When I was very young, family vacations to Atlantic City — decades before casinos — would include a stop to visit an elderly couple living in Woodbury, N.J. My parents had known them since before they, my folks, were married. One of my most vivid memories is of Snyder’s Smoke Shop in downtown Woodbury, with its seemingly endless variety of penny candy, little toys and comic books. Another memory is of a tiny model airplane that hung on a short string in the archway between the living room and dining room in the home of that couple, Jack and Hazel.
I once asked my mother about the plane.
“That’s a B-17,” she told me.
I looked closer and noted its four miniature propellers. Turns out, my mother had corresponded with Hazel’s son during World War II when mom was still in high school. Once on leave, Ray Jackson visited Washington, D.C., and spent a couple of nights in my grandparents’ spare room in their row house in Petworth. He took my mother out to dinner. Returning to Europe, he was killed soon after, when the B-17 of which he was co-pilot was shot down over Germany, as more than half of them were. Although she barely knew the son, my mother stayed close with his mother. She and Jack were like third grandparents. Hazel lived until the 1980s, and I always equated her with B-17s.
I tell this story as backdrop to my recent dream-come-true flight aboard one of the dozen or so still-flying B-17s. It’s operated by the Liberty Foundation. The Foundation’s B-17 was a late build, so it never saw combat. But it’s painted in the markings of the most famous B-17, the Memphis Belle. That plane and its storied crew were the subject of a 1990 movie by the same name, in which the Foundation’s B-17 substituted for the actual one.
That historic B-17 was allowed to corrode outside and be vandalized for many years by the city of Memphis. Now Air Force museum experts at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, are restoring it.
The Liberty Foundation is offering sightseeing flights in its replica “Flying Fortress” Sept-7-8, at the Martin State Airport north of Baltimore, Md. Details are available at the foundation’s website.
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Somewhere along the line I became an airplane fanatic. I’m not a pilot, and I know only the rudiments of operating any plane, much less a four-engine bomber. But I especially love four-engine piston planes, the distinct sound of which has mostly disappeared. I can’t say what it is that make that type of aircraft so appealing to me. Until last week, I may have actually flown on one maybe twice in my life, both times before I was 10. So when an e-mail came saying the “Movie Memphis Bell” was offering journalists flights, I leaped at the chance.
The other reporters probably didn’t know the roar they heard when the plane arrived at Martin State Airport. The sound came from one of the great mechanical innovations of the 1930s — the Wright Cyclone radial engine. Wright Cyclones developed into a variety of sizes and capacities. Despite knowing how hot it was, I walked up to one of the Belle’s engine nacelles and touched the engine mounted immediately behind the propeller. Just to say I touched one.
Here’s a secret: When I need a mental break, I watch YouTube videos of vintage radial engines that mechanics enthusiasts have rescued, mounted on trailers so they can haul them to engine meets, start ’em up and watch ’em run. The B-17 has 9-cylinder Cyclone 1820s — 1,820 cubic inches of displacement. More exciting is the compound Cyclone, 18 cylinders in two rows. When it starts, it belches big globs of fire out the exhaust pipe. Four of those babies hauled up the B-29 “Enola Gay,” which dropped Little Man on Hiroshima.
The Liberty Belle Foundation’s chief pilot, Ray Fowler, has a weekday job. He’s a jet pilot for Delta Airlines. He explains that this B-17 was built not by Boeing, which engineered the plane for the Army, but under license by the Douglas Aircraft Company in Long Beach, Calif. It took three companies to build B-17s in sufficient quantities to keep the Army Air Corps supplied. Women flew the new planes, sans their protective armament, over to Europe.
Because this particular B-17 lacks the armor and much of the heavy apparatus of a combat plane, it’s relatively light. That plus the natural stability of the design made for a smooth takeoff. Once aloft, we passengers could leave our decidedly primitive seats and visit all areas of the plane. We took turns crawling under the cockpit to the nose. There we sat in the bombardier’s chair and took in the magnificent, 360-degree view through the Plexiglas nose cone. We could poke our heads up through the open canopy in the radio room, getting views as in an open cockpit biplane. We threaded our way through the bomb bay on a 6-inch wide catwalk. We could chat with Fowler and co-pilot Melissa Foures as they adjusted the trims and engine controls like manifold pressure and cowl flaps.
One of our passengers that day was the diminutive Larry Hilte, who flew some 35 missions as a ball turret gunner in B-24s out of Spinnazola, Italy. Now, our 25- minute flight took place on a warm September day. Because the B-17 burns 200 gallons of high octane gasoline per hour, and climbing uses the most fuel. Fowler took us up to only 1,000 feet. But Hilte reminded us that the B-17 and B-24 bombing runs ran up to 25,000 feet. The B-17 is unpressurized and has no heating system, so the men had to use oxygen masks and bundle up with electrically-heated trousers and boots just to survive a six or eight-hour frigid ordeal of a mission.
What might have been going through young men’s minds as they climbed into the narrow, metal, totally unadorned interior of their plane, knowing they had a better than even chance of not returning alive, or even of returning? What kind of bonding, I wonder, occurred among the 10 crew members whose lives were locked into mutual dependence?
Enough World War II lore, and B-17 lore alone, has been written to fill libraries. I have little to add on that front. But because WW II veterans are dying at a rate of several thousand per week, soon all we’ll have are the stories and hardware artifacts.