B-17 tours offer a glimpse of WWII history
A restored B-17 ''Flying Fortress'' sits at Trenton Mercer Airport, August 13, 2012. Nose art on the ''Aluminum Overcast,'' which also carries the colors of the 398th Bomb Group of World War II, which flew hundreds of missions over Nazi-held territory during the war.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
WEST TRENTON, N.J. — On the runway of Trenton Mercer Airport, the Flying Fortress prepared for takeoff. Its four 1,200-horsepower engines roared to life and the fuselage vibrated as it had on other B-17 bombers before runs over Hitler’s Germany.
Warren Kimmel had seen photos and movies of massive aircraft, with their bristling .50-caliber machine guns. He had dreamed of serving on one when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1942. But he never got the chance.
He was deployed to the China-Burma-India theater of operations, served on other planes as crew chief, and recalls seeing only one B-17, on a runway in Karachi, then in India and now in Pakistan.
All that changed recently as Kimmel’s wish came true. On board as the lumbering giant taxied down the runway, he was overwhelmed by the moment.
“I’m so lucky after all these years — and at my age — to do something as unbelievable as this,” said Kimmel, 87, of Horsham, Pa. “This is a dream come true.”
He unbuckled his seat belt in the back of the plane and started moving forward, past machine guns and the bomb bay. “I never expected that I’d get up here,” he said as he stood in the cockpit, looking down at the Delaware River.
The B-17 was an icon of American power and the star of films such as “Twelve O’Clock High” and “Memphis Belle.” Only a few are left, and one — nicknamed “Aluminum Overcast” — has come to Trenton’s airport for ground tours and flights.
The program is part of a series of cross-country stopovers by the Wisconsin-based Experimental Aircraft Association aimed at exposing the public to a revered relic of World War II.
Ground tours are $10 per person and $20 for a family; flights are $475 for association nonmembers. The funds help defray the plane’s expenses. Flying costs $4,000 an hour.
Kimmel was accompanied Monday by three other World War II veterans who had always admired the B-17 but never flown in one.
Touring and flying a B-17 “is an emotional experience for many, if not all, of the veterans,” said Sean Elliott, the association’s vice president of air operations, who has flown the bomber for the 176,000-member international organization. Some “come off the plane in tears,” he said.
“Their most impactful memories come screaming back when they’re exposed to the sights, smells and sounds” of Aluminum Overcast, he said. “When you start it, there’s the smell of oil, a poof of blue smoke and sound of the engines.”
Even visitors who don’t know much about the bomber’s history “come away with big smiles on their faces” after tours, Elliott said.
“They’re amazed to realize that 10 guys, at 18 to 22 years of age, were putting themselves in harm’s way in a pretty rough environment to keep us free,” he said. “My dad was a naval aviator in World War II, so I’ve been interested in flying since I was a kid.”
From Aluminum Overcast, Kimmel could see Trenton spread out before him, the ground dropping away as the bomber headed east. For the occasion, he wore his tinted flying glasses from the war.
“The guys who flew these planes put up a hell of a battle and a lot of them lost their lives,” said Kimmel, who usually worked on and flew in two-engine cargo planes such as C-47s and C-46s, carrying troops and supplies. “The B-17 was my favorite plane.”
The bomber is not airtight or pressurized, so air flowed through gun turrets and bomb bay doors, then rustled through the cabin, as Kimmel explored the warbird.
“This is really fine,” he said. “You hear the engines and feel the vibration.”
Aluminum Overcast was one of nearly 13,000 bombers built during the war and one of the last finished. It was delivered May 18, 1945, but didn’t see combat.
The bomber was sold the following year to civilians who used it to drop flame retardant on forest fires and spray pesticide on crops.
The association acquired the craft more than 30 years ago and spent 12 years restoring it with authentic materials, including ball gun turrets and radio equipment.
“It’s exciting to stand behind the guns,” said Chester Furtek, 86, a World War II Navy seaman. “You can imagine the German fighter planes out there.”
Furtek served on the destroyer Corry, which shelled the Germans at Normandy during the D-Day invasion. He saw the B-17s on bombing runs and witnessed two shot down before his own ship was sunk. “I’ve never flown in one, so this is great,” he said.
In the back of the plane, former Navy Lt. Harry Stebner, 89, had a broad smile on his face as Aluminum Overcast flew over the region. He had flown in seaplanes and Corsairs, but they were nothing like this.
“What a thrill,” he said.
The bomber touched down at the airport and the smell of burned rubber wafted through the cabin, apparently from the tires on the runway.
“I’m flabbergasted,” said Rich Scott, 64, who served in the Marines and is a Vietnam veteran. “This is an incredible experience. It’s living history.”
On the ground, Kimmel exited the big bomber, then looked back one more time. “Oh, man, I never believed I’d fly in one of them,” he said.