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.
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 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.