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Flying the B-17!

By Reggie Paulk
October 10, 2007

Reggie Paulk offers a lively review of his flight aboard the historic B-17. Restored by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), she is one of only a handful of these classic birds still flying today, and she's coming back next year for more tours. The enthusiast's ultimate experience!

Flying "Aluminum Overcast," the EAA's B-17

Sitting in the sideways-facing sling seat on the starboard rear of the B-17, the anticipation is almost unbearable as passengers talk excitedly about the unfolding adventure. After securely clasping the military-style harness, there's a brief moment to get a sense of the surroundings: olive drab-painted aluminum skin, stringers, Browning machine guns, control cables, plywood floor panels and little else. It has no insulation to give a sense of thickness to the fuselage or to dampen the roar of the four Wright Cyclone engines about to perform their start-up ritual. In fact, nothing's on the airplane that's not necessary for war.

Volunteer Bobby Baumgartner in front of Aluminum Overcast
on Signature Flight Support's ramp at Centennial Airport.
Photo © Reggie Paulk

A glance forward reveals the top of the ball turret and the structural post that suspends it. An awkward catwalk wraps around the turret, and past that is a narrow passageway to radar and radio stations. Further forward, through a narrow slit that is the bomb bay catwalk, are the shoulders of the pilots readying the bird for flight. In the immediate vicinity, Browning machine guns perch through square Plexiglas portals on each side of the aircraft. These are the waist guns.

The B-17's Cyclone engines use avgas, and the familiar smell of it lingers in the air. Knowing the airplane can carry 1,700 gallons of the stuff, it's not difficult to imagine that an engine fire would be terrifying. As the hard reality of what this aircraft is all about begins to sink in, the engines spin to life, barking and belching blue smoke. Now the slightly acrid scent of engine exhaust makes its way in. With all four engines and their combined 36 cylinders idling, the airplane rattles, shakes and shimmies. Nothing happens very fast though, because those big radials have to warm their oil to operating temperature before the airplane can get underway.

Suddenly, a rush of panic sweeps over you. Sitting here in this shuddering beast, it's no longer 2007; it's 1944, and this plane is headed on a bombing mission over Germany. These guns are the only defense against the German Luftwaffe, and the thin skin of the bomber is a stark reminder of its vulnerability. It seems that if you step too hard, you can pierce right through it. It takes a conscious effort to come back to the present and try to remember that this is a pleasure flight.

An increase in noise and shaking reveals that the airplane's about to begin taxiing toward the runway. The airplane moves forward, and then jolts quickly to a squealing stop as the pilots perform a brake check. Once more, the airplane moves forward, and once again, a sudden jerk to a stop to again check brakes. Taxiing in a B-17 isn't a smooth process. This big taildragger requires decisive and judicious use of brake in order to maneuver. The airplane makes its way slowly toward the runway, squeaking and jerking its way there.

Once at the run-up area, the throttles are advanced for systems checks, and the airplane begins to show its true power. The combined 4,800 horsepower from the four engines creates a powerful airflow over the flying surfaces, and the airplane shimmies in a much different way now. Back to idle, and takeoff is moments away.

The airplane moves forward, and for the first time, the realization hits that the cables passing overhead control the tail wheel and flying surfaces. Their small movements are in unison with the twists and turns of the airplane, and it's easy to imagine how a bullet could slice right through them. The airplane turns onto the runway, a cable slides overhead to lock the tail wheel, and the throttles go to full power.

Passengers looking forward towards the ball turret could see
the radio room, bomb bay and cockpit.
Photo © Reggie Paulk

The acceleration at takeoff is unexpected. The B-17 looks ungainly, and it's difficult to imagine how an airplane that looks like the B-17 could accelerate so rapidly, but it does. If the acceleration's unexpected, so too is the noise. Twelve propeller blades spinning at nearly the speed of sound create a cacophony that vibrates to the very soul. The sound beats in the chest and resonates throughout every fiber of the aircraft and crew. Huge goose bumps sprout from the arms. The hair on the back of your neck stands at attention, and chills run down your spine. You're flying on a B-17!

Reggie Paulk Sr. ponders the view from the
port waist gunner's position of the B-17.
Photo © Reggie Paulk

Once airborne, the she climbs fast with a light load of human cargo. The gear comes up, but there is really no noticeable effect on the overall sound of the airplane; it's still a loud beast. No sooner than the gear is raised, we are given the all clear to remove our harnesses and move freely about "cabin."

