History moving forward – my flight in a B-17

I like history. The images that come to mind when reading about people, places and things from our past always fascinate me. I try to imagine what it was like to experience the things that I read about. What were the sounds, the smells, the feelings? Well, after volunteering with our EAA Chapter 17 that hosted the B-17, I was able find out. A group of ten of us who volunteered over the weekend were selected to tag along on the repositioning flight of the B-17 from Knoxville, Tennessee (KTYS), to south of Indianapolis, Indiana (KHFY).

B-17 on ramp
A chance to see history come alive.

I have to say that my only exposure to a B-17 up to this point was what I have seen in static displays at museums or fly overhead at Oshkosh. But after watching this beautiful plane take off and land all weekend, I knew I had to fly in her. I kept hoping that my name would be drawn from the pool of those who were on the “available” list, but I tried not to get my hopes up too high. After all, it is coming back in November to Morristown, Tennessee, and I planned on buying a flight at that time if I didn’t make the cut. Who knows, I may still go for a flight then. It was that amazing.

The flight began at 11 a.m. with a safety briefing, but I don’t know if I heard any of it. I was just staring at the plane in amazement thinking, “I am actually going to ride in that thing.” It did not disappoint. The sound of the engines, the smell of the exhaust, the cold metal structure, simply amplified the experience. The exposed control cables and wiring spoke to the fact that this was a tool of the military, nothing more, nothing less.

B-17 cabin
Made for utility, not comfort.

The journey began as we started to taxi away from the ramp. Then shortly after, the brakes squealed and we slowed to a stop for the engine run ups which gave us our first taste of the power held within this metal machine. The plane began to shake and sway as those big radials were given gas and allowed to roar. You could taste the exhaust, smell the fumes. The anticipation of our flight was amazing.

Soon we were given our clearance and off we went. She lifted off more smoothly and gently than the sound and power would have you believe. The big bird turned right and we were headed off on our intended course. That soon changed as we noticed off to our left that a large weather system was looming, so we headed northeast to avoid the weather. This had the wonderful effect of extending our flight time by quite a bit since we eventually flew east of Cincinnati, Ohio. I know that adding close to an hour to any flight is usually seen as a bad thing, but this was a B-17. I can assure you that no one in our group was complaining.

Gunner position
A good view today; not so enjoyable in 1944.

Once airborne, we were given the all clear to stand up and move around the plane and take in all of the vantage points. The waist gunner positions obviously gave the best side view with the large opening with the 50 caliber machine guns hanging out for effect. I could only imagine what it was like to stand in that huge opening firing at an incoming ME 109 or FW 190. The line in the classic song that goes “nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide” comes to mind. Those men just had to stand there and do their job. Incredible.

To sit at the navigator’s station and watch those big radials rumble along was something I think everyone should experience at least once in their life. I may have been born a generation too late because you can keep your jet engines. To me there is no better sound of raw power than a radial engine cruising along, especially four of them. Ok, maybe a Merlin engine is a little better but these are a close second.

Looking out from the bombardier’s seat was a site to behold. To watch the world slip by as we glided along was out of this world. The wind blasting in through the open port was cold and wet from the rain. I can only imagine what it was like for the men who flew in these birds at extreme altitude in heavy flight suits, doing their best to function in such a cold and uninviting environment.

Engines
Not known for being quiet.

Moving back to the navigator’s station and looking at what was the state of the art radio and navigation equipment of the day gave me a real appreciation for the modern radios, tablets and GPS units that we have today.

The final position was one of the best. Watching the crew fly along was pretty amazing. The flight engineer kept track of the weather and since our altitude was fairly low, he also checked for any possible obstacles along our route and notified the pilots of any possible conflicts. Toward the end of our flight we were given the chance to sit in the left seat and actually “fly” this beauty. I don’t know how many people can say that their only tailwheel experience is in a B-17 but you know I will tell anyone who will listen.

As the flight came to an end, we turned final for Greenwood airport (KHFY) and descended to the runway. With one small bounce and the rattle of the tailwheel, our 2.5 hour flight had ended. We taxied to the far end of the airport, where an old FBO foundation was visible along with some older block t-hangars. Climbing out in this somewhat rugged area of the airport seemed fitting. No fanfare, no fancy FBO, no modern airplanes around, just pavement and old structures giving the feeling of an old base after a mission. I liked it.

B-17 nose
The best seat in the house.

With the flying portion of the trip over, we now had to look forward to a six-hour drive back to Knoxville and our cars. After close to a two-hour wait, we piled all ten of us into two midsized sedans, five in each, and headed for a bite to eat, since none of us had eaten since breakfast and it was now past 3 o’clock. We sat and ate and discussed our day and what we thought of the flight. The joking and laughter of the men in our group made me wonder if this was what it was like for those who flew these marvelous aircraft in a time of global strife and change.

We are all from such varied backgrounds and places, with different likes and dislikes, but when thrown together in a group like this we talked and joked as if we had all been friends since childhood. I like that about the aviation community. We all have this one common interest that bridges so many of the issues that divide us today. We can sit and talk for hours about planes, places and flying. So the slogan for the B-17 – “Keep it flying!” – really means more to me than ever. Let’s keep this piece of history moving forward and not stuck in the past, so more people can enjoy this amazing aircraft and the hobby that we love.

5 Comments

  • I also got to fly in the EAA B-17, having won the flight in a door prize raffle. Yes, the sounds, the feel, and the smells were exactly as you describe. But what I remember most were the 2 WW II ets who went along on our flight. One could hardly walk and both sat in seats closest to the rear door. When we took off and got the OK to move around, they remained in their seats. Then somebody said they too should get up front to experience the radio, flight engineers, and gunners stations. At first they resisted, just wanting to stay seated. But everyone lent a hand and they did get to experience some of the up front stations. The smile on their faces was priceless, and their smiles made this a most unforgettable experience.

  • John,
    Great write up. I was on that flight with you and enjoyed it like it was my first flight lesson.
    The roar and feeling of those four radials was amazing. I could hardly drag myself away
    from the waist gunners station as the view was spectacular.
    We can’t let these WWII aircraft ever disappear but if they cease to fly then our memories
    will fly forever.

  • I flew on the B17 “Nine o Nine” operated by the Collings Foundation in February 2018 on a repositioning/maintenance leg from Venice to New Smyrna Beach Florida. There were six of us on board and we were able to crawl all over the airplane once airborne. True, there are tight spaces – it was designed for 18-20-year-old crewmembers. I loved flying with the roof hatch open. Experience of a lifetime!

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