Friday, August 10, 2007

Adventures in the air: The flight of the B-17 bomber and a rough landing

You'll have to excuse the quality of the photos, which were taken with a cell-phone camera and sometimes include my thumb.

I suppose it wasn’t technically a crash landing. But it was rough and brought the plane to a complete stop at the intersection of two main runways, closing the airport for a little while.

I’m blessed that my job is fun most days, and once in a while we get to do something that leads to an adventure.

One assignment last week was to fly in a World War II-era bomber. The B-17 Flying Fortress was lovingly restored by a group called Experimental Aircraft Association and members take turns bringing it to airports around the country and selling flights into the past.

I was pretty excited because I think old airplanes are pretty neat. And while I’ve been in several at museums, I’ve never been with one up in the air.

This plane, the "Aluminum Overcast," was definitely not built for comfort. Then again, I thought the same thing on my last couple commercial flights, too.

The folks in our party — two World War II veterans, an aviation museum volunteer and some media types — climbed into a hatch that seemed to be two-thirds the size of a typical airplane door.

Inside, it was dark and hot. There were maybe six canvas seats that one of the veterans told me weren’t in the planes during the war. I walked toward the front and settled into a seat that was used by the person who worked the radio.

To get there, I had to climb around what looked like a large ball that was half inside the plane with the other half sticking out the bottom. Back in the day, a machine gunner would crawl through a hatch that looked to be only about a foot wide.

One of the veterans said the gunner would pretty much be in the fetal position in the ball, with his feet working pedals that moved the bubble while his hands worked gun. I couldn’t imagine squeezing in there, much less firing a hot gun while people were shooting back at me.

Once in my seat, I noticed that a hatch overhead was removed. I’ve never been in an unpressurized plane before.

The plane’s four large propeller engines belched smoke and roared as they started up. The crew passed out earplugs, but it wasn’t oppressively loud.

We were allowed to move around once we were up in the air. It was hard to walk. You know the feeling in your belly as a rollercoaster goes down a hill? It felt like that a lot. I went nowhere without holding on something.

You have to walk over the bomb bay to get up to the nose section. It seemed like a 10-foot stretch on a walkway the size of a balance beam, but with the benefit of having rails to cling on to.

One of the crew told us to make sure we held on to cameras and anything else as we crossed, and to not even think about stepping into the bay. Those doors, he said, would open with as little as 100 pounds of pressure and we’d become the first bomb dropped from the plane in decades.

The cockpit area was brighter and roomier than the rest of the plane. There was a glass bubble on top, and the crew member gesture for me to stand on a seat — I presume it was for the navigator — and stick my head into the bubble, where I could get a spectacular 360-degree view of Grand Rapids from 1,000 feet in the air.

The front section was like a split-level house. The pilot and co-pilot had to climb up into their seats, and people going into the front gunner’s posts had to crawl through a space before emerging into another glass bubble that had spots for three gunners.

I took my turn in the lead gunner’s spot as we flew over downtown. The view, of course, was fantastic. But I touched the handles of the gun and wondered what it must have been like to be the soldier in that seat. It felt vulnerable. One of the veterans told me that 94 percent of the damage the planes incurred came from anti-aircraft guns fired from the ground. "There’s no foxhole to dive into when you’re in the air," he said.

At that point we had to turn back. This was the first flight of any kind for one of the other reporters, and he was hurling his lunch into a plastic garbage bag. Several of us contemplated using him to test the bomb bay doors.

I moved to the middle section of the plane and sat in one of the canvas chairs with one of the veterans. We touched down, then heard a rumbling as the plane bounced around a little and started smelling the stench of burning rubber.

The veteran implied that wasn’t supposed to happen, and we came to a quick and complete stop out on the runway, nowhere near a terminal.

The crew members opened the hatch and jumped out to inspect the damage. Apparently the tube inside the tire blew, and pulled the tire off the rim. It could have been dangerous, but the pilot did a great job.

But apparently our little problem was closing the Ford Airport runways. After helping the veterans through the hatch and into a police vehicle to bring them back, the pilot restarted the plan and moved it down — bad tire and all — to a spot further down where it blocked only one of the two runways.

I can only imagine what passengers of departing jets thought as they looked out their windows.

The radio guys hopped in a van sent to retrieve us, but I wanted to see how they changed a tire on a bomber.

The crew member told me they travel with a spare, but that they weigh about 1,000 pounds inflated and on the rim. A procession of a weighed-down pick-up truck and a forklift came out. One of the crew said the tire rolls easily, but they don’t dare lay it on its side or they’d never get it up again.

They started with jack not much bigger than the one in your trunk — though much stronger — and when that didn’t work they towed out a much bigger one that raises the plane from point under the wing.

Curiosity settled and photos taken, we headed back to the terminal in a van as the volunteers worked on the tire.

It was an absolutely amazing day, and gave me yet more appreciation for our servicemen and women who risk everything to protect us.


Tony Hartsfield said...

Wow, another great story, Chip.

The dad of my high school best friend was a "belly gunner" in WW II. I can't imagine how difficult that must have been.

lifl said...

The men and women of the WWII era were truly "the Greatest Generation". The men were citozen soldiers who left jobs,school, and families home and went to fight. Many not coming back. The women were the backbone of industry and the war effort. It is amazing what they did together. We must NOT forget them. I just finished a fantastic book, "D-Day" by Steven Ambrose. He wrote "Band of Brothers", also a fantastic book. D-Day is a long read(about 700 pages) but it was well worth it.

John Murray said...

any landing that you can walk away from...