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Riding history aboard the B-17

by: SUSAN MATHENY/MADRAS PIONEER - Madras Mayor Melanie Widmer sits at the 'chin turret' in the nose cone of the plane, prior to takeoff.When I heard a 1944 B-17 “Flying Fortress” was coming to the Airshow of the Cascades, I started begging for a media ride.

I’d interviewed some 30 World War II veterans over the years, several of whom had served as B-17 crew members.

On Friday, just as I was telling the sports guy I’d given up on getting aboard, a call came in – “Could a reporter be at the airport in half an hour for a media tour?”

“What?!” I screamed in disbelief, as I ran ecstatically around the office collecting camera equipment. Then I realized I was wearing a floor-length chiffon dress and had no time to change.

I briefly started chickening out. B-17s were really old and probably rickety. “Do you think they’ll issue me a parachute?” I asked. “It probably wouldn’t do you any good, because you won’t be flying high enough,” a co-worker laughed.

On my way out of the office, I grabbed a plastic sack, saying, “I’d better take a barf bag, just in case.”

At the airport, I was shuttled to the massive B-17, along with Madras Mayor Melanie Widmer, who was just as excited as I was. Bulletin reporter Scott Hammers and photographer Leilani Rapaport also arrived for the flight.

The crew included pilot Brent Connor, co-pilot (and plane owner Jack Erickson’s grandson) Mike Oliver, volunteer crew member Nick Snead, and Tillamook Air Museum photographer Lyle Jansma, who acted as our tour guide and safety inspector.

There are only 12 B-17s that still fly in the whole world, Jansma said, noting Erickson acquired this one six weeks ago, and has restored it mechanically, but not yet cosmetically. The Flying Fortress has several machine guns mounted in windowed areas (turrets) which were used for defense when it went on bombing runs.

by: PHOTO BY MELANIE WIDMER - Reporter Susan Matheny in front of the WWII B-17 before takeoff.On a short tour of the plane before takeoff, I saw the stations Madras veterans had talked about. We walked past the tail gunner's post, with a 50-caliber gun, much like one the operated by Madras veteran Howard Conlee during 30 bombing raids on a B-24 in North Africa and Italy, then around the ball turret in which a man and machine gun were sealed up on the bottom of the aircraft.

In the next small compartment, I saw the radioman's and flight engineer’s desks with equipment like that monitored by C-46 radio operator John Kollen in India and China, and flight engineer Bob Lundy during C-24D combat missions at Guadalcanal.

Next, we clung to a thin rope as we walked across the bomb bay on a tiny catwalk the size of a board. The bomb bay doors were open and we could see the pavement below.

“The doors will be shut when we’re in flight,” Jansma reassured us, “But 150 pounds dropping on them will open them,” he added — meaning if a person slipped off the catwalk, they’d fall out of the plane!

The catwalk led to the open pilots’ cabin, similar to the one where veteran Bill Wise piloted B-24 heavy bombers in the South Pacific. There were two backward-facing seats behind the pilots, one for me and the other for the Bulletin photographer. We were shown how to operate the antiquated seatbelts and given earplugs due to the roar of the propeller engines. From then on, all communication was by hand signals, because we couldn’t hear.

As we taxied to the runway, I could see fake bombs mounted on the walls of the bomb bay. The wooden seats rattled and an oily smell permeated the air.

“I’m going up in a B-17!” I quickly texted my husband. “Good yuck,” he texted back, knowing I’m prone to motion sickness.

The pilot turned and gave us a thumbs up and started accelerating. I couldn’t even feel the lift off, it was so smooth. Once in the air, we were allowed to take our seatbelts off to look out the windows and take photos.

Looking out at the large engines and whirling propellers, I was reminded of veteran Tom Crow, an aircraft mechanic, who repaired damaged B-29 Super Flying Fortresses and all other types of aircraft from a base in Guam.

I was enjoying the view from 4,000 feet, when Jansma returned and pointed toward a narrow space under the pilots’ cabin. Obeying, I crawled down the hole in my long dress, and felt a wave of air sickness as we hit a few air bumps.

The hall opened up into the nose of the plane, where the breathtaking “chin turret” is located. I got to sit in the glassed-in nose cone at the very front of the plane, and see the full ground in front, below and on the sides of me. I felt like a soaring eagle.

Somewhere up front is also where navigators were located, like veteran Loren Earnest, who guided a B-29 Superfortress during 20 bombing raids on Japan.

Crawling back, I felt queasy again and was grateful to settle down in my seat. But just then, Jansma returned and motioned me toward the catwalk. He was shifting people around.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. So, I hoisted myself up and tackled the catwalk, trying not to fall out the bomb bay doors.

Pilot Brent Connor, left, and co-pilot Mike Oliver, flew the B-17.He led me to the tail gunner’s position, which had a great view, but after a few minutes I plopped down in the flight engineer’s seat for the rest of the flight.

After a few passes over the airport, we came in for a landing. There was a short screech of tires and smell of burned rubber as the plane touched down.

I exited out the back, while the rest appeared to be jumping down from the pilot’s door.

Luckily, the air show crowd was totally focused on the B-17 and didn’t see me slink away to my car. I made it all the way to the office before my stomach rebelled.

I may have gotten air sick, but it was a small price to pay for the thrilling experience.

Like the many veterans before me, I’d survived a mission in a Flying Fortress.




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