THE B-17

Long ago, before airports had chain-link fences and metal detectors my parents took me to the local airport. We were out for a Sunday afternoon drive, so we stopped at the airport to watch the airplanes. People did things like that back then.

We walked among the Cubs and Champs, looking into them and wondering which millionaires owned them.

There was an Air Corps bomber parked on the other side of the runway. It was a sleek new Boeing B-17, bristling with machine guns and engines. Fifty-calibre guns mounted on the top, bottom, nose, tail and both sides of the fuselage gave real meaning its military designation, "Flying Fortress."

Several airmen were lying on the grass in the shade of the big wings. Some were sleeping, using parachutes for pillows; some were standing by the tail, smoking and talking. We waited for hours, knowing that sooner or later we would get to watch the bomber take off. People did things like that back then.

Sure enough, another airman joined the group and they began to put on the parachutes. Some men removed the chocks from the enormous wheels, while others turned the engines over by pulling on the propeller blades. Then they climbed in and closed the doors. One by one, the engines belched clouds of blue smoke and roared into life. Brakes squeaked and engines changed sounds as the monster lumbered to the end of the runway. The crowd around me was quiet. Every person on the airport was watching.

"He's checking his engines," someone said. "And props," someone else added. Whispered comments continued from the subdued crowd until the airplane began to move again. Then no one spoke as the engines came up to full power. A storm cloud of dust and leaves rose into the sky, but we didn't care. The bomber was rolling, lurching from side to side, then the tail came up, then it was flying. As the wheels lifted into holes behind the inboard engines, the bomber changed from a lumbering monster into a graceful swan. I could feel in my chest the vibration of the propellers. Right then I knew I was going to become a pilot.

By the time I was old enough to join the Air Force, the B-17's had stopped flying. The only one I saw was a static display on the parade field at Lackland Air Force Base. It looked old and tired. I flew other airplanes but I always felt they weren't as neat as the B-17.

Forty five years have seen a lot of changes at the local airport. It's called Tri-Cities Regional now, and you can't walk around to look into the Cubs and Champs. The millionaires who own them have them locked away in hangars guarded by chain-link fences and metal detectors. I went there one day last week to find a B-17 and a B-24 parked on the ramp. The bombers had the guns and the correct markings but they no longer carried Army Air Corps fliers. They were meticulously restored antiques flown by pilots wearing jeans and no parachutes. The bombs in the racks were empty of explosives and the machine guns were permanently deactivated, but they were still monsters. For most of my life I had dreamed of flying one of these babies and now, thanks to a deal finessed by my good friend Bob Whitinger, I was going to.

Bob chose to fly in the B-24. It was a slightly larger airplane and reputed to be a little faster. The Liberator, as the Army called it, was once a common sight. Its long wings, four engines and distinctive split tail made it easy to identify. Of the 18,482 Liberators built during WW II, this was the only one still flying.

The rarity of the B-24 was tempting, but I threw my bag into the B-17, then climbed aboard. The left and right waist gun positions were covered with plexiglas and their guns were immobilized. I walked uphill, toward the cockpit. The metal path through the bomb bay was dark, with dud bombs on the left and luggage on the right. Captain John was in the left seat and there he would stay. It was the right seat the rest of us begged to occupy. The flight engineer for the trip was an older man who stayed in the back. He announced that the tail wheel chocks had been removed and that all doors were closed. Capt. John read a short checklist and asked if the number three engine was clear. I was standing just behind the current copilot, trying to watch everything. We called "clear", and the prop began to turn. With the same cough and clouds of smoke I remembered from years before, number three engine began to run. A wonderfully satisfying rattle and quiver of excitement filled the airplane. As engines number four, two and then one were started in sequence, it just got better. I climbed up into the top turret for a better view of all of those whirling propellers. The noise level rose as Capt. John began to taxi. I noticed that the other four occupants were wearing headsets and wished I had remembered to bring mine. Flying in an airplane as noisy as this without ear protection can cause hearing loss. I thought about it and decided it was worth it.

