By Mitch Traphagen
Part One of Two
As hard as I tried, I could not mentally transform the blue skies and puffy clouds over central Florida into a bleak winter night in the skies over Nazi Germany.
But I did know that if I had been that young man, I would have been scared beyond belief. The beautiful view I was offered from the nose gunnerís position on a vintage B-17 Flying Fortress offered one of the most incredible vistas I have ever been privileged to witness in countless miles of air travel.
Sixty years ago, however, that same position would have felt incredibly vulnerable as enemy fighter planes appeared on the horizon.
It would have been nothing short of terrifying.
Instead of incoming deadly lead indicated by puffs of smoke from enemy guns, I only saw the clouds. It was not deadly, it was not terrifying, it was beautiful.
As I have so many times before, I once again breathed a silent thank you to the men brave enough to stare down the enemy while they were saving the world in World War II.
A Flying Fortress
The B-17 I was lucky enough to board is one of the few that remain airworthy. The vintage airplane, technically a B-17G, is named "Aluminum Overcast." It rolled off the assembly line just as the War ended and, after a varied career, was purchased by a group who donated it to the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) of Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Since 1994, Aluminum Overcast has toured the country offering a rare and unique experience - a chance to go airborne in a piece of American history.
It is a class of airplane known as the Flying Fortress. A walk around the exterior quickly reveals the reason why. This is a seriously well-armed aircraft. The B-17 flew missions deep into enemy territory, far beyond the range of fighter escorts. That meant that they had only themselves for defense against the highly nimble enemy fighter planes.
The "Forts" quickly proved, however, that they were up to the task. With guns in the nose, the tail, the sides, the top and on the belly, in addition to their heavy bomb payload, intercepting enemy fighter planes faced a barrage of fire.
Built like fortresses, archival photos from the War show a B-17 that successfully landed after having the entire nose section blown off, another with the tail blasted into splinters and yet another with a hole big enough to drive a truck through in the fuselage. The Flying Fortresses were built to take the worst that man could dish out.
There is no doubt that even enemy pilots looked on with awe and admiration as the lumbering crafts took punishment beyond belief and still remained in the air, still completed their mission.
As the pilot banked steeply over the quiet city of Ocala, the guns stood at the ready and it was clear that in a different place, in a different world, it would be easy to make short work of anything in our path.
This was a purpose-built machine that met all expectations.
It was able to cruise at 30,000 feet with speeds up to 300 mph. The B-17, however, was not pressurized - nor heated. At that altitude over northern Europe, the temperatures would drop below the mind-numbing level - especially during the winter. Returning alive was a far greater priority than comfort.
During our flight on Aluminum Overcast, comfort was still not necessarily a priority. The craft has been restored to as near original as possible. While the cockpit contains updated avionics, the fuselage is bare metal and the cabin sole is wood. To enter the nose gunner position, you must first navigate the extremely narrow bomb bay to enter the cockpit and then crawl into the gunner position through an opening just aft and between the pilots.
It is, however, well worth the effort. The vista that awaits is spectacular and the space is much larger than would be expected. A small seat with a .50 caliber machine gun control dominates the round Plexiglas nose while just behind is a wooden desk for the navigator.
As the pilots repeatedly bank and level off at roughly 1,000 feet, the guests on the flight are allowed to roam throughout the plane. Obviously the cockpit and nose are the first place many choose to visit.
Just behind the cockpit, however, lies the radio room. On Aluminum Overcast that room contains a hatch that is open to the sky. During the pre-flight talk, staff members from the Experimental Aircraft Association warn of the high probability of losing eye glasses or even cameras by carelessly sticking a head up and through.
Although I couldnít resist the rare opportunity to stick my head out the top of a large aircraft while underway, I decided to play it safe by only shooting photographs downwind, towards the tail. But even that was worth it - looking around outside of this beautiful craft flying at over 100 mph was an experience that simply cannot be described
Flying Through History
At first glance, this passage through history is not cheap. The flight is $350 for EAA members and $395 for non-members. The reality is, however, that amount is likely near the break-even point for the EAA. In order to maximize the experience, each flight has a maximum of seven passengers. But at a cost of roughly $2,000 per hour, not including support costs, the fare becomes a bargain. But it is so much more than a simple airplane ride and thus the price of admission becomes even less important.
After the plane becomes airborne, the guests are free to roam and, in many cases, to remember.
Being the first person to board, I was able to strap myself into a seat in the cockpit directly behind the co-pilot. The sound of the four 1,200 horsepower radial engines and hearing the propellers literally bite into the air is something that I will never forget.
I can only imagine what it must bring to those who flew in a B-17 six decades ago.
" We get all kinds of reactions," said pilot Larry New. "Some of them are happy, some are sad, some just stand there and look and relive a past history."
According to New, the people who fly come from all walks of life. "We have vets, the pilots who flew them, the gunners, the mechanics that worked on them, the people that built them, everybody," he said. "Also their kids and their grandkids come to fly."
Taking a Trip Back in Time
The tour continues for Aluminum Overcast. On Oct. 18-20, the Flying Fortress will land at the St. Petersburg - Clearwater International Airport. On Oct. 20-23, the craft will be at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.
Ground tours are available each day and are $6 for adults. WWII vets, 398th Bomb Group members, B-17 Historical Society members and children under eight are admitted free.
Typically there are three or four flights per day, however a minimum of six passengers are required. A discount is provided for group bookings - the seventh seat is free on a group of six paid fares for a single flight.
As previously mentioned, EAA members receive a $45 flight discount. Membership in the organization is $40. All revenues earned are applied to the maintenance and operational costs of the aircraft.
Of more than 12,000 B-17s built, fewer than 15 still fly today. An incredible airplane named Aluminum Overcast is one of those few. She offers WWII vets a chance to go back in time, to relive memories of adventure and terror, of camaraderie and sadness. For those too young to remember, she offers the honor of the experience and the reminder to be thankful to those who saved the world in a World War.
For information call (800) 359-6217 or visit www.b17.org.
The real story, of course, has little to do with the impressions of a reporter. The real story lies in the memories of those who served in and around the Flying Fortress. The Observer News will follow the Aluminum Overcast to St. Petersburg and Sarasota to record the memories, thoughts and feelings of the veterans who take a trip back in time on a B-17.
Are you planning to visit the Aluminum Overcast? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 645-3111 - Iíd love to hear your story.
Mitch Traphagen Photos
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