I had the opportunity to touch a piece of history, and unexpectedly, history seemed to reach through the years and touch me in ways a history class or Hollywood movie never could. When I loaded up in one of the final dozen or so B-17 Bombers still capable of flying, I was allowed to explore the inner workings of the rugged warplane, while it rumbled through the skies of Central Mississippi, and the experience is something I will try to put into words.
Besides the slight excitement from getting to take part in the experience aboard the “Aluminum Overcast”, I was greeted by an overwhelming sense of awe as the engines roared to life and the old girl’s four enormous props starting pulling her into the clear blue Mississippi sky. The smell of fuel and smoke made its way through the gaps between the hull and the ball turret hanging from the belly of the beast, and I developed a newfound respect for the young American men that waged war in machines like the one I’d just boarded. When I usually think of military hardware, I envision a bulky behemoth covered in bullet-proof materials, but the skin of the craft was so thin that I felt somehow closer to the air the war-machine was hurdling through, and immediately thought of how little this metal shell I found myself in would do to stop a bullet or shrapnel. I silently thanked God that I was flying today for fun.
It wasn’t long after the wheels left the pavement in pursuit of the wild blue yonder that I was able to leave my seat and explore more of the plane, and I tried to take in every tiny detail I could find. From my seat I’d been able to investigate two of the plane’s .50 cal Machine Guns. The belt-fed, fully-automatic firearms were fitted with sights that mechanically compensated the aim, depending on elevation and air speed. As I moved into the radio room, I had to maneuver around the ball-turret mechanism that would have allowed a solider to provide covering fire beneath the plane, from behind the bomb-bay. The radio room consisted of a small table on one side and some chairs that swiveled, and somehow, this small space had enough room to allow several people to pass through the area. The bulkhead separating the radio room from the racks of bombs was adorned with a plaque(seen below), and the catwalk traversing the bomb-bay was about 8 inches across, making for a shimmy and a shuffle surrounded by racks that would’ve held 4 tons of high explosives to get to the front of the plane. From there, it was climbing down into the nose of the plane, underneath the pilots, with a gorgeous view of the world moving beneath us.
My time spent in the nose of the plane was cut short by the end of our flight, but my slight hesitation to hustle back to my seat provided me with an even better ending to my experience. As the plane was making its way back to the Earth, one of the gentlemen helping with the flight looked at me and very sternly told me to “Sit!” and pointed towards the floor. The first command didn’t register, but when he re-iterated it “SIT!”, I did my best to put my rear-end on the floor as quickly as I could, and I realized as soon as I sat down, that the plane itself had touched down as well. My experience in the old warbird was over, but the memories will last me a lifetime.