Sunday, July 22, 2007

My ride on a B-17

Our little local airshow had never had a website. I made one for this year's show. ( It's gotten a fair amount of traffic, even after the show. (I concocted a photo contest to drive traffic after the show and reinforce the experience.)

During the show I work the flightline. (I get to tell pilots where to go, hee hee.) So Friday midday I'm out on the ramp, sweating and getting sore feet and a sunburn. (Hey, at least I don't have to pay for the priviledge.) Actually, it's a very nice day. A few clouds, a breeze, high 70s and severe clear. VERY nice day.

Around 2:20 the show boss called me over and asked, "What are you doing at 2:45 today?" I replied, "Whatever you want." (Of course.) Pointing to the fully restored B-17 Flying Fortress behind her, she said, "Be on that plane."

I replied, "Yes, ma'am!" (Of course.)

I signed the waiver, got my ID sticker. Went over to the flightline chief and told him that I'd been assigned to "special duty" until the '17 landed. He smiled a bit and nodded. He got a ride last year.

I waited, waited some more, then we were assembled and briefed by the flight engineer. "You have to stay seated until the wheels are up. Then you can move around at will, go up front to the bombardier's station, whatever, except for the tail and ball turret."

We boarded and strapped in. I was in the radio compartment. They opened up the "skylight" so we didn't bake.

There's a very loud, somewhat unpleasant screetchy sound, sort of like what you hear on an Airbus 320 when it's about to start its engines. I assume it's an hydraulic pump.

I'm on the starboard side, with a glimpse out a tiny window. I can see a LOT of rivets on the right wing and the #3 engine (inboard right side) That's the one that starts first. The prop starts turning. 14 blades, then a cough, grumble, roar. #4 turns, starts. #1, #2. All four engines are now idling, each consuming 20 gallons per hour of $5/gal avgas. A penny per second, just to sit there with the motors running.

The whole airframe shakes with suppressed power. This is no Walter Mitty pocketa-pocketa fantasy. This is a serious machine built for a serious purpose - to defeat a serious and determined enemy.

The sound increases and we start to move. The brakes squeal. From my seat I can look forward and see the ground through the open bomb bay doors. More loud sound, and the bomb bay doors close.

We taxi for a long time. The airfield has no parallel taxiway, so you back-taxi down the active runway to a turnaround at the end. No control tower, and the airport is open, so it's up to the pilots in the pattern to talk to each other in order to avoid... unpleasantness. You can imagine the radio calls: "Lost Nation traffic, Cessna Three Four Bravo five miles south, inbound for Two Eight, Lost Nation." "Three Four Bravo, be advised, a B-17 is back-taxiing on Two Eight." "Three Four Bravo, we'll extend."

We complete the slow turn - the taxiway is barely wider than the our gear - and take the active runway. The engines rev up to takeoff power.

The airplane had been quivering at idle and taxiing, like a dog eager for the owner to loose the leash. Now the leash is off, and the animal leaps forward. The acceleration isn't the shove-you-back-in-your-seat thrill of a sports car. It's not the relentless, smooth press of a commercial jet meeting a schedule.

It's more *purposeful* somehow. We have a war to win, I think. Thousands of people back home have labored to build this machine so that we can use it stop Hitler and end this damned war. I don't imagine what it must be like to feel that, I actually feel it. It's a fleeting moment, but a real and powerful one.

We lift off easily at our light weight, and I think of what it must have been like to know you were thousands of pounds over gross, willing the wing to lift, not being able to see forward but knowing that this. takeoff. is. taking. a. really. long. time...

We climb out straight ahead. I can see out the sliver of window a local landmark near my house. We must be nearly directly overhead, at less than a thousand feet. A phone call while waiting to start engines had alerted the home crew. They were outside and waving as we flew overhead, they tell me later. I might have seen them if the bomb bay doors had been open.

The gear is up, and we get the word (ok, a hand wave and a nod) that we can unstrap and move around.

I realize quickly (with much gratitude) that a pudgy out-of-shape 45-year-old has about the same dimensions and flexibility as a skinny nineteen-year old in a sheepskin flight suit. We squeeze past each other, grin madly, take turns at the waist guns. badda-baada-baddabadda! ("Yah, Sven, dere vas Fokkers above, Fokkers below, Fokkers to da left and right. And alla dem fokkers vas Messerschmits!").

Yeah, funny. But holding the waist gun, looking out the window, hunched over peering through a ring sight... I've seen the films. "Dem Messerchmits" are small targets, moving fast, and they are trying to kill you. The '17's skin is thin. The helmet and flak jacket don't cover everthing.

The moment passes.

This was a media flight. A local reporter was on board, with a camera ship flying in formation to get some shots with downtown or the lake in the background.

Also in formation, a pair of P-51 scale replicas. 3/4 the size of the real thing, and 1/20 the cost.

The crew had removed the "sunroof" - the large clear panel over the radio room. We could (carefully) look out this large opening and have a perfectly clear view of the tail and the sky all around.

I take off my hat, hold onto my glasses, and look back at the tail and the lakeshore below. Holding station at five o'clock high and seven o'clock high are a pair of P-51s.

I know it's 2007. I know those are scale replicas, not the real thing. But for some reason, standing in a B-17, looking out at a pair of P-51s, I feel... protected.

We pass over the lakefront downtown airport, LOW, and hit the airshow smoke on #2. Someone downtown calls 911 thinking we're on fire.

We climb and turn, and I have a magnificent view of downtown and the lakeshore out the open hatch. I make my way forward, squeezing through the bomb bay catwalk to the flight deck. The three-man crew is all cool professionalism in their flight suits. There's a GPS moving map attached to the panel. I try to ignore it.

I squeeze down between the pilots' seats to the nose compartment. I imagine peering through those little windows on the side, trying to spot the enemy fighters. I imagine deadly black flowers of flak blossoming outside the big clear bubble at the very front. Nothing you can do but hope they miss. Bombardiers and navigators suffered the highest casualty rates.

I make my way back to the engineer's station - we're minutes from landing, now. But I pop up into the top turret one more time, look towards the shore, and I can see my house. I wave, knowing the kids can't see me.

We take our seats and strap in for landing. I'm wedged into the radio compartment again. A long, low final approach - the airport neighbors who hate airplanes must be LOVING this! - we cross the threshold, three quick screetches and we're rolling.

Taxing in and shutting down is anticlimactic. As the props stop, I once again think of the kids, now old men, who took this airplane into harm's way. They had no idea that their sacrifice would ensure that my kids would grow up in freedom. They just wanted to get the job done.

I look at the guy across from me and say, "Twenty-four more, and we can go home."