Steve's B-17 flight, April 5th, 2017
Several years ago a blockbuster motion picture made the notion of a “bucket list” popular. Retirement age is supposed to be a good time start one, but now that I’m living the moment it somehow seems a bit early in life to be considering such things. There is one experience, however, that I dreamed of doing for a number of years; flying in a vintage B-17 bomber. My father served in one during WWII.
He seldom talked about his war experience. What little I do know I learned from the few comments he made to me or my mother during the 58 years I knew him before his passing in 2010. He survived being shot down, and in a separate incident, was struck by flak. Fortune was with him both times and his injuries were relatively minor. I still have the piece of German 88mm anti-aircraft shrapnel that hit him (shown in one of the photos). His flak jacket, a rudimentary 30-pound “bullet-proof vest” of the time, saved him from would otherwise have been a fatal injury.
The shoot-down occurred somewhere in Romania; a shell burst between my father’s plane and another nearby in the formation damaging both aircraft critically. Several crew members of the adjacent craft managed to bail out, but were shot in their chutes by German infantry. My father’s plane was able to glide into allied territory held by the Russians before crash landing in a farm field. Unfortunately, the pilot came in to the recently plowed field wheels-down causing the plane to nose over violently when the wheels dug in. Both the pilot and copilot were killed. The rest of the crew had braced for impact in the center of the aircraft, padding themselves with blankets and anything soft. They survived with bruises, abrasions, lacerations, and a few broken bones. My father emerged mostly unscathed and was listed as missing-in-action for about 3 weeks before being repatriated.
Dad served as a waist gunner in the B-17. The aircraft was unpressurized and the ports for the waist guns were open-air and measured somewhat over 2 ½ feet square. The wind whistling through them at cruising speed (160 – 200 mph) and altitude (30,000 feet where the temperature varied from -30 to -50) must have been miserable. My father did say once that the area of flesh where the flight goggles and oxygen mask met often sustained frostbite causing active bomber crews to be easily recognizable on the ground due to the raccoon-like facing markings left by this reoccurring injury. Life expectancy for a bomber crew early in the war was 5 missions but as the war neared its end, 3 out of 4 crew members survived the 25 missions each had to fly before being rotated to non-combat duty. The B-17 carried a crew of 10.
While the plane was technologically advanced for the day, it was laughably unsafe by today’s standards. As an example, notice the exposed electrical knife switch in the radio room photo (right next to an oxygen bottle), and the rudimentary oxygen regulators on which the crews lives depended (shown in a separate shot). I can only imagine how frightening it must have been to fly absolutely straight and level at sub-zero temperatures while people on the ground and in the air shot at you. For the rest of his life, my father avoided flying, only doing so once for a family emergency.
On May 5th, 2017 I got the opportunity to fly in a B-17. The night prior to the flight, excitement prevented me from sleeping well, and as I arose before dawn as my father did for real missions over 70 years ago, it occurred to me that he probably suffered a much more nervous form of pre-flight sleepless nights.
My flight took place on an overcast (normal) day in Oregon, perhaps prophetic since the name of the B-17 I flew in is the “Aluminum Overcast.” I didn’t take many photos in the air – too much going on and the aircraft is surprising small for a “heavy” bomber and “bouncy” in flight making photography difficult. Though Lori didn’t fly, she did get some addition photos of me on the ground with the aircraft which are included in the slide show. Lori the show together – all I did was take the flight, snap a few shots, and select the period music used in the presentation. So, turn up the volume and enjoy!