A B-17 flight brings
History to roaring life
The Oklahoma-based nonprofit Liberty Foundation is taking the Madras Maiden on tour. Pilots will offer flights and ground tours, sharing the history of one of the 12,732 Boeing B-17s produced during the war. They will be scheduling flights
Vintage Flying Museum
“Flying in this plane, you will get all five senses – see, hear, smell, taste and feel – when you take a ride.” Thus said our pilot Bob Hill.
He was right. So five senses. Right.
I was riding in a World War II-era bomber, a B-17, as it roared – or should I say caterwauled – its way down the runway at Meacham Airport. There was no mistaking the seeing and the hearing or the smelling. Our pilot told us how much oil those engines burned and I believe it. That, too, accounted for some of the chemical taste. That accounted for four senses. But the feel?
How to feel about flying the same model plane that your father once rode in above the skies of Europe during World War II. My father, Billy V. Francis, had me by a good four inches at 6-foot, 4-inches. Crawling – and I do mean – crawling into this tiny shell of a plane couldn’t have been easy for anyone, let alone my tall, broad-shouldered, long-legged father. How did he feel?
I was taking a ride on the Madras Maiden, currently on tour and offering public flights and tours Oct. 21 and 22 as part of the Liberty Foundation’s 2017 Salute to Veterans tour. The B-17 was coming home, in a way. Once named “Chuckie,” it was based in Fort Worth for 31 years. It was then owned by William D. “Doc” Hospers, an orthopedic surgeon and retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel who bought it and named it after his wife, Charlyn.
The Hospers founded the Vintage Flying Museum, which occupies a hangar at Meacham Airport. Charlyn sold off the B-17 after Doc died in 2010. This was the plane’s first return to its old home.
It’s now in the care of the Claremore, Oklahoma-based Liberty Foundation, which takes the plane around the country to keep World War II history alive and bring those five senses to life.
“Chuckie” was on the flight with us, one of several passengers on this media junket to the past.
She, of course, was more than familiar with the plane that had taken the place of a vacation home, a diamond ring, whatever, that most men impress their wives with. Though she had some concerns when her husband first showed her the plane, she said – mostly centering around “What are we going to do with a B-17?” – she grew to love the plane.
I wasn’t familiar. No matter the stories my father told me, no matter the history books, the Wikipedia entries, the video games, the Band of Brothers series, the war stories I’d listened to sitting next to veterans at a Denny’s, nothing measured up to taking a flight in a B-17. Even though I was flying over the friendly skies of Fort Worth and not a foreign hostile power, it was close enough. I didn’t need bullets buzzing by like mosquitos to get the message.
How is it different from typical plane travel?
First, on takeoff, the engines thunder around you and the burning fuel and oil imparts that smell and taste that our pilot described. The engines feel like they’re going to shake off the plane before it gets off the runway. But once you get off the ground, it’s fairly smooth as you take to the air. The B-17s, which can reach a top speed of 295 mph, once carried a17,600-pound bombload and had twelve .50 caliber machine guns.
Aside from those noticeable differences, there’s the open hatch above the cramped radio room. The radios, by the way, are about the size of a medium-sized guitar amplifier. But the plane is just open to the elements. This is no sunroof. It doesn’t close. Even though it was a day with near-perfect weather, it got chilly once in the air. Those “bomber” jacket designs that all the hip folk wear? Yeah, this is why they made them. For guys risking their lives to tolerate the sometimes brutal, unrelenting cold. According to our pilot, who has logged plenty of hours in this plane, it gets to where you can’t feel your hands and feet while flying this craft. We were in the air 15 minutes and I raised my hand to push the call button for the flight attendant – until I realized I was pushing on a rivet.
The men that flew in these planes, most between the ages of 18 and 21, donned uncomfortable oxygen masks while flying 25,000 feet in the air. Their eight-to 10-hour flights weren’t pressurized, and temperatures could drop to 50 degrees below zero, according to our pilot. Imagine it being so cold, Hill said, that some of the hydraulics were freezing and “people were shooting at you.” OK. I get the message.
I headed to the front of the plane. To do so you walk on a narrow – and I do mean narrow – catwalk over a bomb bay. It’s aptly named because it’s big enough for a cat. There were a couple of fiberglass replica bombs on either side as I negotiated this disorienting space. Looking out from the cockpit was another revelation. We weren’t that far off the ground – 1,500 feet at most – and it looked like we could reach out and touch the tops of trees.
I looked at the rivets on the plane, which are easily visible since there is no insulation. Some anonymous someone, 70-odd years ago, put those rivets there, hoping to build a plane that would help the men fighting a war survive. Somehow that responsibility weighed on that man – or woman (it was the war after all). Today, we live in a world of anonymity and irresponsibility. I know, I see it in comments on the web every day. The person who built this plane wasn’t like that. There’s a difference between the so-called Greatest Generation and today. Score one for them.
Heading to the back of the plane, I see several of the machine guns – disabled, of course – on the Maiden. They give a sense of what the many young men who fought and died in B-17s during World War II used to defend themselves.
We land after a short flight around the skies of Fort Worth and I still don’t know how my father felt in a foreign land, flying above hostile territory. I still don’t know and won’t ever really know. But I do know I’m a lot closer to understanding today than I was yesterday. A lot.
I can see, hear, smell, taste and feel it.