A flight on a B-17

By Rachel Hobson

Photos by Carl Carruthers, Jr.

When the B-17 Aluminum Overcast appeared on the horizon above a Houston suburb sky last week, her shape was immediately recognizable. She was curvy, substantial and down right gorgeous. At almost 70 years old, she was also a little creaky and sputtered and smoked a bit as she pulled in on the runway. This was our ride for the afternoon, and I was giddy like a 10-year-old as we prepared to board.

The Aluminum Overcast was restored and is maintained by the Experimental Aircraft Association, and these days it flies thousands of miles every year, serving as a hands-on museum and a opportunity to celebrate veterans of all wars. On our flight, sponsored by the EAA Chapter 12, two vets whose experiences spanned the breadth of combat from World War II to present day were along for the ride.

Jack Dorshaw is a 92-year-old pilot who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Though he'd only flown on a B-17 once during that time (he flew primarily C-47s and B-25s) when the Aluminum Overcast rolled up, I got the feeling it was like he was looking at an old friend. Even at 92, Jack still flies every week and says it's a big part of what has kept him active and agile. "Flying is a young man's game," he says. "I fly with a bunch of young people, so I guess it rubs off on me." When we boarded the plane for our flight, Jack took a VIP seat right up at the front of the plane, just behind the pilots.

I sat at the very back of the plane, just inside the tiny door with an even tinier window. Our taxi down the runway was long and cumbersome, making the smooth and gentle take off a bit of a surprise. Once we were in the air, we got the "thumbs up," letting us know we could unlatch our heavy metal belt buckles and explore the aircraft. It took me a few minutes to get my air legs. This is not a move-freely-about-the-cabin kind of aircraft. It sways and moves without notice, and there aren't many easy or safe things to grab on to for steadying yourself. I watched as our other veteran guest, Scott Brown, took a few minutes to look out the waist gunner windows. As a young vet of the Iraqi war, the B-17 is light years different than anything in which he's ever flown. "It takes you back in time to the mindframe of what these men went through in combat," Brown says.

He's right. Somehow it's not a stretch to imagine - at least a little bit - what it might have been like to fly in a B-17 in combat when you're in the Aluminum Overcast. The difference, though, is that we're just about 1,000 feet up and are flying over neatly laid out cul-de-sacs in crystal clear skies in comfortable mid-60s temperatures. Jack told me stories of being on missions that were more than eight-hours long, high over enemy territory in weather so cold he lost feeling in his hands.

I only made it up to the ultra-narrow catwalk of the bomb bay when we got the "thumbs down" notice that it was time to get back to our seats and buckle up for the descent. On my way back to my seat, I skirted around the ball turret in one big step and realized: that's a space in which an adult man would be scrunched up and firing for his life during a battle.

On a later flight, photographer and pilot Carl Carruthers, Jr. had the opportunity to take hold of the controls and fly the B-17. His normal flight fare is single engine airplanes, and The Aluminum Overcast is by far the oldest and largest plane he's ever flown. "The air was realtively smooth and I only made small adjustments, but quickly realized how heavy the controls were," he says. "It was like driving an early seventies Cadillac with no power steering: big, heavy, and you had to start turning the wheel long before you wanted to turn. And this was without bombs."

When she's on tour, folks can visit the Aluminum Overcast and walk around inside. For those wanting a full-on step back in time, 30-minute flights can be booked. Funds raised by the flights go toward maintenance and tours.

See more pictures from our flight, by photographer Carl Carruthers, Jr. [Flickr]

Published 1:59 am Fri, Nov 25, 2011

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About the Author

I'm a hand embroidery-obsessed space geek, writer (CRAFT & MAKE) and mom. I write about my personal nerdy craft and art projects on Average Jane Crafter.

41 Responses to “A flight on a B-17”

  1. JR Harlan says:

    Damn that plane is pretty.  I want to make sweet, sweet sky-love to it.

  2. fergus1948 says:

    Beautiful machine! I’d love to fly in that (but only so long as it was in the present day and not 70 years ago on a winter’s night over Germany.)

  3. penguinchris says:

    I toured what I believe is the same plane, years ago. My dad is a private pilot and EAA member and got me interested at a young age. I have a sticker that has a B-17 and says “I toured the EAA B-17″ at my parents’ house somewhere.

    It was a fantastic experience just to crawl around in it as a kid who was fascinated with aviation and WW2, I’ve always wanted to take a flight in one too of course – some day :)

    • Rachel Hobson says:

      I bet it was! It really is an amazing machine. I do hope you get the chance to fly in it some day – simply incredible! 

  4. allium says:

    Things I remember from the flight I was lucky enough to take via another organization:

    1) LOUD.
    2) Hat (not mine) + topside hatch + the Bernoulli effect = no hat.
    3) Seeing the ground below you through holes where rivets used to be is perfectly natural and you shouldn’t be so worried.

    • Rachel Hobson says:

      Ditto on 1 & 3! It was nuts to look down and see through the bottom of the plane in places. (nuts … and awesome) 

  5. swarfega says:

    Shame theres no video, Id have loved to have experienced the noise.

  6. BarBarSeven says:

    Very nice stuff!  And I ditto everyone else, but is anyone allowed in the belly gunner position? I am utterly fascinated by that position on the B-17 because if landing gear fails and the plane has to land, well, that thing is scraped off.

  7. i have, for as long as i can remember wanted to sit in the mad glass bubble-gun implacment at the front.

    That must have been the best job, right up to the part about freezing to death, getting shot, or crashing.

