UNION COUNTY, NJ — Considering there are only 12 airworthy B-17 bombers still flying in the world, and only eight of those in the United States, this was the opportunity of a lifetime that I couldn’t resist: a ride on the workhorse bomber of the Second World War.
It was not a video game nor virtual reality or even a simulator. None of those can duplicate the noise or the vibration of four Curtiss-Wright 1,820 cubic-inch, 1,200-horsepower engines at full throttle.
They also can’t replicate the G-forces on takeoff, the bounce on landing or the sway that comes with an 18-ton, 74-foot-long, 72-year-old plane with a 103-foot wingspan banking into a left turn.
This was a chance to take a ride back in history, thanks to the Experimental Aircraft Association, a 64-year-old group of 200,000 air hobby enthusiasts based in Oshkosh, Wis. The EAA owns several vintage aircraft, including a 1929 Ford Trimotor, which was mostly used for transport, and the “Aluminum Overcast” B-17, a “G” model that was completed in May 1945, when World War II ended.
The Overcast never saw combat. It was sold as surplus and saw use for fire fighting and photo mapping into the 1960s, according to one of her pilots, Sean Elliott, vice president of advocacy and safety for the EAA.
When six Oklahoma surgeons donated the plane to the EAA in 1979, the association spent a decade restoring it to its World War II authenticity and now flies it around the country for air shows, sometimes offering the chance for civilians to take a ride for between $430 and $475 to defray the costs of touring.
On my flight were two vets from Montvale: Gerald Gemian, 95, an infantryman and signalman in the Pacific theater, and Joe Quade, 94, who fought with the 17th Airborne Division, including at the tail end of the Battle of the Bulge.
On the second media flight was 100-year-old Stephen Bolcar of Boonton, who served as a waist gunner on a B-24 in Europe.
While Bolcar said the plane brought back memories, I could only imagine what he, and others who actually flew in these crates, actually experienced. Once airborne, the crawl from opposite the left waist gunner position to the front was a bit of a challenge, as I made sure not to grab the exposed cables that ran along the top of the fuselage.
Grabbing the cables is a problem, according to the flight coordinator, who told us that doing so would mean “you’re flying the plane and the pilots really don’t like that.”
Walking through the radio compartment was easy enough, but wriggling my way forward to the cockpit along a six-inch wide metal plank with open space to either side — as I peered down into the bomb bay — was more of an experience.
The instrumentation for the pilots, save for the modern GPS navigation system, was as in the original war-era planes.
But the highlight was crawling, on my hands and knees, into the position for the bombardier and navigator/forward gunner underneath the flight deck, the pilot and co-pilot’s seat, and into the big open-glass nose for which the B-17 was so famous.
This is where the Norden bombsight was located. This device factored speed, direction, altitude, wind currents, etc., to control the plane on its bomb run to the target and made possible precision — at that time — daylight bombing.
Peering in, one could almost hear the intercom chatter of the 10 crew calling out the position of approaching enemy fighters: 12 o’clock high, 4 o’clock low; the bombardier alerting the pilot: “Bombs away,” along with the high-pitched whine of the 500-pound bombs falling to their target.
Mine was a joyride, a leisurely 20-minute excursion, on a warm Thursday afternoon at about 1,500 feet over I-287 into history. A glimpse anywhere in the plane, though, was a reminder of the peril that faced those who dared squeeze into these machines at 35,000 feet.
A thin aluminum skin did little to protect the B-17 crews from bullets fired from the swarms of German Me-109s or Fw 190 fighters or the incessant flak bursts while trying to bomb a submarine pen in Hamburg or a tank factory in the Ruhr Valley.
As the son of a World War II veteran — my father was a corporal in the 439th Anti-Aircraft Battalion in North Africa, Italy and Germany — I greatly appreciated my chance to briefly live a little history.
I was given a gift, thanks to the EAA, but more rightfully to men like Bolcar, Gemian and Quade.