B-17 flight thrills World War II veterans
The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — With each of its four 1,200-horsepower Pratt & Whitney radial engines thrumming and beating the air with black, 11-foot propellers — the old B-17G yawed and bobbed a few thousand feet above the green and brown carpet of the Lehigh Valley.
Don Miller, 88, a former flight engineer with the 452nd Bomb Group, 8th Air Force, still trim in a navy blue coat and sky-blue pants, ducked into the dark bomb bay, shimmied along a narrow beam and emerged in the drab green cockpit.
It was a trip he made many times in training and on the 11 missions he flew on a B-17 during World War II, but it was his first in an airborne Flying Fortress in nearly 70 years.
"It was just wonderful," said Miller, of the Shimerville section of Upper Milford Township.
He was one of several veterans offered a free ride on the Aluminum Overcast, an original B-17 bomber built at the end of World War II and restored to near mint condition. The Experimental Aircraft Association owns the plane and flies it around the country giving tours and short flights. The plane will be at Lehigh Valley International Airport on Friday and Saturday.
Studded with .50-caliber machine guns, each capable of punching 13 rounds a second at enemy fighters, the 74-foot-long B-17 was dubbed the "flying fortress." More than 12,000 were built for the war effort, and despite its impressive armament, more than 4,000 of those were lost in combat. Just 13 of the planes can still fly today.
The workhorse of the Allied air campaign against Nazi Germany, B-17 crews were required to fly 25 missions before reassignment to the United States. The skies over Europe were so thick with Luftwaffe warplanes and sheets of anti-aircraft flak that just one in four bomber crews completed the 25-mission quota.
Miller never made it to 25. The day of his 12th mission, he awoke with a head cold and was grounded — a cold at 25,000 feet in an un-pressurized plane is extremely dangerous — so his crew flew without him. They never came back.
Miller said he then bounced around for a few more missions as a stand-in engineer, but soon applied for reassignment to an air group in Italy that flew B-24 Liberators. Miller spent the balance of the war as a photographer, taking snapshots of the targets hit by bombers.
On March 26, 1945, Miller's B-24 was shot down during his 18th mission out of Italy, and the crew bailed out near the Austro-Hungarian border in front of the advancing Red Army. He was interned by the Soviets for the rest of the war.
On Thursday, the Aluminum Overcast buzzed above Bethlehem, Allentown and the surrounding townships. The Valley's monuments — PPL and Martin towers, the Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces and verdant farmland — spilled out before the B-17's big windows and glass bubbles, which gave gunners and navigators better visibility.
The first coughs of the huge radial engines blew light smoke into the plane. As the crew revved the engines, every surface in the plane vibrated with the roar. The B-17 was no luxury liner. A bare and lean plane, the B-17 was stripped of everything unessential to flight and self-preservation.
Miller marveled at the sleek exterior of the Aluminum Overcast, which was delivered too late to see action in the war. He recalled how, as the engineer, he was always on his feet during a mission, making sure the plane stayed in the air.
The one compartment he declined to visit on Thursday's flight was the navigator and bombardier's space below the cockpit. Miller said during a mission, the bombardier's seat was exposed and terrifying.
The bombardier sat at the very tip of the plane, a great bubble of plexiglass plates, flanked by machine guns, that gave him a 180-degree view of the countryside. The sight from that seat today is brilliant and sweeping, making the tiny windows on commercial planes forever quaint.
Able to absorb a lot of punishment, and fly with two of its engines knocked out, the B-17 gained great fame. The planes delivered more than 600,000 tons of explosives during the war — nearly half of all the bombs dropped on German targets.
After the war the planes found many uses. LaVerne Gildner of Bethlehem flew on the bombers just after the war. Gildner, a navigator, said he transported money around Europe, and more than once flew with $100,000 worth of various currency strapped to his body. He sat near the tail of the plane Thursday, a look of wonder and amusement on his face.
"I can't say it's heaven," Gildner said of being back on a B-17, "but it's wonderful."
Back on the ground, Miller wondered if he'd ever crew a flying fort again.
"I got one more in," he said, glancing at the idle, gleaming plane. "It might be my last.
"One more time. One more time."