B17 Flying Fortress

It was smaller than I expected. I crouched as I stumbled across the irregular deck toward my assigned seat in the cockpit, gawking at the two fifty-caliber machine guns mounted in the waist turrets. And the twin 30s in the bubble above. A narrow six-inch ramp led me through the bomb-bay. I had envisioned a massive area with room for great racks of bombs, but it too was smaller than I expected.

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The noise of the engines prohibited any verbal communication at all. The crackling, spitting and roar of the four piston engines allowed only sign language.

I checked out the instrument panel, every bit as complex as I had anticipated. The pilots hand gripped the power levers and eased them forward. The crackling slowly gave way to a steady, mind-bending din. The bomber lurched a bit and slowly taxied toward the runway. I watched as fingers flipped switches and tapped dials. Then, full power.

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There was nothing smooth about this rumbling monster. We careened down the concrete strip, buffeted and tossed for what seemed like a good thirty minutes. Would this leviathan ever take off?

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Well, it did. And off we went, into the wild blue yonder. Barely climbing and not too high. Boulder passed beneath us. Then across the front range. The makeshift crew began to stir as we felt free to move about the cabin. I visited each gunnery station, fantasizing about camouflaged ME-109s closing in with cannons blazing.

I was sitting there, as a tourist, in one of the great war machines of WW2. A basic and simple device, designed to deliver bombs and distribute them amongst the enemy. With eleven crew members, eight of whom were entrusted to shoot down anything that stood in their way.

Should have worked really well. But as big as it was for its time, bristling with armament, pregnant with tons of bombs, it was vulnerable. Of the thousands of B-17s which flew into battle, one third never returned.

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There I sat, wondering. Why did I pay the big bucks to fly in this killing machine. Sure, there’s the adventure of restored antiquity. The B17 was designed the year I was born. And, yes, the child in me, who grew up during the war. My toys were P51 Mustangs, P38 Lightnings and P47 Thunderbolts. How do I reconcile this with my abhorrence of war? And a dozen other questions.

 

Photos by Dixie

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