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Time Machine

Time Machine

by Steve on November 7, 2009

Wings of Freedom-20web

Took a ride today in a B-17G Flying Fortress, the “Nine O Nine” operated by the Collings Foundation.  It was truly an incredible sensation.  There were ten of us plus the two pilots and flight engineer.  Adhering to FAA regulations we were strapped in for take-off and landing, myself and four of the others belted to the floor between the waist guns with the other five tucked forward in various nooks, but as soon as we were airborne the FE gave us the thumbs up to work our way around the aircraft.  And it is work to move about in a B-17 – lots of twisting, bending, crawling, and sliding.  The ball turret in the belly and the tail gunner positions were off limits but otherwise we had the run of the plane.

Sitting on the floor sideways with my back against one side of the fuselage and my feet against the ribs opposite me I realized that I was looking at the backside of the skin of the aircraft.  No insulation from the noise and cold at altitude, nothing substantial to keep bullets and flak from shredding the aircraft and the boys that had manned the guns around me.  The waist guns had plexiglass panels around them to keep modern-day passengers from exiting prematurely but back in the day they were open to the elements.  As we waited for the big radials to warm up my eyes wandered from the guns to oxygen bottles to the belly turret just forward of where we were seated.

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It was easy to imagine a bygone era with B-17’s lined up ready to take off, crews checking their gear, hoping they would make it back and counting down the missions until they rotated home.  What I couldn’t fathom was opening the hatch and wiggling down into that ball turret, suspending myself below the belly of the aircraft with flak bursting and tracer rounds arcing toward the aircraft.  Somehow hundreds of young men found the courage to do it repeatedly.  Amazing.

Running above my head and along the opposite side were bare control cables.  No wires or hydraulics, just small cables.  The FE had warned us not to grab them to brace ourselves as we moved about – these cables worked the control surfaces in the tail.  They help keep gravity at bay.  Levers, cranks, pulleys and cables.  The big radials rumbled as we taxied out, their pulse somehow reasuring.  We all grinned like kids as they went to full power for the take-off roll.  The bumps of the pavement gave way to smooth lift into the calm late afternoon air.  The FE appeared forward with a smile and thumbs-up – we were free to explore the past.  Sliding foward around the ball turret I tucked through the bulkhead up into the compartment where the radio operator used to sit and poked my head out the top hatch looking aft over the tail.

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Working my way forward I dropped down onto the catwalk between the bomb racks sliding between the braces and then up into the top gunner’s position looking aft.

Wings of Freedom-75web
(This shot is actually looking aft from the bomb bay but you can see the narrow foot path in the foreground and the tails of some bombs to the right.)

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Wiggling down and forward put me directly behind the pilots.

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Dropped down through a hatch, crawled forward under the cockpit, and out into the nose.  Literally in the nose of the plane.  Cheek guns port and starboard with another pair of barrels just under the nose.  To get the final distance you have to back into the bombardier’s seat and then swivel around forward – there’s nothing between you and the ground but glass and the bomb sight.

Wings of Freedom-72web

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I stuck my head out over the sight and watched the cross hairs track over the ground below us.  In my mind I saw factories and rail yards, smoke, explosions, and flak bursts from the German guns trying to reach us.

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As we approached the airfield I was back under the open hatch looking out over the rolling hills, the wind stream blowing just over my head at 150 miles per hour.  Banking toward the field I caught the B-24 entering the pattern ahead of us as the sun set to the west.  The late afternoon light flashed off the canopies of the other bomber as he continued his turn toward final.  From my vantage point in the top of a B17 watching a B24 land it was an image from before my lifetime.

I grabbed the lip above the aft hatch and swung back down onto the pavement and into 2009.

Did I mention they had a P-51 at the field?  A “C” model even.

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{ 3 comments }

Kevin November 11, 2009 at 23:37

What a great experience. Two weeks ago I saw the B-17 “Aluminum Overcast” here in Tulsa. I was tempted to take a ride but thought I would wait until next year.

There was also a B-25 and a Mustang (Miracle Maker-owned locally). I went out and bought a mini-camcorder just for the event. Unfortunately, I was only able to record about 10 minutes of video before the device stopped working.

I was able to transfer the video files to my computer without losing them. The video that I do have is beautiful and in HD. My only regret was that I failed to record the Mustang while I was in its prop blast.

Pinch November 13, 2009 at 21:40

Holy Crap, Steve! That must have been one hell of an experience. I want to!!!!!

McThag November 14, 2009 at 22:58

A buddy of mine bought us a flight on Liberty Belle. Well worth it for the experience and a great feeling knowing the cash goes to keep them flying instead of sitting in a museum. They belong in the air.

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