November 18, 2014
A B-17 bomber goes flying over my house so I run out the local airport to see it.
Turns out you can buy a ticket for a ride, so I do!
(Some Civil Air Patol folks want a ride, and the B-17 crew need a certain number of seats filled to cover their costs, so I buy all the CAP kid tickets as well so we get a full plane-load.)
So into the B-17 I crawl, expecting a ride that is sort of loud and bumpy, and that is it.
BOY OH BOY OH BOY WAS I WRONG!
HOLY COW! If you ever get a chance to take a ride in a B-17… TAKE IT!!!!!!!!!!
OK so here is what happened.
I climbed forward to a seat just behind the cockpit and looked out at the HUGE propellers just behind me. Soon enough, they began to turn and coughed to life with a shuddering rumble. Then the next and the next and the next. With four huge props turning lazily, we slowly taxied out to the runway. The props were turning so slow you could ALMOST see them. At the end of the runway, we were all pushed back pretty firmly into our seats from a pretty darn decent acceleration, and off we went! The noise inside was a pretty loud racket or engines and props, with an overtone of a pretty noticeable high-frequency vibration from all those cylinders and prop blades flying all about, but it still was not THAT loud or shaky… certainly it was much smoother and quieter than an old Ford Tri-Motor I rode once (a plane that did NOT actually take me from Columbia to Newark, as I had hoped, but instead just in a big circle around the city… I must have gone to the wrong terminal by mistake). Anyhoo, the sound was a pretty darn solid, but not deafening, roar. Sort of like a really load bar: You had to almost yell to be heard, but MIGHT get away with just talking really loud if you were really close to the person you were talking to.
This was a warm South Carolina late-summer, flying at maybe 1,000 feet, so the temperature was a warm 75 degrees on a balmy South Carolina afternoon… very pleasant. Needless to say, with no pressurization, and giant open windows for guns and doors for bombs, the air inside IS the air outside… there is no concept of heat or air conditioning. You might as well try to air-condition a convertible going down the highway with the top down. I wandered up to the bombers’ station in the big glass nose and had a seat, looking through the famous Norden bomb-sight. You actually sit with your feet over the glass! The fields of South Carolina drifted below my feet at maybe a hundred miles per hour as we lazily floated across the countryside at very low engine power, in the warm, humid, thick and pleasant afternoon air.
After watching the fields roll by under my feet for a while, I wandered back to the cockpit behind and above, where the pilots kept an eye on this giant behemoth as it floated slowly amongst the low clouds. From there, I wandered aft to the radio and navigation stations, and then over a narrow gang-plank over the bomb-bay! Then from there aft towards the gun-stations: Big windows on other side with a gun–each to menace any who approached. Suddenly I noticed a lot of light and wind up above… HOLY COW! THE ROOF WAS MISSING! WAIT! WHAT? NO! THAT’S NORMAL! There was a huge section of roof totally missing above the waist-gunners! This is where another gun could be installed, I guess, and if you are just over 6 feet tall… then you could stand there WITH YOUR HEAD POKING OUT OF THE TOP OF THE AIRPLANE! HAR!!!! I quickly clambered to that location, stood straight up to poke my head out the top of the plane, and to have a look around! PURE BLISS! The huge wings stretched out to either side, right in front of me with no window in the way or anything!
And then the ultimate: The four huge props were spinning right there in front of me! You could stand there looking out over the wings with the four props churning away right in front of you! It was like science fiction or something! You could turn around and see the elevator and rudder moving as the pilots maneuvered about to show the plane to people on the ground, the lush forests and quiet neighborhoods drifting by just below. You could hear each engine power pulse, each propeller swiping by, all jumbled together in a giant glorious roar, all controlled by the pilots, un-seen far up ahead. It was just exactly like that scene in Titanic where they are standing on the bow in the wind as the engines push them all along, the pilot of the ship far out of sight as the whole machine churns forwards! Absolutely amazing! I could have stayed up there for hours, feeling the warm, dense, humid afternoon air race around me as the props churned on along at low power as we floated safely across the peaceful South Carolina landscape.
And that was exactly the experience they had when they put the plane to use in service, right?
Think about that statement for a minute.
The B-17 frequently operated at or above 30,000 feet, in temperatures falling well below negative fifty degrees fahrenheit, under fire.