Standing up, you see out the large waist gunner ports, and the view is spectacular. You can see up and down, and the only thing blocking the view forward is that beautiful wing with two big engine nacelles. Looking aft, the horizontal stabilizer is clearly visible.

Photo © Reggie Paulk

Walking forward, you have to maneuver on an awkward wooden catwalk that goes around the belly turret. From there, it's a tight squeeze through the bomb bay on an even narrower metal catwalk into the radio room. On Aluminum Overcast, the bomb bay has metal railings to prevent a fall through the bay doors, which open all by themselves whenever 80 or more pounds fall onto them. On battle-ready ‘17's, there were no railings. You have to wonder how many hapless airmen fell out of their airplanes.

The radio room sits directly between the wings, and is noticeably quieter than the rest of the airplane. Two small portholes provide a view out the side of the aircraft, but a sliding Plexiglas "sunroof" gives a panoramic view out the back of the airplane. Standing in the radio room looking aft, the top of the rear fuselage and the entire empennage are clearly visible.

This view from Aluminum Overcast's top turret
shows the Denver Tech Center.
Photo © Reggie Paulk

One last squeeze through a narrow door, forward of the radio room, places you directly behind the pilots in the cockpit. Looking straight up, the top turret beckons. Climb up and poke your head into the round Plexiglas top turret, and you are now greeted by a 360-degree view of the top of the airplane. Not only are the wings clearly visible, but forward over the cockpit, and aft toward the empennage. Two guns mounted in the turret provided top cover for the aircraft.

The cockpit would be familiar to anyone who has flown an airplane that is older than 10 years. All of the gauges are the same round "steam gauges" found in older general aviation airplanes today. The one exception is that there are four sets of engine gauges to monitor. The throttles are huge red handles, and the flight controls are all cable-operated. There is no hydraulic assist here; the B-17's flight controls are all powered by armstrong.

Although the cockpit is fun, there is nothing that matches the wow factor of climbing down the short ladder immediately below and to the rear of the pilot's seats, then stooping forward under the pilots to the nose-gunner's position. There is a small chair situated on the very nose of the aircraft, inside another Plexiglas bubble. This is where the nose gunner sat, and the sensation is like sitting out in the open, 2000 feet above the countryside as the scenery unfolds below. It's spectacular!

This was the view from the bombardier's position during flight.
Photo © Reggie Paulk

All too soon, we are given the signal to return to our seats. A quick shuffle aft places us back where we started, and the pilots maneuver the B-17 back into the pattern for landing. The throttles are reduced and the gear comes down with a "Clunk!" A little more noise, and the flaps come down. They produce a slight rumble into the airframe, and really slow the airplane down. The B-17 lumbers down final at a leisurely pace, and she maintains a very level attitude.

Mitch Mischler, 8th Air Force veteran and survivor of 25 missions,
monitors the progress of the B-17, Aluminum Overcast.
Photo © Reggie Paulk

Crossing the threshold, the throttles come back nearly to idle, and the pilots touch down ever so gently in a wheel landing. As speed bleeds off, the nose rises steeply as the tailwheel gently touches the pavement. Exiting the runway, the airplane shakes, squeals and shimmies back to the ramp. Our flight is over, but our memory will last a lifetime.

For many, the B-17 symbolizes the pinnacle of American might during World War II. Grainy black and white film reels showing fleece-clad waist gunners manning their .50 caliber Browning machine guns are all too familiar. So too are images of the final moments of doomed aircraft and crews.

Some people have had the privilege to speak with veterans who crewed the B-17. Their tales of flack and enemy fighters are almost surreal, but it can be difficult for the listener to relive those experiences without the proper perspective. In order to begin to fathom their experience, it's necessary to take a ride on a time machine. Enter Aluminum Overcast.

Robert Ganew, in the radio room,
crewed the ball turret during WWII.
Photo © Reggie Paulk

Casey Clark originally trained in the ball turret during
World War II, but never had to serve in it.
Photo © Reggie Paulk

The Army Air Corps took delivery of Aluminum Overcast in May 1945. She's a B-17G-VE: one of more than 12,000 B-17s built during the war and one of only about 15 examples flying today. Her delivery date meant that she'd never see the ravages of war and is probably a good reason why she remains in service today. After being sold into the civilian market in 1946, she hauled cargo and performed other duties befitting a military surplus aircraft.

