I was incredibly excited to see the restored B-17 bomber, Aluminum Overcast, which was was in town this weekend at the Monroe County Airport. We kept hearing and then seeing it fly over the house–prompting many a mad rush to a window. Tim and I didn’t get to see it take off and land as we wanted to (one day, I WILL fly in one of these!) but we did take a ground tour. It seemed a more faithful restoration than other B-17s I remember being through. The only big component that was missing was the top gun turret, which, if in place, would have made it very hard to take tours through from nose to tail.
Before taking the tour, we did a walk around of the plane. The ball turret was open so that you could see the small space in which the gunner was confined. Two men in EAA coats, who I assumed to be the men who pilot the Overcast, were wiping down each of the engines, a task that took them the better part of an hour. Their pride in the bomber and all that it signified was evident. They worked slowly, deliberately. They were eager to talk to the folks milling about or standing in line, especially kids. What they did was special. This bomber was special. The most recent stat I could find claims that there are now fourteen B-17s flying these days (which IS slightly better than the ten I knew it to be about a decade ago). Between the cost of keeping these birds in the sky (can you imagine filling THAT tank?!) and losing the aging vets who served on these aircraft–it’s as if an entire chapter of history is drawing to a close. It’s frightening to think that these warbirds might not be in the skies in fifty years and that there will be no one living who remembers what it was like to serve on them.
The Herald Times put together a video (available online for those with a subscription) that included scenes of a couple veterans telling stories of their service cobbled together with historical footage and background on the bomber. I especially liked a comparison of aviators then in comparison to now. Sadly, the HT did not identify the veterans they spoke to. I’ve transcribed the story from one man below:
War is a terrible thing and it’s unfortunate that we haven’t, as human beings, learned to avoid it. Wars today are more brutal, I believe, at least the ones in the Middle East, than the ones the Harold and I were in. As an example, when my brother, [Bill], bailed out and he was in his parachute coming down, he heard a FW-190, which is a German fighter plane, coming at him and he knew that [the German pilot] was going to turn his machine guns on and cut him in two. But [the German pilot] dipped down under him and went behind and went out there and made a one eighty. And [Bill] thought “Well, he’s really gonna do it to me this time.” And [Bill] could hear him throttle back and he turned around and looked and [the German pilot] had his flaps down and his wheels down and his canopy throwed back and when [the German pilot] got even with him, [the German pilot] saluted. Bill said “I saluted him back.” They don’t do that today. They blow you up at a moment’s notice. That’s the difference in warriors today.