When the time got close, we needed to help get the plane ready for take off. Both aircraft have four massive radial engines. The radial is a fantastic design. Tough, easy to work on, very powerful and air-cooled. The only problem with them is that if you shut them down and let them sit, all the oil collects in the lower cylinders. To fix this, you have to “turn them through”. That means is that you rotate the propeller by hand to get the oil up into the top cylinders. It took a group of about ten of us ten minutes on each engine. By the time we had finished, all of us were sweaty and my hands hurt. For the record, those blades might be massive but, boy, are they ever sharp and they only spin with a good deal of effort. It was like pushing a piece of sheet metal, edge on, through mud.
When it was done, it we headed for the door. Doors, actually. There are two access hatches on a B-17. One is the smallish door on the right hand side, aft of the wing. That’s where everyone was heading except me. There is another, far smaller hatch, three quarters of the way under the nose on the left side. When the door opens, you are at eye level, looking directly into the navigator’s station. The opening is only about twenty inches square and there is no ladder. To get in you have two options. First is to reach through, and pull your self through as your legs bicycle foolishly in the air. The other option is the cool one. It’s what the boys who flew this plane over seventy years ago did. You reach up, palms toward you, and grab the top lip. Then, like an overenthusiastic chin up, legs are pulled up, shot through the hole and you push off with everything you’ve got, hopefully, flinging all parts of your body after them. There was no one at the hatch and I was sure that if I asked, the answer would not be the one I wanted. A quick glance around, a grab and… Heave! In I went, just like on the newsreels and, off came my hat. I looked through the hatch from inside the bomber at my hat as it lay on the tarmac. To go back out and get it would both kill the “I’m so cool!” sensation that was coursing through my veins and open me up to being in trouble with the ground crew. Crap. Just then, a face appeared through the hole covered with a big toothy smile. It was one of the ground crew. I smiled back sheepishly. With one hand, he scooped up my hat and handed it to me through the small opening.
“Ever see ‘Twelve O’clock High”? He asked, still grinning.
“Um.. Thanks. Yah, a few times. I own a copy, actually.” I replied as I retrieved the hat.
“Heh, me too. Have a great flight!” And with that, he reached in, grabbed the hatch and swung it closed. I scrambled back to the radio room for takeoff, happier than ever.
FAA regulations dictate that all passengers must be belted in for take off and landing. The B-17 was not built for regulations like that and accommodations had to be made to fit the times. The floor of the radio room is wooden and along the sides, against the fuselage, they had bolted seatbelts right to the floor. You simply sit down with your legs out straight and buckled in. The sitting portion of the flight would be short anyway.
As I sat down on my bit of plywood, I looked around at the others who had paid for this privilege. I knew that it would be a few minutes before takeoff and I was curious what drove the other guys here to plunk down enough cash for a flight to Europe, just for an opportunity to fly in a plane that used to drop bombs on the same. To my left sat an older man. He looked like he was in his seventies and unlike the rest of us who were casting our gazes around the interior of the plane; he looked more like he was meditating. I decided to ask.
“I used to fly in these during the war. I was a waist gunner.”
This is always a trick moment for me. I desperately want to know all the details but at the same time, don’t want to be intrusive. I don’t remember asking him any more questions, but I probably did ask a few. He was defiantly there for a personal experience and I quickly left him alone with his ghosts. It seemed like what he wanted, I recall.
Across from me, lashed to the floor sat another man. He looked like he might be in his late fifties or early sixties and was well dressed. He looked like someone who didn’t spend much time sitting in anything other than an executive, leather office chair. I decided to chat with him a bit and found him to be quite affable. I also detected a hint of an accent. After a few minutes, I asked him why he wanted a ride. With out skipping a beat, he told me.
“ I grew up in Germany during the war. I remember as a little boy, running for the air raid shelter with my mother as the planes came over from England. Even then, I thought that these planes looked so beautiful and I always wanted a ride in one. Now, I finally will get my wish.”
Two men who were on opposite ends of the bombing of Europe, together in one of the planes that was used. Amazing.
Before I could pester anyone else, engine one barked and puffed to life. The B-17 was built for fighting, not for comfort and when the engines are running, you can forget about holding a conversation. Little could be seen from our seats as we took off, but once in the air, we could roam all over. I felt like I was living a dream. I poked my head through the open radio room top window and the slipstream hit me like a tidal wave. The force was amazing and I let out a long, “WOOOOOOOOHOOOOOO!” into the prop wash
Eventually, I found my way to the nose and sat in the bombardier’s seat. A huge, bowed window of Plexiglas sat in front of me and as I pressed my forehead against its center, the rest of the aircraft disappeared from my view. All I could see was the rolling hills and open air in front of me. It was an amazing view and it made you feel as though you were alone in the sky.
I crawled back through the plane and visited each station. I stopped and watched the pilot and copilot for a while and stood in the top turret and looked around. With no German fighters present, I decided was safe to keep moving. The radio room was empty for the most part as I passed through on my way to the tail. The openings for the waist guns yawned open on either side of the plane and the wind and sound of the engines made an amazing noise. You had to shout to be heard. In the port waist window, the old gunner stood at his post, just looking out at the rolling countryside. Like the others here, I gave him his space. It was obvious that he had wanted the ride for very different reasons than we did.
The only restricted areas were the tail gun position and the belly turret. The turret on the bottom of the plane is very difficult to get in and out of and you need the help of someone in the aircraft. It’s also very cramped and during wartime was reserved for the smaller crewmembers.
The tail too was roped off. This was due to the fact that you have to step over the yawning opening that the tail wheel mostly fills. Essentially, it’s a hole in the floor that is big enough to fall out of if you aren’t careful. OSHA would have a field day with one of these things.
The ride was just as fantastic as I’d dreamed. As luck would have it, because it was the last ride of the day and the last day of the visit to my area, the half hour flight went on for well over an hour. By the time we landed, they had the strobes and landing lights on.
It took about an hour after we landed and shut her down for my hearing to work correctly again, but I didn’t mind in the least. It was grueling and deadly work to ride those planes into war and I feel like I can imagine what it was like a little better now. We didn’t need oxygen or flack suits. No one was shooting at us and no live bombs were on board, but the mixture of excitement and fear must have made a toxic cocktail for those young men who did it every day. I’m feel honored that I had the chance to do what I did and marvel at what others went through in the name of duty.
The Nine-O-Nine is still flying today, as is the B-24 that I opted not to fly on. They belong to a group called the Collings Foundation and if they come to your area, they are worth the visit. I don’t know if they still offer rides, lawsuits what they are these days, but I’d ask if you care to. It’s a almost vanished part of our world and some day soon, they will no doubt be put on permanent display in some worthy museum, but never fly again. Grab the chance while you can.