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Experience the B-17, an ultimate history lesson

By Bev Barr BCC Editor

On Monday morning, Oct. 23, while driving to Stinson Muncipal Airport, I recognized the profile of a historic plane soaring alone in the beautiful, clear blue sky above me. The Boeing B-17 was heading south, preparing to land at the second oldest operating airfield in the country (which seemed somehow fitting). It was a perfect day for flying: temperate and sunny, barely a whisper of wind. Dennis Allyn, political cartoonist for the Bandera County Courier for 10 years and a veteran of the US Air Force, was navigating from the back seat of my Volvo. (During WWII, Allyn’s father was a gunnery instructor for bombers such as the B-17 and B-24. My dad was a radar operator in a B-17, the "Pathfinder," which had been refitted to drop lifeboats instead of bombs during air to sea
rescue missions.)
When we arrived at Stinson Field, Ray Fowler, chief pilot for The Liberty Foundation, greeted us and answered all sorts of questions about the Boeing B-17. He encouraged us to explore the “Madras Maiden” while it was parked on the runway, and before boarding the plane for a short, in-flight tour and history lesson.
The Liberty Foundation’s moving museum was established first and foremost to honor the veterans who served in the Army Air Corps (and indeed all veterans) when these planes were operational. But additionally, the Foundation is dedicated to providing unique opportunities for the public to learn about history by experiencing flight in the “vintage” airplanes of World War II.
“When the kids know more about the planes than we do, that’s when we know we’re fulfilling our mission,” Fowler said.
Fowler answered a litany of questions from a curious and interested crowd of media representatives, who were there to inform the public about the opportunity for the public to tour the plane and fly in it on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 27-28.
Fowler reminded us that it was the B-17 and the B-24 that “broke the back of the Germans.”
“They would send a thousand of these B-17s out in a raid — with 10 in a crew — flying in tight formation. … But understand, they were really sitting ducks.
“We lost two out of three planes during some of these raids. Can you imagine? … Any loss of life is a big deal, but during these raids, approximately 58,000 of our soldiers were killed, missing in action or became prisoners of war,” Fowler said.
Fowler, a commercial pilot and career Air Force pilot for more than 35 years, spoke downright lovingly about the B-17 — and its former crews.
“It would take hours for them to reach a flying altitude of 30,000 feet, and there was no pressurization, no insulation in the plane at all,” he said. “It was cold.”
During our flight, we reached an altitude of about 1500 feet, but that was enough to detect a change in atmospheric pressure. I tried to imagine what I knew to be true about the atmosphere from six miles up: It must have felt sickeningly thin.
“This is a safe airplane,” Fowler said. “It was known as the “Flying Fortress” for a reason. It flies just as well with three engines as it does with four. … That’s one reason the Federal Aviation Administration allows us to do this. It really is a safe plane.”
Out of approximately 13,000 B-17 bombers that were built and used during WWII, only 12 planes are still flying today.
After WWII, Fowler said, some of the planes were converted for civil service use, but many were sold.
“The planes sold for $700 to $1500, mostly for scrap metal to make pots and pans,” Fowler said. “Or they were bought for fuel. At the end of the war, the fuel in the tanks was worth more than the plane.”
Looking at the Flying Fortress from the outside, I was immediately drawn to the super cool nose art depicting the Madras Maiden in full color. But then, my eyes kept orienting to the amazingly small space of the ball turret hanging beneath the plane, where a soldier would squeeze through the tiniest hatch and curl into a tight fetal-position squat, his guns rotating on a horizontal axis and the turret on a vertical axis. Fowler said the ball turret was one of the safest spots on the plane. I found that hard to believe, until he drew my attention to other treacherous locations: the tail gunner’s window — which seemed hopelessly alone, (especially looking at it from the inside). And the nose turret — where they did the math. The Norden Bombsight was mounted there, constantly calculating the bombs’ impact points based on current flight conditions.
We boarded the plane, took a seat and buckled up. It just so happened that I sat on the port side of the plane, near the wing, behind the cockpit but on the nose side of the bomb bay and the two waist gunner stations, which is where most of the seats were located. The seat I sat in swiveled a full 180 degrees for easy access to black crinkle-finished radar equipment all around me. I would have fallen out of the constantly moving chair without a seatbelt. A cantilevered, plywood workspace —smaller than the surface of an old school desk— was there, with a telegraph key firmly attached for Morse Code. I was sitting where the radar operator sat, the very spot from which my father worked and served and saw the world, so many years before.
Once we were slightly off the ground, we were free to explore the plane. Truly, we all struggled to keep our balance and not bump our heads. At one point, I literally got on my hands and knees and crawled into the nose gunner’s station rather than risk falling.
The interior of the B-17 was open to the exterior world, yet cramped — analogous to exploring the west via a chuck wagon: It was rough, but manageable. The bombs were smaller than I imagined; the belts of big bullets lay in serpentine stacks in rough wooden troughs next to open windows, easy access for the waist gunners — many who surely suffered frostbite. In another time and place, the ammo box would make a perfectly fine window planter, to grow red geraniums or poppies.