In 2006 I interviewed Charlie Wilson. Charlie is a former B-17 pilot and a large part of his interview focused on his exploits during WWII. Little did I realize that Charlie’s video biography would lead to my own flight in a reconditioned B-17 – and a chance to experience, in a very small way, the aircraft that Charlie and his crews flew under very perilous conditions.
Charlie’s video biography featured a large amount of archival footage showing B-17 crews in action during the war. The more footage I watched, the more I marveled at the daring, bravery and resilience of both the crews and the machines they flew. I’m sure I remarked to my wife, more than a few times I’m sure, how exciting it would be to fly in a B-17. Then, as a 50th birthday gift, Halina gave me a ticket to what turned out to be the ride of my life.
The Collings Foundation, an organization that preserves vintage aircraft, brought three WWII bombers, all in working order, to Tucson: a B-25 Mitchell; a B-24 Liberator; and a B-17 Flying Fortress. Halina, myself, my mom and brother arrived to find all three planes sitting on the airstrip and open for inspection. We spent some time climbing in and out of each plane – and then it was flight time.
As the flight crew slowly rotated the props to get the oil circulating, my group of ten passengers climbed into the plane. I was lucky to get a seat behind the co-pilot (not a seat, really, just a patch of deck with a seat belt). Across from me, behind the pilot, was a fellow, now retired, who was only six years old when his brother died while piloting a B-17 over Germany. He was flying as a way to honor and remember his brother. His story reminded me how many men sacrificed their lives in planes just like the one we were about to fly.
Then, one by one, the engines kicked in. The plane began to vibrate, the roar from the engines grew and the scents of fuel and oil wafted through the air. Then we were aloft and got the signal to unbuckle and move about the aircraft. My seat mate and I made a beeline for the nose. There, in the area once occupied by a bombardier and gunners, we gazed through the Plexiglas covering at a panoramic view of mountains and homes.
Moving back towards the aft end of the plane, I popped my head through an open hatch and was treated to a breathtaking view of the B-17’s tail and the mountains and desert landscape beyond. It was a challenge squeezing my 6’2″ frame through the tight confines of the Flying Fortress – but I managed to look out every window and sit or stand in every crew position available (except for pilot and co-pilot, of course).
And then, all too quickly, we were given the signal to buckle up and prepare to land. After a gentle touch down I swung myself out of the hatch and, adrenalin still pumping, rejoined my family.
The ride brought me a much deeper and visceral understanding of the B-17 and also a greater appreciation for the tight and uncomfortable conditions endured by the plane’s crews. It was, truly, the ride of a lifetime – one for which I have to thank my wife, the Collings Foundation, Charlie Wilson and all the B-17 crews that risked and sacrificed so much to preserve our freedom.