Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 11, 2014

In The Belly Of A Legend

A ride in an Aluminum Overcast with ghosts of airmen past

This was Dominick's first time in a B-17 since flying his 35th mission 67 years prior.
On the taxi out, you can't help but notice that every person who had been in a hangar that morning has walked out to the flight line to watch your departure. I'm certain the feeling in the cockpit is significantly less tense than it would have been while taxiing out at a European airbase 70 years ago, but I would prefer a much smaller audience for my own performance. The throttles are pushed forward, and we're rolling down 19R at a surprisingly leisurely pace. The engines are making very enthusiastic noises, but not much happens. It feels like riding an earthquake down the runway until, at the point of takeoff, all significant vibration is gone. And then you're flying in a B-17. For real. It doesn't seem to be an unruly beast, but it's obvious the pilots have to herd it in the general direction they want it to go. Tight formation seems like an impossibility, but it has been done a time or two a few generations ago.

Before we moved beyond the airport boundary, we're cleared to unbuckle and move around the plane. We turned out to the east as I looked out the waste gunner windows. Then I moved forward to the radio operator's desk and across the bridge in the bomb bay to the cockpit. Descending a ladder and crawling through a tunnel obviously designed for someone much smaller than me led to the offices of the navigator and bombardier. There was Dominick sitting in the bombardier's seat where he hadn't been for nearly seven decades with a smile on his face that you'd have to see to believe.
I couldn't help but feel proud that America was capable of creating such an advanced machine for its time.
I eventually worked myself into the bombardier's seat just in time to see the Tulsa campus of the University of Oklahoma pass under the nose. Being a graduate of archrival Oklahoma State University, I took great pleasure in pretending to drop bombs on their facility. They were right in the pickle barrel.

Not long after that, the call came to return to our seats and buckle in for landing. Back on the ground, I couldn't help but feel proud that America was capable of creating such an advanced machine for its time, as well as creating the young Americans who would fly it across a continent into battle with what today seems to be no real navigation equipment at all. A crowd had gathered on the ramp as we taxied in. Most hadn't been there at the beginning of the flight. Some had arrived to take the next ride and had missed one of the most amazing parts of the it: the privilege of watching men prep the aircraft for flight who hadn't done so in decades and may never do so again. They'd miss the experience of bringing the beast to life and watching as the ghosts of airmen from generations past worked their way into the cabin, as the residual oil in the cylinders turned to smoke, signaling the engines' return to life after a long slumber. They had missed Dominick, and the joy riding in this plane brought him even though it must carry many bad memories for him, as well. These were the small details that made this a flight I will never forget. If, someday, you're able to fly in this plane, I have some advice for you: Take the first flight of the day and get there early. It's worth it.


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