In 1978, after more than 30 years of hard labor, a group of people dedicated to preserving the heritage of these beautiful aircraft rescued her. After confronting the daunting financial challenge of maintaining and restoring the old bird, the group donated the airplane to EAA in 1983. After 10 years and countless hours of volunteer effort, Aluminum Overcast returned to her former glory.

Members of the 8th Air Force Historical Society
swap flying stories in the shade of the B-17's wing.
Photo © Reggie Paulk

With restoration complete, EAA decided to send Aluminum Overcast on tour around the nation, to expose people to the heritage that is the B-17. In addition to giving ground tours, a privileged few participate in an actual "mission." This year, as part of what EAA has dubbed the "Keep It Flying" tour, the airplane made a stop at Centennial Airport, from June 15-18. It was one of nearly 60 stops planned for the 2007 season.

Parked in front of the hangar, the B-17 is well hidden. It's nearly impossible to see her without going through the hangar and out on the tarmac. That's a good thing, because the airplane really needs to be admired up close. Stepping from the darkness of the hangar into the blinding noon sun, it takes a while for the eyes to adjust. But as soon as they take in the silvery tones of that majestic bird, the heart flutters.

If you have any connection to WWII, the airplane will grab you in a profound manner. Touching her skin and seeing her proportions in real life gives a sense of what she must have been to the crews that manned her. In her day, she was the biggest airplane many of her crews had ever seen.

The B-17 viewed from directly aft.
Photo © Reggie Paulk

For more information about Aluminum Overcast, visit www.b17.org. For more information about Wings Over the Rockies, visit www.wingsmuseum.org.

Written by
Reggie Paulk

Reggie Paulk is a regular contributor to Airport Journals, and has been featured in EAA Sport Aviation, Light Sport and Ultralight Flying, and Autorotate magazines.

8 User Comments:
Username: UK_Dispatcher [User Info]
Posted 2007-10-18 11:04:25 and read 32768 times.

Gorgeous machine - a credit to everyone involved in restoring and maintaining her.

I would love to be looking out of that radio room during a flight - looks sensational.

Username: Chili [User Info]
Posted 2008-04-30 11:47:13 and read 32768 times.

I would love to try it!

Username: Raptor258 [User Info]
Posted 2008-05-26 13:15:26 and read 32768 times.

I got to fly in the B-17G named "None O Nine" in Boise, Idaho in June 2005. After takeoff you could roam through the aircraft and sit anywhere (but the pilots seats). My best photos were taken from the radio room. The top cover had been removed and you could stick you head and camera out into the wind stream and get great pictures. I would urge anyone who has the chance to fly in a B-17 do so. Yes, costs are really going up with the fuel prices, but it is an experence you will remember all your life.

Username: Danman1 [User Info]
Posted 2008-05-29 14:50:01 and read 32768 times.

awesome! i like this b-17g its a great plane!

Username: Reggiepaulk [User Info]
Posted 2008-06-01 20:42:21 and read 32768 times.

I'll be going up in Aluminum Overcast once again tomorrow, weather and maintenance items permitting. This time, I'm taking my video and audio equipment along for the ride, so keep an eye out for my video, or just Google reggiepaulk b-17.

-Reggie Paulk

Username: Bluedharma [User Info]
Posted 2008-07-17 08:44:56 and read 32768 times.

Great Article!
You really do justice to the flight experience!


Username: Fox9 [User Info]
Posted 2009-06-23 06:56:54 and read 32768 times.

Nicely done! Good writing!

Thanks for sharing and wonderful pictures, too.

She's a gorgeous restoration. I've visited her at several airports around the south and in Texas, but I can only dream about the thrill of actually taking flight aboard her! It was hard enough getting around inside when she was on the ground! I can't imagine men wearing all that flight gear, bulky suits, goggles, harnesses, electrical cords and oxygen masks.

It looks so grand from outside and so humble from inside. Feeling the open ribs, plywood fixtures, exposed control cables over head, and walking the narrow bomb bay bridge to the cockpit. The nose office reminds me of a tree fort when I was a kid - a great view, but so precarious!

This my personal favorite airplane, not just because of the tribute to the American spirit that created it in record time, but because every flight took up 10 men who worked as a team like nothing else. Each covering the other's back, replacing them if needed, much like the way the Navy trains sailors to cover for each other (dual ratings). And, even then, so may ways you could be injured - frost bite, oxygen deprivation, flak, bullets, and in-flight disasters!

No other airplane represents American better, in my opinion!

Username: Jcamilo [User Info]
Posted 2009-09-01 09:27:51 and read 32768 times.

awesome!! really u do the best!

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