Four 1,200-horsepower engines roar to life, rattling the 71-year-old aircraft, one of only a handful of B-17 bombers still able to soar.
Inside, a dozen passengers brace as the 34,000-pound aircraft taxis down the runway at Arlington Municipal Airport, then lifts effortlessly off the tarmac. The passengers crane to see the view out of the windows, peering past 50-caliber guns, on a beautiful fall afternoon in Texas.
The landscape was a lot more grim during World War II, when more than 12,000 B-17 bombers were built, says Tom Peters, past president of the local Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) chapter. Most flew day missions from England to Germany, carrying up to 17,600 pounds of bombs. The 10 men inside, average age 19 years old, would find a spot on the floor or brace against the wall, feel the rattle of the engines and taste a puff of black smoke as the engines began to whirl. The temperature in the non-pressurized cabin mirrored that outside, which could get as low as 30 to 40 degrees below zero, Peters said.
“(At that temperature) if you touch metal, your fingers would stick,” Peters said.
And they weren’t going for a pleasurable ride across a peaceful countryside, these 19-year-olds were dodging gunners on the ground and enemy aircraft to unload bombs on airfields and railroads.
“Five thousand planes were lost in the war and 5,000 were lost in training and transportation,” said Dennis Rasmussen, tour coordinator for the EAA. “It was a major bomber in the European theater, and the main bomber in England.”
The large silver planes are “flying museums,” Rasmussen said. And they are almost extinct. Rasmussen and Peters can count the number that can still fly on two hands, while three more are in museums.
After the war, the B-17s were sold for scrap or for the 1,700 gallons of fuel they carried, some going for as little as $700, Rasmussen said. The Aluminum Overcast the EAA has on display never saw action, due to being delivered in March 1945 as World War II was winding down. The EAA got the plane from a group of doctors, who grew tired of the expense of maintaining and flying it, which can run $4,500 to $5,000 per hour, he said.
The EAA’s Aluminum Overcast with the curvy blond painted on the nose draws attention wherever it goes, Rasmussen said. The planes were featured in 13 feature films, including two called “The Memphis Belle” in 1944 and 1990, and the 1946 film “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture. Actor Clark Gable served as a gunner on a B-17, while Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry was a pilot.
For some people, the plane is a lot more personal.
“Families bring their kids out to show how much their grandfathers sacrificed,” Rasmussen said.
The EAA volunteer crew also hears a lot of stories from veterans.
“I was talking to a veteran and he said they told him they weren’t going to have enough fuel to get back (from a bombing raid),” Rasmussen said. “They were expendable. They would get over water and bail out.”
Riding on the antique aircraft is still an experience.
“When the engines start, you feel every one of them,” Peters said. “There was no sound proofing. The propellers are not synced, so you will hear a ‘wah, wah’ until they get synced. They react to every wave of air, so it bounces around.”
The B-17 has no hydraulics, but is operated by cables, which makes it a hands-on experience to fly, said Lorraine Morris, a United Airlines pilot who volunteers to fly it on her days off.
“On a commercial plane, everything is automated and boosted,” she said. “Everything on here is cable-operated and as they say ‘arm strong.’”
During World War II, the B-17 was the workhorse aircraft. The plane could fly up to 300 mph, carry 15 50-caliber guns and had gun turrets on the top, bottom, sides, nose and tail. At the beginning of the war, the planes were painted, until they discovered that the paint could weigh 350 to 550 pounds. After that, the B-17 was left unpainted so that it could carry more bombs, Peters said.
“At the time, it was the largest bomber in the Army Air Corps,” Peters said. “It and the B-24 carried the most bombs. The way it was designed, unless you hit the pilot and the co-pilot, the plane would come home. There are instances of parts of the tail section missing, they’d have holes in the fuselage, parts of the wing missing and the airplane would continue to fly.”
The EAA uses the Aluminum Overcast and two other antique aircraft to promote the future of aviation, Peters said.
“We’re trying to get kids interested in aviation,” he said. “I bring a B-17 and I get 100 people. Kids get so excited about aviation.”
The EAA uses the fees for flights and tours of the aircraft to pay for maintenance on the plane and for scholarships for aviation camps for kids.
Morris advises people to see the B-17 while they can.
“One of these days somebody is going to decide they’re too rare, put them in a museum and you won’t be able to touch them,” she said. “It’s a piece of history. It’s great to be able to share it.”
EAA’s B-17G Aluminum Overcast bomber will be at Arlington Municipal Airport, 5000 S. Collins St., on Saturday and Sunday. Flights are 10 a.m.-1 p.m. for $435 for EAA members and $475 for non-members. Ground tours will be held from 2-5 p.m. for $10; ages 8 and younger, veterans and military are free; or $20 per family. Go to B17.org or call 800-359-6217 for more information.