Flight of restored B-17 bomber harks back to days when skies were not so blue
By FREDRICK KUNKLE | The Washington Post | Published: November 11, 2019
MANASSAS, Va. — The World War II-era B-17 bomber had taxied to the end of the runway for takeoff over Northern Virginia when a sudden mechanical problem brought us to a halt.
As the pilot revved for takeoff, one of the four engines on the restored aircraft coughed and backfired. Blue exhaust smoke streamed aft from the propellers.
For about the next 10 minutes, its 10 or so passengers — including this reporter — sat inside a loud, shuddering metal tube, wondering whether the sightseeing flight would be aborted or whether the legendary aircraft could, as advertised, remain airborne in an emergency, even with as few as two engines.
As the cabin grew hazy with exhaust, I couldn't help thinking of a fatal crash involving another restored B-17 bomber, in Connecticut, just three weeks earlier.
But our pilot aborted, and the B-17, dubbed the Aluminum Overcast, taxied us back to the lobby of Manassas Regional Airport in Virginia. Minutes later, crew chief Tim Bourgoine was on a ladder, his arms and tools sunk inside the giant radial engine to fix a bad spark plug — a piffle as far as the average Flying Fortress bomber was concerned.
The downtime offered a chance to reflect on Veterans Day and talk to some of the veteran pilots who flew these planes through conditions that even at best — five miles above the Earth, without oxygen, amid subzero temperatures — were punishing. Many of these pilots were heroic, not to mention wildly lucky, for having flown into combat against Japanese or German forces and lived to tell about it.
The World War II combat missions sent 10-man crews of young Americans against enemy fighters and antiaircraft fire that filled the sky with flak. In the early going of daylight bombing, about a third of those who departed didn't come back.
"If they hadn't given that sacrifice, this would be a much different country. It'd be a much different world," Bourgoine said. He urged us to think about what those flights were like for people such as James Dieffenderfer.
Dieffenderfer — or Jimmie D, as friends knew him in his native West Virginia — answered the call when the Army Air Corps visited Virginia Tech looking for pilots after Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
On his first combat mission, Dieffenderfer flew from Australia to hit a convoy of Japanese ships off Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea. Shrapnel peppered his aircraft, fatally injuring the bombardier and nearly severing the navigator's leg. He saw another B-17 blown out of the sky — memories that are still vivid and still difficult to talk about.
"I had never been shot at before," said Dieffenderfer, 99, of Orlando. He had planned to fly on the restored B-17 until the long delay changed his plans. "Flying was an awful lot of fun — I enjoyed it from the time I first started out — but it sure got a lot of the fun taken out when somebody starts shooting at you. It's amazing we didn't get hit more than we did."
"A shining silver object sailed past over our right wing. I recognized it as a main door," Lt. Col. Beirne Lay, Jr., said, in an account of a B-17 bombing raid by U.S. forces against Schweinfurt, a German city that produced ball bearings for the Third Reich's war machine. "Seconds later, a dark object came hurtling through the formation, barely missing several props. It was a man, clasping his knees to his head, revolving like a diver in a triple somersault. I didn't see his chute open."
Lay's story, recounted 76 years ago in The Washington Post, described intense aerial combat as flak burst around his B-17 and waves of Messerschmitt 109s and Focke-Wulf 190s streaked into the sky to attack; debris, including human bodies, unopened parachutes and chunks of aircraft, blew past in the slipstream. Another B-17 exploded in midair, leaving only its fuel tanks to fall to Earth in balls of fire.
"The sight was fantastic and surpassed fiction," he wrote. "I learned firsthand that a man can resign himself to the certainty of death without becoming panicky."
The Flying Fortress bristled with firepower. There were 13 .50-caliber machine guns, some of them mounted inside goggle-eyed turrets, that could fire from the top, front, sides and tail. The ball turret, bulging from the aircraft's belly, seemed most precarious of all, yet turned out to be the least likely to take a hit. The B-17's armaments were so lethal that some called it a four-engine fighter, and its ability to remain airborne despite taking unimaginable damage became legendary.
The vintage aircraft traveling across the United States today had been delivered to the Army Air Corps too late during the war to see action. It was picked up as military surplus for $750 and used to fly cargo, do aerial mapping and dust for fire ants before it was donated to the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), a nonprofit organization that promotes aviation.
The organization spent 10 years restoring the aircraft, aiming to give veterans and others a chance to fly one of the most celebrated planes of World War II. Aviation fans can book 30-minute flights at $450 for those who aren't EAA members. Veterans and active military members fly free.
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When an officer jokingly asked who in his class at flight school wanted to fly bombers instead of fighter planes, Roland Martin was the only one to raise his hand. Maybe everybody else wanted a taste of the glory and the swagger that came from being a fighter pilot, but his concerns were more practical.
"If one was to become a commercial pilot, he sure wanted to have a multi-engine experience," Martin recalled in a telephone interview. "And bombers are it."
By January 1943, at the age of 19, Martin had earned his wings with the Army Air Corps. His early B-17 missions over Europe had him bombing submarine bases and enemy airfields in France - almost milk runs, as aviators called easy assignments. But the closer the raids came to Germany, the fiercer the fighting.
On Oct. 14, 1943, Martin embarked on a second attempt by U.S. forces to demolish ball-bearing factories in Schweinfurt. Swarms of B-17 bombers went in, flying tight formations to defend one another. Flak filled the sky with oily black clouds as Messerschmitt 109s and Focke-Wulf 190s streaked in from all angles.
"I don't think I ever went out thinking I was going to die," Martin said. "I do know that we — the whole crew — was under a great deal of tension. I felt sorry for my crew because I was the busiest, because I had something to do, and all they could do was hope for the best."
His B-17 took so much fire that he lost power in all four engines. A Junkers 88 fighter bomber moved in for the kill, as Martin — struggling to keep the plane in a glide long enough for his crew to parachute out — now had no choice but a crash landing.
He brought the B-17 down in a field. After setting fire to the aircraft, he and the navigator took off, pursued by dogs and hoping to reach Switzerland. Two weeks later they were captured and sent to a POW camp.
Decades later, Martin returned to the field where he had crashed. He met some of the townspeople, including a 93-year-old German who had seen the crippled aircraft and jumped into a ravine for his own safety. He also met a German who had served on 88 mm antiaircraft batteries during the raid.
"I may have been the one who shot you down," the man said.
Martin put his arm around him.
"You know, you may have been. But whoever it was, they had damn good aim," Martin said.
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At 4:20 p.m., more than four hours later than scheduled, we headed back to the runway for takeoff. Nancy Solomon, whose late husband, William, had piloted B-17s in the Pacific, gripped the edge of her seat as we powered up and rumbled down the runway and then, up, into a flawless blue sky.
The flight was smoother than I would have thought, and louder. Through the waist gunner's large windows we saw the ground falling away as we rose above houses, barns, churches, cultivated fields and patches of forest streaked with early-autumn orange. The man-made objects diminished in size, and the blue dome of the sky appeared to grow larger.
"I love it," Solomon shouted over the engines. "It looks like the ocean out there." She had signed up for the flight in her husband's honor and thought of him as she rode: "I'm doing this for you, Bill, because you are my hero."
Now and then a commercial jetliner flashed in the sunlight overhead. And then we began the descent, for what would be a majestic and uneventful 27-minute ride.
Solomon began to sing "America the Beautiful" over the roar of the engines.