Flying in a Fortress
On Monday, May 2, I had the privilege of flying in a B-17 Flying Fortress. The Experimental Aircraft Association visited Buchanan Field in Concord, California with their beautifully restored B-17G, Aluminum Overcast. I’ve enjoyed walking through this plane for years and always dreamed of taking a flight. This year one of my readers, who volunteers with EAA, arranged for me to participate in the media flight.
What an experience!
The video below includes footage on the ground, takeoff, my rollicking tour of the plane in flight, and the landing. I hope you enjoy! Here’s the direct link if the embedded video doesn’t work: Sarah’s B-17 Video
My flight included journalists from local newspapers and news blogs, two World War II B-17 veterans, and me. After we were briefed on safety, we were strapped into military-style jump seats. I was seated in the waist compartment, toward the rear of the plane.
They started the engines, which set the plane to bumping and rocking. After the pilot taxied into position, he ran up the engines. I couldn’t hear my own voice, so I’m stunned that the camcorder continued to pick up my narration. It didn’t take long to get us airborne, and as soon as the landing gear was raised, the volunteers gave us the thumbs-up to move around – while the plane was still climbing and banking. I didn’t waste any time getting up!
Moving around the plane was challenging and not for the fainthearted. At five foot six, I had a bit of room over my head, but not much. Climbing around the ball turret apparatus and through the doors requires some maneuvering, watching what you hold onto, and giving yourself plenty of clearance so a sudden dip or turn won’t make you bonk your head. I gained even more appreciation for our airmen moving through the plane wearing full high-altitude flight gear.
I made my way from the waist compartment through the radio room and bomb bay, and into the cockpit. This particular restoration does not include the apparatus for the top turret in the back of the cockpit, leaving more room for spectators. I spectated.
Then I stepped down into the passageway between the pilots’ seats and crawled – yes, on hands and knees – into the nose compartment. The clear conical nose allowed great visibility for World War II bombardiers – and now gives the same great visibility to aviation buffs. I turned around and enjoyed watching the engines and whirling propellers from the front. As I did so, Mount Diablo came into view. Oh my goodness. For once I had the presence of mind to take a still picture.
Not wanting to hog the best seat in the house, I made my way back to the waist compartment. Only a few minutes later it was time to sit down for the descent and landing. That was one of the smoothest landings I’ve ever experienced. The WWII veteran pilot was extremely impressed and remarked that it was a crosswind landing, which is more difficult.
I am so thankful for groups like the EAA that make history come alive and commemorate the outstanding things our airmen did. The combat airmen flew long missions in unpressurized, unheated aircraft at over 25,000 feet, where the temperature often falls to forty degrees below zero. They endured antiaircraft fire and fighter attacks over enemy territory. They watched too many of their friends, promising young men, come to early deaths. One of the veterans on our flight admitted, “We were scared.” They didn’t consider themselves heroes, but they were. Despite their fear, they acted. And because of their actions, we live in freedom today.
To learn more about the B-17 Flying Fortress and the men who flew in them, please see my articles on the B-17 Flying Fortress and on the B-17 crew.
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I was finally able to take some time and watch the video and listen to your excellent commentary! What a great adventure!
I have so many questions to throw at you. Would you do it again? If you would, would there be anything you’d want to see, or do, or revisit because it went so quickly?
I can’t believe how small everything is. I mean, I’m sure it’s actually smaller than it looks, but at 5’6″ and you felt cramped, I can’t imagine what a big, bulky bunch of guys must have felt like crammed into that tincan. I mean, I know they couldn’t have all been big, some of those spots were just TOO small for bulky guys… but I would imagine some of them were tall and broad-shouldered.
How long was your actual flight? Any thoughts go through your mind while you were up there? Any new stories? Any thoughts about the Novak brothers? Your great uncle?
Did they mention any history for that specific plane before it was restored? I don’t remember if you mentioned it in your previous blog. She’s beautiful! I think you wrapped up the whole experience beautifully in that last paragraph. Thank you for being so generous with your adventure and sharing bits of it with us!
Kate – he he he, that’s a whole new post 🙂
Yes, I’d do it again! I do think I’d like more time to observe the pilots at work.
It is definitely cramped – and those big (and small) men were wearing bulky sheepskin-lined flying suits, parachutes, life vests, flak vests, oxygen masks, goggles, helmets…whew!
The flight was about half an hour. No new story ideas, but I did think about the Novaks and my Uncle Rod. It made my great-uncle’s story just a bit more real to me.
They did give us the story of the plane – she was a late model and never actually saw combat. She was sold after the war and used for various purposes like hauling cargo. When EAA got her, she was gutted. It took 10 yrs to restore her. They did a marvelous job!
I just couldn’t believe that space in the bomb bay, if you even want to call it a space.. wow.
Thank you for indulging me. I’m sure I could think of a few more questions (I did just after typing out that first line)…
My dad and I have been watching this show recently (I can’t even tell you the name of it) about a group of retired army guys / gearheads that buy and restore old army vehicles.. and we watched them take apart an old tank, occasionally even make parts that no longer exists, and then get it in running order and take vets around their “lot” on rides. It was just super interesting to me, to see such amazing craftsmanship that went into making these incredible machines.. and having them still work for the most part.. and people that care enough to put history back together 60-some years later.
Thank you again for taking the time to share your adventure! I’ve lived vicariously through you. hehe
Completely amazing, Sarah! Thanks for sharing!
[…] Aircraft Association’s Aluminum Overcast. You can read about my flight and watch a video here. If you’d like to see one of these gorgeous planes up close, please see the tour schedule for […]