Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 11, 2014

In The Belly Of A Legend

A ride in an Aluminum Overcast with ghosts of airmen past

Joe Cavett is ready to board.
It was almost surreal standing on the ramp and realizing that the flight I had just finished began two years before it finally happened. My wife and I had traveled to Fort Worth, Texas, when we stumbled upon the Vintage Flying Museum at Meacham Field. After chatting with the tour guide, we stepped into the hangar where they keep a B-17 named Chucky. The guide ushered me into the plane, and my heart skipped a beat when he told me to get in the pilot's seat so my wife could take my picture. That was the day in 2009 I decided I'd fly in a B-17 someday.

Someday finally arrived in the fall of 2011 when our anniversary rolled around. My dear wife got me a ride on Aluminum Overcast when it visited Riverside Airport in Tulsa, Okla., just across town from home. We arrived at the airport an hour before the flight and spent quite some time looking at the airplane. Not long after our arrival, a group of older gentlemen began gathering beneath the engine nacelles and walking the props through several turns to pump the oil from the bottom cylinders before firing up the engines. It was obvious that most of them had done this many times before—the smiles on their faces gave away that this was an act cherished from their younger years, and that it brought back a lot of memories. For many, this would likely be the last chance they would have to see a Fortress, never mind touch one and feel its pulse beat in their hands. The act recharged their youth to the point that you could almost see them as teenagers in vintage Army uniforms. This was truly a sight to behold.

During the preflight briefing, we discussed the usual stuff: Keep your seatbelt on until we tell you otherwise, no smoking, in case of emergency, do exactly what we tell you, etc. Then the proverbial bomb was dropped when the flight crew introduced Dominick, who was going to be joining us as a passenger on this flight. The last time he had been in a B-17 was 67 years prior when he flew his 35th mission. He had known when they arrived at the airport that he would get a tour. What he didn't know was that his family had purchased a ride for him. I knew this flight would be special, but to share the experience with someone who had used the aircraft for its intended purpose was beyond my ability to comprehend.

I was one of the last to board and was seated just in front of the tailwheel. I took a look behind my seat and wondered how many people had been lost just trying to get to the tailgunner's position. Before long, the first Cyclone was rumbling at idle followed quickly by the other three. When sitting in the Fortress, although it looks low-tech, you get the feeling that you're separated completely from the outside world, even if only by a thin sheet of aluminum. When the engines start, the error of this feeling becomes apparent as the oil burning out of the bottom cylinders becomes smoke and begins wafting its way into the interior of the plane through any opening it can find. The smoke creeps in like ghosts from the past, and that may well be what it was. Ghosts awakened by the grumbling bark of big round engines and the conversion of aviation fuel to noise. This is the first instant that you actually realize what it was like to fly in a Fortress. In only a few minutes, it has gone from a cold, lifeless hulk of aluminum to a living, breathing entity that becomes a part of you. You can feel its pulse as it sits waiting to do its job, warming up before the big fight like a heavyweight contender. As the smoke seeps in through the gaps around the ball turret and waste gunner windows, you can almost feel the presence of American airmen there with you.


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