One particular area of the war that really has my attention is the 8th Army Air Force. This unit pulled off miracles during the war: it fought to develop it’s own strategies against the wishes and longer experience of the British, it fought to be successful with those strategies, it became tremendously successful at an enormous cost, and it contributed enormously to the war effort. I also believe it laid the foundations of the post-war Air Force and nuclear deterrent that held the line against the Soviets for 45 years and contributed to our win of the Cold War. But along the way many heroes fought and died to make all of this possible.
The main offensive weapon of the 8th was the Boeing B-17, a bomber that dated back to before the war and was arguably obsolete half-way thru the war (the far more modern B-29 was intended for Europe but wasn’t ready in time). After all these years, 13 B-17s are still flying (as of this writing) in the United States and Britain. Rides are available in them – pricey (~$500), but absolutely well worth it.
I’ve taken several flights in B-17s, and my goal is to fly in all of the 13 flying B-17s that remain in the world. When you ride in a B-17, you can only begin to imagine what it must have been like. And I stress the word “begin” because we’ll never be able to fully relate to the men who flew in these or to their experiences. But we can at least hear some of the sounds and feel some of the sensations by flying in the remaining planes. That, and a good reading of their history, and you’ll understand why these people are my heroes. When you get into this stuff, you quickly realize that while the car hobby is fun, it doesn’t mean anything compared to this.
This particular flight took place in Austin TX in April 2004.
I’ll apologize for the video, I was not prepared that day to shoot and I had strange battery issues. I did capture some footage and I’ve left it entirely unedited here – shaky cam and all. This will allow you to get the full sound of the engine start, the long taxi out the ramp, and of course the flight itself. I also shot some footage after the flight of the B-24 and of the B-17 leaving and returning from a second flight. It’s dramatic.
There are several professional videos of restored B-17 flights, and of course there is also original wartime footage available. See The Collins Foundation site for some good examples. I have several videos in my library of war-time B-17s, and probably 40 books on the topic too.
If you haven't read about these engines, there are several technical books available (maintenance guides as well as pilots guide - I have them myself). These are radial engines - so they must be turned by hand to get the proper amount of lubricating oil into all of the cylinders. Several people took turns turning the props, even a pilot from a nearby hangar who ran up for the opportunity (on the video).
A tour of the plane was just ending when the call came to us to board. Every time I ride in one in a "warbird" the anticipation is tremendous - you're literally stepping back into time over 60 years.
The takeoff is not dramatic or strained - this plane still wants to fly. It knows it needs to pass it's story down. Once aloft, you get the all-clear to move around the inside of the plane (completely open for you to inspect, except the tail-gunner position and of course the ball turret gun position). I'm not sure of the flight plan, but your priority should be to move around to each position in the plane in order to get the full effect. In the video, you'll note there are three crewman and about 6 of us who paid for the flight. We takeoff seated, then start to move around once we're given the all-clear. There is usually a mass move to the front of the plane, but you have to take your turns and give everybody a chance to see everything. You'll note I eventually do see everything, even getting into the gun position above the flight deck. I also sat right behind the pilot as he landed the plane, although unfortunately my camcorder batteries had given up before that point. Like every flight I've made so far, this is one I won't forget. More importantly, I ever never forget the people who went to war in these machines. Riding in a warbird is a tribute to them.
The control panel. Note the modern radio - required, and the GPS. This plane flies all around the country every year, so the pilots may well not have seen the airport and area before.
The front of the plane - in the plexiglass nose. This is where the the bombs were sighted from, and released. This crewman even has control of the plane during the final bomb run. This area is located below the flight deck - you'll note on the video I had to get down and crawl into it.
Left and right waist-gunner positions.
The plane is loud inside, but not overwhelmingly so. It's not sealed to the outside - as you'll see on the video there are many openings. As you walk across the bomb bay, you can see right out the bottom to the ground.
As I said, I didn't know exactly where we flew, and it didn't matter. Somewhere to the east and north of the airport.
In another flight in a B-17 several years ago, we flew from the old Austin airport up and down 183 - almost right over my house.
Looking out thru the top. Best to look at the video here, where I stick my head and camera right out of the plane. Normally there would be another gun position here, but it's open on the remaining planes so that passengers can move around the cabin. Even then, it's very tight. If you do this on your own flight, be sure to have a very secure grip on the camera. This plane has a dent in the leading edge of the tail because somebody let go of their camera in the windstream.
The Collings Foundation also flies a B-24. I haven't flown in it, but will soon. This was just as important a plane for the war effort as was the B-17, but today is not as well known.