  8. nixiebunny says:

    That is a wonderful plane. I was lucky enough to get a ride in her 15 years ago.  It’s a lot like being inside a motorcycle, with the noise, vibration and wind. The interior is unfinished, with the skin and ribs right there in front of you. I got virtual frostbite just looking at the machine guns with their 28V electrical sockets for heating the gunners’ suits.

    The other amazing thing is that the bomb bay is this little tiny thing that holds eight 500 pound bombs. All that airplane for 2 tons of payload?

  9. jimmy4pat says:

    GOD BLESS  AMERICA and HER VETERANS…    JIMBO, Southfield, Michigan   

    • eldritch says:

      An excerpt from “The War Prayer”, by Mark Twain.

      ~~~~~

      The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside — which the startled minister did — and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said: 

      “I come from the Throne — bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import — that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of — except he pause and think.

      “God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two — one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this — keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

      “You have heard your servant’s prayer — the uttered part of it. I am commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it — that part which the pastor — and also you in your hearts — fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. the *whole* of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory–*must* follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

      “O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved
      firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it — for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen. ”

      (*After a pause.*) “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits!”

      It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

      ~~~~~

  10. I got to ride in the Liberty Belle 2 summers past. It was awesome. I got to sit in the front nose turret for takeoff and it was just as fantastic as you can imagine. I only wished we could have had a day of low cumulus clouds to skim over the tops of.

  11. Alan Wexelblat says:

    So. Jealous.

  12. Scott Croom says:

    Thanks. I live by Ellington AFB and was wondering if that was a B-17 I saw. Well that explains it…..it wasn’t my first guest of it being the Confederate Air Force.

  13. quesarah says:

    Awesome.  I had an opportunity to fly on the Colling’s Foundation “909” a few years back.  Back then, they were letting people pay a little extra to sit in the front.  I am the proud recipient of 5 minutes of 4-engine rightseat time, and can verify the impression of heavinesss on the controls.  The rudder pedals in particular seemed cast in cement.   I did wander the airplane too, and tried to imagine what it was like to fly in harm’s way so long ago..   Somehow, I timed it right so my tour ended in the bombardier seat just as they lined up to do a high speed pass over the airport before landing.  I cried.  I’ll never forget that ride.  If you get a chance, take it.  They won’t fly forever.  we lost a flying one last summer near Chicago.

  14. Mister44 says:

    My godmother’s husband was the Engineer in B-17s and B-29s during WWII.   I interviewed him for a school report one time. He was the stereotypical “farm boy from Kansas” shoved into a metal airplane.

  15. buddy66 says:

    Re: Randall Jarrell’s classic poems, “Death of The Ball Turret Gunner.” and “8th Air Force.”

    (“Men wash their hands in blood as best they can.”)

  16. digi_owl says:

    The soldiers of the era is barely dying off and we seem hell bent on heading back down the same old track. In essence 5 years of war and millions of lives lost bought us maybe 2 generations of peace (tho a large part of that was under a nuclear standoff), and economic reconstruction.

  17. Antinous / Moderator says:

    For those interested in historical aircraft, the Palm Springs Air Museum has a large collection, some of which fly most weekends.  If the planes don’t interest you, there are eternal tape loops of old Bob Hope USO shows and the like.

  18. Heikki Ketola says:

    I flew on that very B17 Aluminum Overcast a few years ago.  Here are my pictures
    http://hunsvotti.com/b17/

    heikki

  19. BarBarSeven says:

    And you mdhatter03 wins the “No prize!”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bq9mTbooWyw

  20. cstatman says:

    ball turret memories from my dad’s historical description:  (he was not a turret gunner)  also called the “Sperry Ball Turret”    so small the turret gunner could not wear a parachute    twin .50 cal machine guns      electrically powered    not retractable    rode ~ 15″ off the ground during takeoff.       had to enter the turret from inside the plane, then the turret was rotated, closing the exit path.        if the electrics failed, there was a hand crank, but had to rotate back enough to get the hatch open to the plane,  usually under enemy fire.     gunner would regularly ride 10-12 hours in the turret on missions.

  21. kenmce says:

    I have a vague recollection similar to that of  cstatman’s father.  You needed power to turn the turret to align the hatches so you could get in and out.  If power was shot out during the mission you could get stuck in there and spend the long trip home thinking about the question of whether or not the landing gear would still deploy (it needed power to operate too) and if it deployed, would it open all the way, and if so, would it lock in position?  You see if the landing gear failed the entire weight of the plane would come down on the ball turret and the (stuck) gunner inside, so this gave him something to think about on the long ride back. =8-0

  22. Joe Maynard says:

    Just saw a beautifully restored one of these at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, got to climb a ladder and look around inside it… it was amazing. Wish I could bottle that smell…

  23. CSBD says:

    For people who live north of the Mason-Dixon,
    The Yankee Air Force in Ypsilanti Michigan also offers rides in their B-17 and B-25s (from Catch-22 fame).

    http://www.yankeeairmuseum.org/

    If you pick the right time of year, you can also see a University of Michigan Football Game (15 minutes away)

    Disclaimer… I hate sports but know that is not the case for everyone.

  24. had the honor of meeting and talking with Doug Ward a B-17 Ball Turret Gunner at Oshkosh this year.  amazing person.  http://www.flickr.com/photos/chempilot1/6015619185/in/set-72157627326029134

  25. cstatman says:

    yes, and real boys had to fly in them, pull triggers, and drop those bombs.   Unlike today’s wars with remote and automated drones.        And those real boys?  they came back and tried very hard to be sure we did not have to do it again.     The Chicken-Hawks(chickenshit) legislators in power now have no clue about this feeling, therefore they have no problem paying for automated drones to drop bombs on sheep farmers on the other side of the world.

    Remember your history, man,  so you don’t repeat it.     oops!   too late.

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