A series of squeals emitted from under the wings as the brakes were pumped. The gentle giant was making her way from the tarmac in front of the Flying Heritage Collection’s hangar at Paine Field in Everett. Satisfied the brakes would hold, the pilot gently eased the throttles forward until each of the four Wright Cyclone radial engines roared. Seconds became minutes as the 36,000-pound workhorse pulled against the set brakes, eager to surge ahead on its mission.
Finally, the brakes were released and the Flying Fortress accelerated north on the runway, more than 100 feet of silver wingspan eventually easing the vintage bomber aloft. Thus began our truly “sentimental journey” in the skies over the Puget Sound.
The morning had started with a briefing for those of us who would be taking the flight. Some in the group were the children of World War II veterans or “third gens” like myself whose grandfather flew during the war. Others were aviation enthusiasts who wanted to experience first-hand flying in a B-17.
We had boarded through the rear door on the right side of the fuselage, and I found myself in the radio room. Two others also were seated in the small compartment, just aft of the bomb bay and forward of the ball turret. A pair of small oval windows allowed me to see the tree line racing by as we took off. Sunlight lit the compartment through the large roof window overhead.
Exposed control lines running along the curved walls creaked and moaned as they strained to relay the pilot’s instructions to the control surfaces in back. Through the larger opening I could easily see the massive tail that bears the bold blue stripe and “Triangle U” markings of the 457th BG.
Behind us, more passengers were secured in the waist of the plane.
Once we leveled off, we were allowed to unbuckle and move about the rear portion of the vintage bomber as it lumbered smoothly through the clear skies.
Plexi coverings on the windows kept the icy blast of 200-mph wind outside from slicing its way through the interior, a luxury not available to the crews who manned the waist gunner positions when the earlier model B-17s first arrived in Europe more than 70 years ago.
My grandfather, who was the flight engineer and top-turret gunner on the B-17 Ol’ Scrapiron, flew 30 missions with the 447th BG based at Rattlesden, England. The brave crews manning B-17s at that time battled long hours in sub-freezing temperatures in the thin air while warding off Luftwaffe fighters at 35,000 feet over France and Germany.
Moving to the staggered waist positions on Sentimental Journey, I could only imaging the close quarters that faced the two gunners on earlier Fortresses such as Ol’ Scrapiron where the two positions were opposite each other. Only the tight formations would keep fighters from striking from both sides of the plane simultaneously. Most of the time.
The drone of the engines provided a somewhat soothing hum to the flight as vibrations from the four 1200-hp engines surged through the plane.
Our flight was filled with views of pleasure craft on the glassy surface of the Saratoga Passage and Admiralty Inlet. The Camano and Whidbey islands were much more peaceful on our flight than missions to Bremen and Berlin would have been for my grandfather in summer 1944.
As we landed safely at Paine Field, passing rows of Boeing passenger planes awaiting delivery, I was reminded of images of freshly completed B-17s at the Boeing facility a few miles to the south.
The shiny bombers helped forge peace in a war-torn Europe, but it was the gallant bomber crews of the 8th Air Force and thefighter pilots flying the “little friends” who wrested control of the skies from the Luftwaffe and paved the way for the Allies invasion on D-Day and onward to Berlin.
As the number of WWII veterans grows smaller, it’s important we don’t forget the freedoms we enjoy as a result of their efforts—on land, in the air, at sea or on the homefront.
A visit to any local air museums can be an enriching experience, but a flight aboard a graceful vintage warbird such as Sentimental Journey certainly will put your head in the clouds.
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