Living History: WWII vets and B17 take to the sky over Seattle

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Tim Chacon
  • 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

The B-17 Flying Fortress is an icon of World War II, especially when talking about the aerial war in the European theater. A bomber that could do things no other could before it. With a payload of 9,600 pounds and a range of 3,750 miles the B-17s were able to inflict heavy losses on Axis’s infrastructure facilities and defenses.

A fully restored B-17, nicknamed Aluminum Overcast, was recently brought to the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington. To help mark the arrival of the aircraft, which will be available to the public for flights throughout the summer, 13 WWII, B-17 Veterans gathered at the museum to answer questions about the aircraft and provide insight into what it’s like to not only fly the aircraft but fly these aircraft in combat.

The Veterans shared stories of their missions, their careers and the B-17. Some of them told stories of great heroism and loss. Some like Lt. Col. (retired) Ken Wheeler, B-17 navigator, told his story as casually as someone would normally report the weather, of being shot down and having to evade the enemy for several weeks. The common humble opinion among the Veterans was the feats they performed where neither heroic nor impressive, simply tasks that had to be accomplished and so they did.

Having the chance to fly in a B-17 is amazing, but to also fly in one with the WWII, B-17 Veterans is a truly rare opportunity, one that was not left unappreciated by this photojournalist. Being an admirer of WWII history, I was fully aware of the B-17, but had no actual hands on experience with it. I have flown in many airframes throughout my career, but this was truly special. 

The members of the Experimental Aircraft Association, who restored and operate this B-17 claim it is 97 percent fully restored to its WWII form. Even down to the location and weight of side armor plating. A detail that the Veterans noticed and enquired about after the flight, since the armor adds weight to the aircraft and makes it use more fuel, the Veterans thought this armor could be removed, but the EAA wanted an as accurate aircraft as possible

Stepping into the aircraft one could definitely believe the 97 percent restoration percentage. The first thing I realized besides how lucky I was, is that the B-17 was really small. Being in Air Mobility Command, the C-17 Globemaster III has become my standard for aircraft and this was no C-17.

We entered into the main fuselage, that fairly small opening provides access to three of the 13, 50-caliber M2 Browning machine guns, two on each side and one in a bubble extending below the aircraft. Someone who has seen the movie Memphis Belle would be familiar with that location.

The next room is the radio room.  A small room with three seats and a radio, hence radio room. The dedication to the authenticity can definitely be seen here, as the radio is exactly as it would have been on a flight over Nazi held Berlin, Germany.

The next area is the bomb storage area. A small walkway down the center takes one through the payload stacked to the ceiling on both sides over bomb-bay doors that swing down to release the bombs. 

Forward of the bomb room is the flight deck where pilot and co-pilot sit. Through a small passageway under the pilot’s seats is the nose turret of the aircraft. If not impressed and in awe by now, this would surely do it.

This is where the navigator and bombardier sat. Crawling into this compartment truly was like stepping back in time. The plastic bubble of the nose turret allowed for an unparalleled view of the coast and the attention to detail in the restoration made for an almost surreal environment.

I  would not even pretend to say it allows one to feel what it would really be like to fly in a B-17 East across the English Channel in 1944, but it does give a little bit of a perspective of what some incredible men did with some very simple equipment.

Although it could be viewed as simple compared to today’s standard of aircraft, the B-17 was praised time and time again by the Veterans on board for its toughness and dependability, even after taking heavy damage. Dick Nelms, B-17 pilot, recalled one mission where his aircraft returned with 300 holes in it from enemy fire. He showed a two-inch piece of metal that was removed from armor plating behind the head rest of his seat.

The capabilities of the B-17 were proven many times over, as was the merit of the men who flew them and together they literally changed the world and course of history. To be able to share a few brief moments of flight time with both was an honor and a privilege. It is one thing to study Air Force heritage in the Air Force’s Professional Development Guide, it is something so much more to actually sit next to someone who has lived it and hear about it firsthand.