It is not often that one has the opportunity to literally “step back into history”, but that chance occurred this last week when EAA’s B-17 Aluminum Overcast was in town on it’s fall tour stop. I got up early (twice!) to make photos as the first light of day broke over the horizon. Not only was it possible to take a “ground tour” of the aircraft, but it was also possible to take a half-hour ride.
I was fortunate enough to go on their last flight during this tour stop, and I must say that it was almost surreal. Once airborne, it became quite apparent that the crew became highly dependent upon each other for survival. It’s just too large a plane to protect from one angle only, thus the thirteen .50 calibre machine guns. Doing some figuring in my head, my guesstimate is that the 10-man crew added about two thousand pounds to the load, with all their heavy cold-weather gear included. Some of the suits were even electrically heated! It must be mentioned that the aircraft, while very solid, was nonetheless full of “holes” where cold air could easily whistle in. It was especially noticeable around the bomb bay doors, and the ball turret, which essentially hangs in space from the bottom of the aircraft. I’m told only the smallest of men could even fit, and after seeing it, I can understand why.
I suppose the most sobering thing about our short flight was that we were not on a war-time mission. It’s one thing to take a joy ride, and quite another to get into a fully fueled bomber loaded with 8,000 pounds of bombs, and point it towards a very determined enemy, with only a thin slice of aluminum between you and an uncertain fate. The intestinal fortitude shown by these crews are a testament to their determination to see the war through to it’s conclusion. Once you’ve been shot at once or twice, it loses it’s “charm” real quick, and afterwards only becomes a journey back into barely controlled terror. That these men did it, willingly, for 25 or more missions is almost too much to believe…and yet they did. It also became quite apparent to me why so many didn’t make it out, once their aircraft were disabled. To say it was “tight” is an understatement, and the opportunity for fire, explosion, or just plain getting hung-up was always a distinct possibility.
So if this aircraft, or one like it comes to a town near you, go see it, if only from afar. The physical reality will make you appreciate the fact that indeed, once, we were engaged in a world war and the fate of mankind hung in the balance.