Bombing Run

So I never expected my house to get buzzed by a B-17. Sure, I knew one was in town. My dad and I went to visit it yesterday. I just didn’t know it would be returning the favor.

The Aluminum Overcast is a living remnant of World War II, one of the handful of B-17 bombers still flying. It travels around the country giving tours and rides for most of the year. A flight on the plane costs almost five hundred dollars. A walkthrough costs only ten.

Walk is an optimistic description of how you get through a B-17. It implies a saunter down a long level aisle, perusing the equipment. This is not the case. Just getting into the thing involves climbing up a ladder and crawling around on your hands and knees for a while. Stand up too soon and you will slam your head into the bottom of the cockpit.

Trust me on this.

The ladder is propped up against the nose of the plane, just behind the forward gunner. You climb up a six foot ladder into a space about the size of a traveling dog kennel. If you are the forward gunner, you turn left and crawl into your gunner’s nest. If you are not, you turn right and crawl toward the light. (It should be noted that this particular B-17 has had the turret gunner’s seat removed to make access easier. In real combat conditions, there would be no light to crawl toward.) Be careful not to kneel on a bolt as you make your journey. Your kneecap will hurt for a week.

Once you clear the floor of the cockpit, you can stand and look back into the tiny, tiny space where two grown men were squished together with a bunch of black dials and ominous-looking instruments. Climb up three stairs and stand underneath the turret gunner’s bubble, a brief respite before attempting the bomb bay of death.

Imagine a walkway narrower than the length of your foot. Easy enough to cross if you are facing forward. Now imagine that it is nestled inside some wicked V-shaped struts, the bottom of which are the width of the walkway. If you have hips and shoulders, the only way to pass through is sideways.

Over open bomb bay doors.

No, really. You can see straight through to the ground. Granted, the ground is only four feet down at this point, but chances are if you are headed that way, you’ll be falling face first.

So you slide your foot down the strut leading to the narrow walkway, trying to balance yourself while you carefully retrieve your other foot from two feet higher up, then you start sideways, toes turned out, waddling like Charlie Chaplin. Squeeze through the V-shaped struts (if you are unable to squeeze through the V-shaped struts, you will have to do the exit of shame back through the cockpit.) and tightrope walk to the radio room. From there, you can ease your way around a huge dome-shaped contraption in the floor (the belly gunner’s ball), past the waist gunners on either side of the fuselage and finally to the door that lets you out the tail of the plane.

Easy peasy.

Except for the various bruises you discover later on.

Anyway, that was yesterday. Today I was in my room writing and I heard this deep drone. Obviously an engine of some sort. My dad, who was an airplane mechanic and knows about these things, says “Those are Pratt and Whitney engines. That’s the B-17!”

So we run out in the yard to look and, sure enough, there it goes, about a mile or two away, crossing east to west. Unmistakably a B-17. Big and silver with a bright red tail. The air is full of that deep droning noise and I can’t help thinking how frightening it would be to hear a whole pack of those coming toward you and knowing they were going to drop bombs when they got there. We watch until it turns north and disappears behind the roofs of the other houses. A few minutes later, it is back, a little closer this time, going the other way.

I go into the house, thinking the show is over, but when I look out the bedroom window, there it is again, head-on this time, coming straight toward me. I race outside as the plane goes right over the house, close enough to read the numbers on the side, rattling everything with the vibration of those four huge engines.

Now that was worth the price of admission.


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