A flight on a B-17

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]