by Ralph Nichols, with photos by Michael Brunk
A light rain fell from the low, gray sky around Puget Sound Monday morning – just as it often did on American bomber crews based in England and Scotland during World War II.
Standing next to Ted Gary of Des Moines outside the Museum of Flight, I said to this B-17 tail gunner – who flew 22 combat bombing missions over Germany in 1945 – that he had probably taken off in weather worse than this many times.
“Yes,” Ted nodded. “Once in a while it was so bad we had to scrub, but we usually got off.”
Then he reached into a pocket and pulled out a few jagged pieces of a dark, heavy metal, the longest maybe two-inches long, and showed them to other combat veterans and media representatives.
It was flak – the lethal shrapnel from explosive German anti-aircraft fire that ripped apart and brought down many bombers on missions over enemy territory.
A short time later, we were sitting side by side inside the B-17 Aluminum Overcast as its four powerful – and loud – Curtiss Wright 9-cylinder radial engines warmed up before takeoff for the first of two flights from Boeing Field.
On board both of Monday’s media flights were veterans of World War II aerial combat over Germany. It was a privilege and honor to fly with them.
The B-Town Blog will tell some of their stories over Memorial Day weekend.
As noise increased during engine warm up and I stared out the window past the port-side 50-caliber machine gun, one haunting thought came to mind.
Turning to Ted, I asked, “When you were waiting for takeoff or during the flight to your target, did you wonder what might happen?”
“Sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes I’d think I won’t get back.”
Now, 67 years after the end of World War II, the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) based in Oshkosh, Wis., which restored this “Flying Fortress,” is taking it on a summer “Salute to Veterans” national tour.
Public ground tours of the B-17 will be available outside the Museum of Flight on East Marginal Way in Tukwila from Thursday, May 24, through Sunday, May 27, from 2 to 5 p.m. daily.
Ground tour rates are $10 per person or $20 per family (adults and children – immediate family members – up to 17).
Tours are free for children under 8 when accompanied by a paying adult – and for all active military and veterans.
Flight rates are $435 for EAA members and $475 for non-members. Pre-booking is available at www.B17.org or by calling 1-800-359-6217.
Monday’s takeoff was smooth as this legendary bomber lifted effortlessly into the air. I could only imagine these planes taking longer to reach air speed – laboring forward with tanks full of aviation gas and carrying up to 6,000 pounds of bombs.
B-17s climbed slowly, taking about 25-30 minutes to reach a cruising altitude of 25,000-30,000 feet, and then could fly far into Germany and occupied countries in Eastern Europe, drop their bombs, and return.
Once into our flight, the engine noise became a reassuring hum that indicated they would carry a Flying Fortress to the target and, as long as it stayed aloft, would get the crew back to their base.
The view from the clear – and exposed – rounded nose below the cockpit, where the bombardier sat, was amazing with its 180-degree view over Lake Washington and the mesmerizing whirl of the propellers to each side.
Then came another reality check: the scene before bombardiers from this perch was blotted by back puffs of flak explosions, which they had to ignore as they focused their bomb sights on final approach to their target for the day.
Belted back in our seats, the touchdown was as smooth as any of us had experienced.
Back on the ground, it was easy to note that, during this impressive if brief experience, we hadn’t flown – as did these veterans – 8 to 10 hours in temperatures as low as -50 to -60 degrees F in the unpressurized B-17s.
And that no one but those who flew these missions can know what it was really like to aim at enemy targets below while, as targets themselves, firing at German fighters – and hoping not to be knocked out of the sky by flack like the metal shards Ted had shown us earlier.
With a normal bomb load of 6,000 pounds and armed with 13 50-calliber machine guns, the B-17 quickly was nicknamed the “Flying Fortress” and flew countless missions over Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II, and also saw extensive combat in the Pacific.
More than any other military aircraft built during World War II, the B-17 became Boeing’s bomber.
In the 1930s, the Seattle-based company was far from the aviation giant it would become with wartime production of bombers and fighters and, two decades later, with its development of passenger jet planes.
When the U.S. Army Air Corps – later the Army Air Force – announced a competition in 1934 to a modern replacement for bi-plane bombers, Boeing largely staked its future on development of the B-17.
It won the contract and the War Department had some early models in Great Britain for use by the Royal Air Force before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor forced the United States into World War II.
B-17s, also in the Pacific by then, were targeted on the ground or during landings by Japanese bombers and fighters on Dec. 7-8, 1941.
Boeing would build some 7,000 B-17s, rolling out 14-16 of the aircraft a day, during peak production – many of them at fabled Plant Two, which was located across East Marginal Way from what today is the Museum of Flight.
In Legend & Legacy: the Story of Boeing and Its People, Robert J. Serling wrote that this was “the most incredible production rate for large aircraft in aviation history. Yet this was a complex, difficult airplane to buildâ€¦.”
Douglas and Lockheed built another 5,000 B-17s under contract with Boeing.
Serling described Plant Two as “enormous for its day” when it was built in 1936. Yet the Boeing 747 “is almost as far from the ground as Plant Two’s roof, and its tail stands 28 feet higher.
But then Plant Two was one of the largest industrial facilities under one roof in the world. It would later become known as one of the West Coast war production facilities covered by camouflage netting painted with streets and cars and houses to fool any Japanese bomber crews who might venture over the mainland.
Fortunately, none ever did.
“According to official records, although B-17s and B-29s [many of which were also built by Boeing at its Renton facility] comprised only 17 percent of the U.S. bombers during the war, they dropped 46 percent of the bombs that destroyed German war production,” Serling noted.
These planes also accounted for “99 percent of those that wreaked havoc on Japan. In the European theater alone, 67 percent of enemy fighters shot down were the victims of Flying Fortress guns.”
Here’s a full set of photos from Monday’s flight by photographer Michael Brunk. You can click the thumbnails below or images in the story above to view them larger.
Great story, Ralph. Excellent pictures, Michael.
And Mr. Gary, thank you for your service.
Classic Ralph Nichols! Ralph and I were in our junior year at high school when we attended journalism and speech classes in 1960. Over the years we see each other and talk over the good old days. I love a good story and Ralph can tell one! See you at the reunion in September.
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