Our B-17 Weekend: Time Travel Does Exist

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The B-17 Flying Fortress “Aluminum Overcast” that consumed our weekend. Image: Rick Tate.

The funny thing about time travel, unlike the popular depictions from H.G. Wells to Assassin’s Creed, is it is never really planned.

This happened to my family last week, as we intended to take a “quick look” at a classic B-17 passing through our area, and ended up spending an entire weekend falling down the rabbit hole of history back to the days of World War II.

The plane we set out to see was the B-17 Flying Fortress “Aluminum Overcast.” It made a stop in our area via the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), a Wisconsin-based organization focused on sharing the “spirit of aviation” throughout the country. The organization was founded in 1953 by a group of friends interested in building their own planes, but they now promote several types of antique and contemporary aircraft, including warbirds like the B-17.

As history and airplane enthusiasts, this was a rare treat since, according to the EAA’s “Fact Sheet” we acquired, there are only about a dozen of the 12,732 B-17 bombers made from 1936 to 1945 during World War II by Boeing, Douglas, and Vega (now Lockheed) that are still flying today.

This particular plane was delivered in May of 1945, near the end of World War II, so it didn’t have to endure the battle and damage as other planes of the same model. We figured we would take an hour or so out of our day to go see this plane up close and get some photos, hopefully of the plane in flight.

It was a good thing we didn’t have other plans that weekend.

Our first leg of the journey was Saturday morning, just out to our backyard, as we live only a few miles from local air museum the B-17 was visiting. We heard the low, guttural sound of the engine and emerged from the house just in time to see it impressively fly over our heads at only about 2,000 feet.

We knew we wanted to see this plane “take off,” so we made plans to chase the proverbial white rabbit over to the museum that afternoon, in what turned out to be one of the first big, nasty, eye-wateringly cold winds of the year. This meant all planned flights for the day were moved until the next day. Although we couldn’t afford the more than $400 price for a flight, this still squashed our plans to see the incredible machine take off.

But, hey, the “Ground Tours” were still open, so we paid our tour fee, dragged our cold selves through the winds to the grounded-for-the-day plane, and climbed aboard.

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Despite the cold weather, exploring a Flying Fortress was a treat for our family. Images: Rick Tate

This is when the time travel took effect. The plane was not set up like a “museum piece,” with Plexiglas over the controls and ropes guarding the seats, since it was still a working aircraft. We climbed the ladder and wriggled our way through the slightly claustrophobic entrance beneath the pilot area. My 77-year-old dad had a hard time getting through, but as an Air Force veteran, would not quit until he was on board. Once three generations of family were inside, there were only a couple of other people going through the plane. The cold weather kept many visitors away for the time. This meant we would get more time to sit next to the navigator’s table, shimmy over the thin walking strip in the bomb bay (which was fully armed with dummy bombs), look over weaponry and flight equipment, and strap ourselves into the seats. The volunteer guide was impressed with the speed and precision (with no help) of my 7-year-old figuring out the seat belts.

“Look at her,” he said. “Most kids can only press buttons, and she figured out something most adults who visit can’t do on their own.”

“I want to be an engineer,” she announced with a smile. That was a pretty proud moment, I admit.

From the mid-section where the navigator would be, a burst of dust made the visibility outside the window nonexistent, and the wind was so strong the plane was rattling and shaking. Sitting in the seats, with no “land” in sight, it felt like we were flying through turbulence. This rock and rolling gave us a whole new appreciation of what it must be like to be the ten airmen up there in that craft many years ago.

All in all, my girls made three trips through the plane, climbing and exploring. During this time, a few more visitors came and went, and I heard little snippets of stories from veterans of different conflicts:

…He was MIA for several weeks, and then he was found by some Australians…

…Met his wife in London…

…I’m still not sure what that stuff we were eating over there was…

Then I heard Grandpa tell the girls about being told to check a suspected gas leak on a KB-50 when the pilot forgot he was there and opened the bomb bay doors—in flight. He remembers hiding behind a big gas tank (the refueling plane didn’t have bombs) and being both scared and freezing until they landed. They never knew this.

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We took advantage of the opportunity to explore our nearby air museum to learn more about the B-17’s era. Images: Rick Tate

Since the weather was still cold, we decided to go inside and tour the War Eagles Air Museum where the B-17 was spending the weekend. The museum is primarily dedicated to aircraft, World War II and the Korean Conflict eras, and also has a good-sized car museum. Here they got to see other planes from the era, learn about regional flying aces, explore a link trainer (used in the ’40s to teach the basic instruments of flying from radio navigation to instrument landing systems), and learn about the duties Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) during World War II.

My dad also met a friend from his church wanting to see the B-17, because when she was a young woman she worked on one as a riveter in the civilian workforce. I never realized when I was growing up I knew an actual “Rosie the Riveter.”

We left the museum with a small model of the plane and a new magnet for the already covered refrigerator.

The girls were so taken with the era, we listened to 1940s Big Band on the way home (albeit through modern satellite radio), and after dinner we promised them if they got all ready for bed early, we would watch a movie based on a real B-17, Memphis Belle. Even with creative liberties taken by  Hollywood, they still got to see the duties of each member of the crew, and compared the happenings to what they saw inside and outside the aircraft earlier that day. They were especially curious about how the belly gunner sat in that tiny little space below the plane.

The youngest didn’t make it through, and fell asleep before the one slightly gruesome part I had forgotten about. After the movie, while we were carrying her to bed she woke up just long enough to ask “did they make it home?”

My teen, an Agent Carter fan, loved the movie and the era. She’s now determined that someday she is attending a party in a hangar, and can’t believe Matthew Modine turned into that horrible doctor from Stranger Things.

The next day, my husband was just going to run out and try to get that photo we wanted, but my youngest insisted on going back once more. We all headed back out for what was our original intention of just seeing the plane fly. Evidence of the prior day’s weather included some snow on the mountain ranges in the distance. The temperature was much more pleasant, and the wind was not nearly as bad. The plane was ready to go, as the pilot gave a pre-flight lecture to the passengers. They boarded, the propellers started up, and we watched the plane taxi down the runway and lift off.

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It took a whole weekend to get this photo of this plane in flight, but the family memories we gained were well worth it. Image: Rick Tate

On Sunday afternoon, we finally got to do what we were intending to do early Saturday. That short moment watching that beautiful Flying Fortress take off had taken us an entire weekend to get to, but we weren’t disappointed.

My daughters got to thoroughly explore the interior of a 1945 warbird, hear stories from different generations of veterans, airplane enthusiasts, and civilians of what many call “The Greatest Generation,” learn about women’s part in the history of aviation, and gain a newfound respect for the veterans in their own family.

It also gave them a trip back to a time when, even though a world was at war, the resolve, innovations, and spirit of the individual was still at its best.

All this we discovered just because we wanted to take a picture of an old plane.