Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

The flight of my life

I don’t know why I was always so interested in airplanes. Maybe it was because the house I grew up in from age 6 was in an approach path for LaGuardia Airport in New York City, and seeing those miracles in metal, commercial airliners, passing overhead on their way to the runways just fascinated me.

Oddly, I never rode in an airplane until I was 17 and on my way to Marine Corps basic training at Parris Island. I never even got close to airplanes until I was assigned to a squadron after electronics training. Still, I was always interested in airplanes, and I blew my allowance every week on model airplanes, and built them in the basement for display in my bedroom.

Airplanes from the World War II era fascinated me. True, I built models of commercial airliners, but the military planes drew me in. I guess because I was born 15 years after World War II ended, to me the planes weren’t lethal, as they were to those whose cities were targeted as well as those who flew in them.

I feel fortunate that there are still a few examples flying around, and Florida with its population of World War II veterans is a popular stop for the planes. I even got to crawl through a B-29, but it’s almost old hat to see a B-17 or B-24, the famous four-engined heavy bombers that are immortalized in countless books and movies.

I had gone through both B-17s and B-24s on static display, but until November 2007 had never flown in one. When I learned that a B-17 was touring Florida and would stop in Sarasota, I knew that if I ever wanted to experience a flight aboard a B-17, that was the time, before it was too late.

I thought at first that I would have to spring for the price, almost $400, for a short ride, but learned that the organization that owned the plane offering a flight for members of the media. I talked to an editor at my paper, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and got a pass for a free flight on the B-17G Flying Fortress. I wrote a couple of preliminary stories, and was eager to finally not only climb aboard one, but actually see, hear and feel the B-17 in flight.

The Herald-Tribune sent a photographer with me, and other local news media outlets had sent reporters and camera people. The real thrill was meeting two World War II veterans: a man who had flown B-17s into combat over Germany, and a man who had been in training as a radio operator when the war ended, and thus never saw combat and never went overseas. Actually, the latter had some fascinating stories about taking care of those awesome B-17s.

It was amazing to see that plane arrive at the airport and taxi in. I wondered what it must have been like to see an airfield full of B-17s, and even more to see and hear them pass overhead.

The former pilot was in his 80s, but you could see him grow younger as he talked about his missions during the war and told stories to the rapt media people who surrounded him before the flight. One of his sons was there, and he was almost as excited about riding with his father in that beautiful and well-restored B-17.

After a ground briefing, we boarded the plane from the back door on the right side of the aircraft, behind the waist gun position. I had a personal video camera recording everything, and I managed a lame joke about being in seat 6A. Of course, the inside of the plane was tight. Somehow, the B-17’s inside looks bigger in the movies.

We took our seats and buckled ourselves in. This was definitely a warplane, and the crew chief reminded us that after the plane was aloft and we were moving around, to be sure not to grab the control cables if we needed to regain our balance in bumpy air.

Behind me was a transparent wall, and the tailwheel. I read somewhere that the tail gunner entered through his own door behind the tailwheel, and that unless he was small could not get into the main part of the plane.

Finally, the door was closed and the big radial engines were started. The noise was something else, and someone pointed out that there was no OSHA back then. The plane taxied for a while, finally took the active runway and the engines roared as we rolled faster and faster, and finally took to the air. I was flying in a B-17.

As the plane flew, I took video out the windows and some inside the plane. The B-17 pilot was enjoying the flight, his first in a B-17 in 60 years, and the rest of us were bouncing off the interior of the plane and each other. As I said, a B-17 may look huge from the outside, but it’s kind of tight inside.

A ride in one makes you appreciate the service and sacrifice of those astonishingly brave young men who flew into combat in those planes so we could all have a better life.

Looking out the window of the left waist gun position, I noticed that the wing flaps were down. That meant we were near to landing, and the crew chief was making hand signals that translated to sit down and buckle up. I did so, and soon we touched down at the airport in Sarasota, and the plane taxied in.

After we came to a full stop, and the door opened, we who had been aboard emerged and just walked around talking about the flight. I continued to interview people and take notes, and finally had to tear myself away to get to the newspaper and write my story.

For a few hours, I was busy telling the story of a man who was told he was too short and light to fly B-17s, and then how he ended up at a B-17 base, where he became a co-pilot on the planes. There was nothing about me or my joy at flying on the plane. I had planned to write a column but never did. So long as the main story got in, that’s all that mattered.

In the following days, I heard from the son, who was thrilled at my story and the photographer’s pictures. The group that had collected admission, the local Experimental Aircraft Association, was grateful to me because they had a very large crowd despite the plane being there on Tuesday and Wednesday.

A friend who I mentioned in an earlier post had been a navigator on B-24s during World War II, and I wish he were still alive so I could share my tape and experience with him. I bet he would have enjoyed it.

Those old warbirds may soon be permanently earthbound, I fear. The high price of aviation gas and maintenance may mean that the skies may soon no longer hear the throb of big radial engines pulling a piece of history through the air. That will be a terrible shame. And we’re losing World War II veterans, too.

Once, planes like the B-17 ruled the skies and filled the air with noise, and Americans with pride. Time and technology have left them behind, but I hope the day when those awesome planes are permanently grounded is still way off.

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September 12, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , ,

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