I didn't get a chance to taxi, but it looked like a chore. Capt. John tried to do it by changing the power on the outboard engines, but he still used a lot of brakes. A left turn began by revving up the number four engine, then some left brake with the left rudder, then power on number one engine, right rudder and brake to stop the turn. At least that's the way it looked from where I stood.

This B-17 had a panel that would have looked strange to an Army Air Corps pilot. Amid the 1942 levers and switches were new instruments and new radios. A loran blinked out little numbers to update our longitude and latitude even as we taxied across the ramp. Imagine how useful that would have been on bomb runs over Germany. Since 1942, gyroscopic scientists have learned to make the attitude indicator and the heading indicator the same size as the other instruments. In the black and white days of WW II, these instruments were called the artificial horizon and the directional gyroscope and were larger that today's televisions.

The take-off was what my friends in the 60's called a rush. I guess it was what you should expect if you open the throttles on four thousand and eight hundred horsepower. A lot of noise and a lot of torque. I want to say that again; FOUR THOUSAND AND EIGHT HUNDRED horsepower. I put my fingers in my ears and watched Capt. John wrestle the wheel to the right and ride the rudder and right brakes until the tail came up. Then we were flying.

Without a real bomb load the B-17 is supposed to climb like a homesick angel. I suppose it would have if Uncle Sam were still buying the gas, but he wasn't, so the throttles came way back. Even with the needles at the bottom of all the little green marks, the climb was impressive. The co-pilot of the moment flew north and did some turns to let the B-24 take off and catch up. I climbed into the hole just to the rear of the pilots and crawled forward on a hardwood plank into the nose. What a view. What a room. There is a desk and chair to the left, a dome for the sextant above and guns on both sides. The large round plexiglas bubble on the tip of the nose gives you the impression of sitting in a drawing room that is going two hundred miles per hour. There is a bombsight and controls for the bomb bay doors and bomb release mechanisms. I immediately crawled up to look through the Norden bombsight. The cross-hairs of the sight crawled across Kingsport, Tennessee. As they crossed the Eastman company I tried the bomb bay doors, but the controls wouldn't respond. Oh well, the bombs were duds anyway.

The B-24 caught us just past Kingsport. I took pictures from the nose, then climbed back on deck, then into the top turret. I tried to swing the fifties around to line up on the B-24, but the turret motor had been disabled. Bob was over in the B-24. I figured I had better try to get him before he got me; they also had plenty of guns. I walked back through the bomb bay to the waist gunner positions. Those didn't work either.

Walking around in a B-17 that's sitting on the ground is nothing like walking around in one that's chasing a B-24 around the countryside. I had made it through some lazy-eights while up in the nose and a chandelle in the top turret, but while I was in the bomb bay, they did something else. I don't know what, I couldn't see outside, but I was pinned there, holding onto a bomb and dear life. It occurred to me that combat flying might not be the picnic I had imagined. This airplane would have fought above twenty thousand feet, where the temperature was below zero and there was not enough air to breathe. Combine that with bullets from German fighters, shells from the ground and evasive maneuvers by twenty-year-old pilots and the Flying Fortress may have seemed like a chamber of horrors. Come to that, it's not really much of a fortress. It's made of plastic and aluminum. I could cut my way out of it with a pocket knife. No wonder so many WW II flyers came home and swore they would never fly again.

When I got back on the flight deck, we were buzzing the Hawkins County airport. I guess "fly by" is the term they used. The B-24 criss-crossed our path a few more times, then pulled ahead. We followed, to do a "fly by" of the Cherokee Lake ... well below the tree line. I can only imagine what it must have looked like to the unsuspecting bass fishermen. I crawled into the nose to look for power lines, not that they would have been any problem.

