The inside of the frontline World War II bomber is all business – no frills – no creature comforts. I thought how striking the difference to a modern commercial jet.
Then the engines crank – one by one – until all four of the big, 1,200 horsepower, Wright Cyclone engines rattle to life. It is as if the lady has awoken. Everything is shaking, you can smell the exhaust of the massive engines, and I can see the tail (horizontal stabilizer) is noticeably vibrating.
This very airplane carried men to war 140 times over Germany and the Axis Powers. This very airplane was an instrument of tremendous destruction. As we began to taxi for takeoff, I thought of the young men, some 18 or 19 years old (perhaps younger), that were on this very airplane as they prepared for takeoff. They were preparing to meet the enemy with their 50 caliber machine guns and 500 pound bombs. The Nine-O-Nine brought all 10 crew members back alive – all 140 missions. However, 10,000 of the young men in similar B-17s never came back. The Eighth Air Force, to which they were attached, lost more B-17 crew members than all the Marines lost in the South Pacific.
I didn’t have to make sure my machine gun was ready and loaded. I didn’t have to worry about German fighters or “flak” from German Anti-Aircraft Artillery (Triple A). My pilot today has been flying this airplane for 16 years with thousands of hours. In WWII, the pilot would have months of flying experience and not many flight hours.
We pulled on the runway and 4,800 horsepower rapidly accelerated the Nine-O-Nine to flying speed, and we were in the air. The inside was noisy and hot. I was thankful that it wasn’t a typical Kentucky July day. The media types on this trip all went to work after takeoff. We were all taking pictures and admiring the big open observation port in the top of the plane (see photos). It was a grand place to take photos of the green Kentucky landscape.
As we lumbered along at 1,500 feet above the ground and 150 knots (165 mph), I once again reflected on the brave aircrew that flew these magnificent machines in battle. A bombing run would be from high altitude of 30,000 feet and 182 miles per hour. The temperature was sometimes 50ºF below zero. Some crew described the smoke from the exploding artillery “flak” as being so thick at times; they felt they could get out and walk on it. They also felt like sitting ducks for the high-speed German fighters attacking from every possible direction. Even with 13 = 50 caliber machine guns, the big B-17 made for an even bigger target while the speedy fighters were a very small target.
Our 30 minute flight around Paducah was unlike the 10-hour missions of WWII. We had no battle damage or wounded crew members. Our approach and landing was remarkably smooth and the Nine-O-Nine brought everyone home intact, again.
The Collins Foundation www.collinsfoundation.com operates these aircraft and they are to be commended for the tremendous job they have done in restoration and operation of these historic machines. It costs $4,000 per hour to fly these magnificent aircraft and you can actually fly aboard one for $450 per person. For the real thrill seeker with some extra cash, the P-51 fighter flight ticket is $2,200 for a 30-minute flight of a lifetime.
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