The four-engine bomber looks big on the outside, but inside it’s cramped. That’s the first thing I noticed when I climbed into the fuselage of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s B-17G, Aluminum Overcast, at Lehigh Valley International Airport.
There’s not much wiggle room in there. In the war movies, you get the illusion of more space. But you have to stoop, squeeze and in some places crawl. It gave me a fresh appreciation for what it must have been like to go up in these Flying Fortresses in wartime.
Next thing I knew, a crew member was strapping me in on a bench beside one of the .50-caliber machine guns in the waist. For the first and perhaps only time, I was going for a ride in a restored World War II heavy bomber.
The crew member explained to me and the other visitors on board that if we felt nauseated during the flight, we should look out a window and focus on the horizon and the feeling would go away. If that didn’t help, he said, there were barf bags in the machine guns’ ammunition bin.
Given that I’m prone to motion sickness and hadn’t taken anything for it, I paid serious attention to these instructions.
My stomach wasn’t prepared for this flight because I wasn’t supposed to be on it.
Weeks earlier, Erik Chuss had spoken to me on behalf of the EAA folks. Erik, who’s a pilot and Forks Township supervisor dedicated to veterans, asked me at a meeting of the Lehigh Valley Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge if I knew any World War II vets who’d flown in B-17s. The EAA was looking for two to take for a free ride during a media flight Thursday, Sept. 26.
I knew two right off the bat – Don Miller of Upper Milford Township, near Emmaus, and Charley Hills of Allentown. I’d done an “in their own words” war story on Don for Veterans Day 2011, http://www.mcall.com/warstories. He’d been a flight engineer. I knew Charley because the onetime navigator heads the “I Was Shot At” club of former fliers.
Both Don and Charley, who are in their late 80s, told me that they’d like to go for the ride. Don hadn’t been up in a B-17 since the war; Charley had ridden in one a couple of times since then. I put them both in touch with Erik, and the EAA said they could ride in the Aluminum Overcast.
Erik said I could go up, too, but the 1 p.m. media flight collided with my work schedule at The Morning Call, where I’m a content editor. Instead, I arranged for the newspaper’s coverage. The reporter taking the flight would be JD Malone and the photographer, Mike Kubel.
I showed up at the airport as well, in part to see the plane up close, but also to say hello to Don and Charley. As we stood on the tarmac, Erik said a seat had opened up and I was welcome to go on the ride. I didn’t have to think about it and said, “OK, thanks, I’m going!”
Besides Don and Charley and the three of us from the paper, the riders included a crew from WFMZ Channel 69 and two other World War II veterans. The bomber taxied into position and then roared down the runway – and I mean roared, because those four Wright Cyclone engines are plenty loud.
I felt a tingle up my spine as the plane lifted off, and thought of the men who not only got airborne in these huge, lumbering Forts but got shot at as well.
When we were aloft, we got unstrapped and could make our way around. I put my hands on a .50-caliber, put one foot in front of another on the narrow catwalk over the bomb bay, saw Charley at the radio operator’s station, stood behind the pilot and co-pilot in the cockpit and looked out at the spinning props and the verdant Lehigh Valley a few thousand feet below.
I stepped down a small hatch behind the pilots, got on my hands and knees into the nose and gazed in awe out the plexiglass. That feeling of being out in front and exposed and seeing everything before you is unforgettable. There’s a scene at the beginning of the film The Best Years of Our Lives where the three returning veterans are chatting in the nose of a B-17. It’s quiet except for their voices. But the real thing is a lot different. You can’t have a casual conversation with those 1,200-horsepower engines thrumming.
During the half-hour we were up, I shot video with my smartphone, a Samsung Galaxy S4. The clip is posted with this blog. I’m grateful to a techie at the newspaper, Gene Ordway, who coincidentally is a skydiver and whose father is an aerobatic pilot. Gene edited and processed the video for me and helped me post it.
A crew member called to me that I had to get out of the nose because we were about to land. It was time to get strapped in again. I’d made it through the flight OK, didn’t got sick. It wasn’t until we were on the ground that I felt a little woozy.
Don Miller quipped that he got another mission in. I signed a copy of my book War Stories: In Their Own Words for Erik to give the crew.
The Aluminum Overcast was at LVIA for the weekend for people to inspect and ride. Erik told me later that he was amazed at the number of World War II veterans who showed up to see it and the stories they told.
It must have been special for them – to see and touch and hear a relic of their youth that held so many memories. I could only imagine.