John Warden, of East Tennessee State University once told me about an encounter he had with a B-17. He was just a kid and had taken a small wooden boat out to do some fishing. Far down the lake, he saw a bomber coming toward him at a very low altitude. As he watched, it came past him no more that twenty feet above the water. The left wing tip passed over his boat so close that he could almost touch it. He saw Army flyers standing in the left waist-gun position, laughing at him. He had only a second to wonder why they were laughing before the tornado of wind known as the wing tip vortex flipped his boat upside down. In those days, they called it the "prop wash". He got the boat righted and made it back to shore, but lost his day's catch and all of his fishing gear. People did things like that back then.

Once our formation passed Knoxville I asked for my turn at the controls. It was like breaking in on someone who was dancing with a princess. I tapped the co-pilot on the shoulder and said, "Excuse me," several times. I was ready. I had been watching and paying attention. I already knew how to adjust the seat and the trim. Capt. John was playing with the power levers so I never touched them. Gently at first, then with a little more authority, I experimented with the rudders and the wheel. Very pitch sensitive I decided, but the trim was effective. The rudders required a lot of pressure and that pressure kept changing as Capt. John played with the throttles.

"Vibration," he yelled. "Feel it?"

I had the headset on now and could hear again. Of course I felt a vibration. I had felt nothing else for an hour, but apparently Capt. John was tuned in to vibrations I knew nothing about. He fiddled with mixtures and props while I waltzed around the sky. Through the headset, I heard the B-24 pilot.

"Crossville up ahead, follow us."

"No problem," I thought, except that I couldn't see the B-24. Neither could Capt. John.

"Turn on some smoke so we can find you," he said.

Ahead and way down among the trees I saw a thin trail of smoke. It looked like a B-24 with an engine on fire. Just think how many times a scene like that tipped off German fighter pilots. The speed comes up fast when you push the nose down. From our leisurely cruise of one sixty we went past two hundred in no time at all. The sounds of wind rushing past all those little gaps between plexiglas and metal built up with the speed. This is not a tight airplane. If it had been raining, we would have been wet.

We caught the B-24 just east of Crossville and followed it across the airport. This "fly by" was at about twenty five feet. I was worried about the "prop wash" from the lead plane; I didn't even know to worry about the smoke. The smoke system in the B-24 is actually four separate smoke systems. There's one for each engine. Oil is pumped onto the hot exhaust and becomes smoke. More smoke that you can comfortably imagine. I saw the smoke coming from each engine, then in a second, we were in it. It obscured everything and filled the cockpit. Capt. John was ready for it. He lifted us up a few feet to get clear and to let the cockpit air out so we could breathe again.

Once past Crossville, we climbed up to a comfortable five hundred feet or so and flew a close formation headed toward McMinnville. I concentrated on flying straight and level because the B-24 was just off my right wing tip. Thankfully, Capt. John had stopped messing with the throttles and the big bomber flew straight. I glanced over my right shoulder from time to time because I couldn't believe the sight. How many times do you get to fly a B-17 in formation with a B-24. Bob couldn't believe the sight either. Every time I looked over my shoulder, I saw him looking back from the B-24, grinning from ear to ear.

We joined up with a Cessna 172 over McMinnville who wanted to get some air to air photos. I think he got more that he had imagined. He had a surprised look on his face as we went past.

Our destination was the Warren County airport at McMinnville. Bob and I hadn't known that when we left Tri-Cities ... and hadn't really cared. We had no plan for getting back home but would have walked back if necessary. It wasn't necessary. When you hop out of a WW II bomber with your bag and a fifty mission crush in your flight cap, everyone is anxious to help. In less than an hour, we had a Cessna lined up to run us home.

From the back seat of a Skyhawk, I relived each moment of the flight. There I was. Flying a B-17. Now what? Where do you go from here? How can you top this?

"Ensign Hensley, you have the helm. Commander Riker and I are going to beam down to the surface for some R and R."

"Aye, Captain."