passion and there was no way that I wouldn’t be there to see them. Then the revelation came that, for a fee, a ride could be had if there was room and if the weather permitted.

The day that the two bombers came to town, I was informed by my boss that I had to work late. I figured that there would still be time and anxiously awaited the time when I could leave. I’m willing to bet that I had a fair shot at breaking Jimmy Dolittle’s record as I sped to the airport. I bought my admission ticket, walked up to the little table that the crew had set up, slapped down my checkbook and asked the price of a ride.

“$300 will get you in the air. The flight will last about a half hour.”

I don’t spend that kind of money lightly and back then, not only was $300 a lot more than it is now, but with my counter clerk job, I wasn’t exactly raking in the cash. I immediately opened the flap, filled out the check and handed it over. I knew that this wasn’t likely to happen again. Then a tough question was posed to me.

“So, which plane do you want to ride in?”

This was hard. The B-24 was the last of its type still in the air, but the B-17… That plane is the symbol of America’s involvement in the war. That, and it is one beautiful bird. Just sitting there with its engines silent, and its nose pointed skyward, it looked like it wanted to take to the air. I chose the Nine o’ Nine, the B-17.

Part two next…

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