When I decided to write a World War II story for the distant German relatives who received care packages from my grandparents after the war, I needed a way to bring an American into their lives. That didn’t require much thought. He’d be an aviator shot down in Germany. That meant he needed to be on the crew of a four-engine, heavy bomber. Either the B-17 Flying Fortress or the B-24 Liberator. Easy choice. The Liberator has been called the Flying Boxcar, Flying Coffin, pregnant cow. No thanks. So the B-17 Flying Fortress it is.
Learning about the Fort is simple enough. They were tough, durable airplanes, capable of bringing their crews safely back to base despite horrific damage from ground antiaircraft fire and from enemy fighter planes. Their wing span stretched 103 feet, and measured 74 feet from nose to tail. The nickname Flying Fortress came from the many machine guns located in the nose, top turret in the roof, ball turret underneath the plane, waist windows, and tail. Their cost varied from nearly $250,000 down to $125,000 as the learning curve improved production.
Ten men, later nine, comprised the crew. The pilot was the plane commander, joined by the copilot, navigator, bombardier, flight engineer/top turret gunner, radio operator, ball turret gunner, one or two waist gunners, and the tail gunner.
If you’ve seen the movie Memphis Belle, you’ll have a Hollywood version of a B-17 crew. The men spoke to one another in normal voices while flying. They appeared unfettered by the extreme cold in the unheated, unpressurized plane with open waist windows. Temperatures of minus thirty were common. And they breathed normally without face masks at altitudes over 10,000 feet.
The best way to experience a B-17 is to fly in one, so I did. Aluminum Overcast was noisy. Standing face to face with someone, I saw his lips move, but couldn’t hear a word he said. No way could the pilot turn to his copilot and say something without using his headphones, and expect the copilot to hear him.
Since we flew in summer, we were grateful for the open window keeping the plane from heating up like an oven. And we didn’t fly high enough to require oxygen. For films and television shows, the actors take dramatic license and go maskless so the audience can read their emotions rather than stare at a face covered with an oxygen mask and not be able to recognize who was who.
Moving around in a B-17 requires one to be a contortionist. The airplane was built as a weapon, not for comfortable flight. Passages are low, narrow, and unpadded. To get out of the nose section, where the bombardier and navigator work, you must get down on your hands and knees to get into the crawl space leading up to the cockpit. And, yes, it is for crawling. I did not duck low enough and banged my head. No blood, fortunately, but it would not have surprised me.
Aluminum Overcast was delivered to the Army Air Force on May 17, 1945. The war in Europe was over. The war in the Pacific didn’t need B-17s. The new airplane was flown to a storage depot in Syracuse, New York, joining 228 other new unneeded B-17s and 33 combat-weary planes. These surplus warplanes were put up for sale.
After eighteen months, Aluminum Overcast was sold for $750 to a Texas company that quickly resold it for $1,500 to Universal Aviation Company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It changed hands several more times for increasingly higher prices. Several years were spent as a high-altitude camera platform in a photo mapping role. It spent time as a cargo plane hauling dressed beef to Puerto Rico and returning with undressed cowhides. It served as a sprayer and fire eradication bomber.
In 1978, Dr. William Harrison of Tulsa bought the work-weary plane for $75,000 and began restoring it to its original purpose. He and his partners donated Aluminum Overcast to the Experimental Aircraft Association in 1981 with the provision that the plane would be maintained in an airworthy condition. From its home with the EAA in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Aluminum Overcast now maintains a busy schedule flying around the country to air show and carries passengers for short-duration flights.Was the flight worth the ticket? Yes. That’s as close as I’ll come to living history.