A view looking towards the tail of a B-17G Flying Fortress in the sky over Porter County during a demonstration flight near Valparaiso, Ind., Monday, July 29, 2013. The World War II era aircraft, built in 1945, currently tours the country as part of the nonprofit Collings Foundation.
From my seat in the B-17G radio operator’s compartment, I peered out of the iPad-sized window above the left wing as runway 27 came into view at the Porter County Regional Airport. The aircraft lumbered to a stop at the end of the runway, and a few moments later, the pilot ran all four 1,200 horsepower radial engines up to takeoff power. The old bird roared and shook, as if it were a monster being provoked from a comfortable nap. The hot, exhaust-laden air rushed in through the open skylight above me, whipping my long hair in every direction.
With the engines still at takeoff power, the pilot released the brakes, sending the plane shooting down the runway with a jolt even more intense than the 737′s I’m more used to flying on. I had to grab the small wooden desk in front of me to avoid sliding off my seat as we quickly gained speed and rotated from the runway. An old, lumbering bird this B-17 is not! I experienced first hand the power and speed the B-17 was designed with to provide World War II bomber crews the edge over the enemy.
As luck would have it, on my flight, three of those World War II airmen were along for the ride. Despite all three of them being right around 90 years old, their youthful enthusiasm radiated through the smiles that remained on their faces from takeoff to touchdown. It was quite powerful witnessing all three of them reliving their memories of the aircraft.
I tried to imagine what it must have been like for those veterans on an actual B-17 mission, freezing cold at up to 20,000 feet in altitude with the enemy taking aim at the aircraft all the while. I tried to imagine the radio operator who sat at the very desk I was seated at, missing family back home – worried that he might not make it back there (most did not).
The first time I toured a B-17 Flying Fortress in 1997 (coincidentally, at the same airport which hosted my flight this week), I left respecting the aircraft mostly for its sleek looks. This time, I left respecting the aircraft for its impressive power, but more so, with respect for the veterans who endured the tough conditions on their flights with skill and bravery.
Pilot Mac McCauley of Seal Beach, Calif., flies a B-17G Flying Fortress over Porter County during a demonstration flight near Valparaiso, Indiana.
Two of the four radial engines aboard the B-17G Flying Fortress, producing 1,200 horsepower each.
World War II veteran Harold Chubbs, 89, of Crown Point, Ind., flies on the B-17G Flying Fortress. Chubbs was a flight engineer on the same type of aircraft in the war.
The B-17G Flying Fortress passes over the Porter County Regional Airport in Valparaiso.
The view from the bombadier’s seat in the nose of the B-17 is fantastic, though I can’t imagine sitting here freezing cold at 20,000 feet while being shot at.
The B-17G Flying Fortress taxis to the ramp at Porter County Regional Airport.
World War II veteran Henry Jacobi (left), 92, of Highland, Ind., talks to B-17G Flying Fortress pilot Mac McCauley of Seal Beach, Calif., following a demonstration flight at Porter County Regional Airport in Valparaiso, Ind., Monday, July 29, 2013. The World War II era aircraft, built in 1945, currently tours the country as part of the nonprofit Collings Foundation.