Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Flying in a World War II Bomber

            When I decided to write a World War II story for the distant German relatives who received care packages from my grandparents after the war, I needed a way to bring an American into their lives. That didn’t require much thought. He’d be an aviator shot down in Germany. That meant he needed to be on the crew of a four-engine, heavy bomber. Either the B-17 Flying Fortress or the B-24 Liberator. Easy choice. The Liberator has been called the Flying Boxcar, Flying Coffin, pregnant cow. No thanks. So the B-17 Flying Fortress it is.
            Learning about the Fort is simple enough. They were tough, durable airplanes, capable of bringing their crews safely back to base despite horrific damage from ground antiaircraft fire and from enemy fighter planes. Their wing span stretched 103 feet, and measured 74 feet from nose to tail. The nickname Flying Fortress came from the many machine guns located in the nose, top turret in the roof, ball turret underneath the plane, waist windows, and tail.
Ten men, later nine, comprised the crew. The pilot was the plane commander, joined by the copilot, navigator, bombardier, flight engineer/top turret gunner, radio operator, ball turret gunner, one or two waist gunners, and the tail gunner.
If you’ve seen the movie Memphis Belle, you’ll have a Hollywood version of a B-17 crew. The men spoke to one another in normal voices while flying. They appeared unfettered by the extreme cold in the unheated, unpressurized plane with open waist windows. Temperatures of minus thirty were common. And they breathed normally without face masks at altitudes over 10,000 feet.
All wrong.

The best way to experience a B-17 is to fly in one, so I did. Aluminum Overcast was noisy. Standing face to face with someone, I saw his lips move, but couldn’t hear a word he said. No way could the pilot turn to his copilot and say something without using his headphones, and expect the copilot to hear him.
Since we flew in summer, we were grateful for the open window keeping the plane from heating up like an oven. And we didn’t fly high enough to require oxygen. For films and television shows, the actors take dramatic license and go maskless so the audience can read their emotions rather than stare at a face covered with an oxygen mask and not be able to recognize who was who.
Moving around in a B-17 requires one to be a contortionist. The airplane was built as a weapon, not for comfortable flight. Passages are low, narrow, and unpadded. To get out of the nose section, where the bombardier and navigator work, you must get down on your hands and knees to get into the crawl space leading up to the cockpit. And, yes, it is for crawling. I did not duck low enough and banged my head. No blood, fortunately, but it would not have surprised me.
Aluminum Overcast takes off, and I'm inside!

            Aluminum Overcast was delivered to the Army Air Force on May 17, 1945. The war in Europe was over. The war in the Pacific didn’t need B-17s. The new airplane was flown to a storage depot in Syracuse, New York, joining 228 other new unneeded B-17s and 33 combat-weary planes. These surplus warplanes were put up for sale.
            After eighteen months, Aluminum Overcast was sold for $750 to a Texas company that quickly resold it for $1,500 to Universal Aviation Company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It changed hands several more times for increasingly higher prices. Several years were spent as a high-altitude camera platform in a photo mapping role. It spent time as a cargo plane hauling dressed beef to Puerto Rico and returning with undressed cowhides. It served as a sprayer and fire eradication bomber.
            In 1978, Dr. William Harrison of Tulsa bought the work-weary plane for $75,000 and began restoring it to its original purpose. He and his partners donated Aluminum Overcast to the Experimental Aircraft Association in 1981 with the provision that the plane would be maintained in an airworthy condition. From its home with the EAA in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Aluminum Overcast now maintains a busy schedule flying around the country to air show and carries passengers for short-duration flights.
            Was the flight worth the ticket? Yes. That’s as close as I’ll come to living history.

Terri Wangard, about to board Aluminum Overcast for a thrilling ride.


  1. Very cool! Thanks for sharing. A local museum in town had a raffle to ride in a B24. Alas, I didn't win.

  2. Wow! Interesting post, Terri. Thanks!

  3. My husband's uncle was a bomber pilot in WWII. Great research here since we didn't get a lot of info about the plane from him.

    1. So many servicemen didn't like to talk about their experiences and that's too bad. My favorite form of research is memoirs. I imagine my characters in their boots.

  4. Wow! That's awesome, Terri. Love it when we can do some hands-research. :) Thanks for sharing.

  5. How fascinating, Terri! Thank you for sharing this unique flying experience.

  6. Great post, Terri. What an experience! I've seen a B-17 on the ground at a local air show here. They're pretty awesome!

  7. I would love to fly on a B-17! By the way, did you know Memphis bought the Memphis Belle in 1946 for $350?

  8. Sounds like a bargain basement price, but then you have to consider the tremendous cost of upkeep. Aluminum Overcast tours the country every year. If you ever get the chance, visit it, even if you just crawl through it.

  9. Terrific article, Terri! Just to read your description here makes me understand better some of the chapters I'm critting on you WIPs.