Wednesday, May 20, 2009

5/20/09 A historical ride

On May 15, one of my least favorite columnists in the San Jose Mercury News ran a story about a 10-year-old boy who is fascinated by flying, and who rode with some rode with WWII veterans on a WWII-era bomber.

The article mentioned that the two WWII bombers are here on the Wings of Freedom Tour historical aircraft tour, and that tours -- and rides -- are available on the old bombers. I couldn't stop thinking about it! Even though a 30-minute ride would cost me my summer wardrobe, I just couldn't pass it up. I reserved an 8:30am ride on the B-17.

I'd read about this plane in My War, a book Dave got me some time ago by Andy Rooney (yes of 60 Minutes fame), as he'd flown on some bombing missions before he moved to a much safer job reporting for The Stars and Stripes. But his book is where I learned about the extensive bomb campaign of Germany, from England, and the heavy losses of bombers. A B-17 carries a crew of 10, so a lot of guys get killed with one plane. I was fascinated to read stories of B-17s that came home despite incredible damage. I read up on the plane, on Wikipedia and various other Web sites, including numerous testimonials from the 457th Bomb Group Association.

So this morning, I arrived at Moffett Field at 7:45, barely able to contain myself. I'm so glad I arrived early, because I got to chat with a man who'd brought three of his friends -- all real WWII veterans -- for a flight, on his dollar (over $1700 of his dollars for all 4 of them). I didn't realize they were vets until one of them mentioned he was, and I was genuinely surprised -- he looked way too young. But he showed me his driver's license: born in 1919. The man was 90! Another veteran was a D-Day survivor, landed at Utah Beach. The third saw combat in Asia, and showed me the dent in his skull where he "left behind a piece of my forehead in Korea."

I was awestruck. What do you say to these amazing people? I had so many questions I was tongue-tied. I didn't even think to ask the obvious: what branch of the service they were in, if they were drafted, when they got out. But they did tell me a little about how they got through it, like ditching most of what they were given for equipment and carrying only the essentials. "90% of combat you're bored stiff," said Kent, the one without a complete forehead. "The other 10%, you're scared shitless." I think meeting them and marvelling that they really were there was more exciting, and poignant, than even flying on a genuine B-17 bomber.

Left to right: Bob (Hawaii and Phillipines, age 90), Bob (D-Day, with a patch on his jacket "Tough Ombres," named by Patton he said), me, and Kent (Korea and China).

Our plane is a B-17G, restored and in great shape. I had no real opportunity to ask the guys running the plane about it, like if it was in combat or not. There are only a handful left flying.

Not a great shot, but this is the entry hatch. "Boarding" means climbing through it.

I'll add that I clearly am not the usual demographic on these rides. Just like when I was riding with the BMW club, I was among the youngest, and the only woman. They all seemed surprised and delighted by this -- even the female reservation-taker asked me on the phone if this was for my husband. I don't know what the fuss is about -- I was far better-suited for crawling around the tight spaces than the guys. This hatch was by far the easiest thing to get in and out of on the plane.

While we were waiting, we kept seeing this blimp fly overhead. Buzzed by a blimp, can you imagine?!

Who knew blimps did touch-n-gos? Here it is on takeoff.

Before getting on the plane, the flight engineer gave us a bunch of instructions. This is a military plane, it has lots of places to bang heads and sharp corners. Don't grab the cables at the top, the pilots need those for steering. Don't lean on the hatches, they're designed for quick-release.

Once in the plane, me and another man were sent up front as we were smallest. My "seat" was a piece of plywood, my seat back was the back of the pilot's seat, and I had an archaic lapbelt. All the equipment was absolutely fascinating. Oh yeah, please don't kick those red levers, they're crucial valves of some sort. Roger!

This was tight for me -- some guy had to ride here for 8 hours at 30,000 feet unpressurized, being shot at? Jesus!

I was nervous and psyched for takeoff, but it turned out to be really easy and smooth. Within a minute, the flight engineer gave us the thumbs-out sign that we could unstrap and climb around to our heart's content.

Here, the "waist" of the plane is the luxury accommodations -- at least they had cushions to sit on.

The bombing bay, with about a 6" wide catwalk and narrow V-shaped columns to pass through. The "old guys" (not my words!) didn't even attempt to get through here, and so never made it to the forward half of the plane.

Kent in (I think) the radioman's area. I can't express how amazing -- spooky even -- it is to see the man and the equipment from a time gone by together in real life. And in color!

Pilots look where they're going to go too! Very cool. No talking to the pilots, please. It'd have been impossible anyway. It's LOUD. I liked hanging out behind them and seeing the engines though.

The best view in the house is in the nose. The entire nose is plexiglass (glass? I'm not sure), and it's under and forward of the pilots. This is the nose from the ground....

...and the nose from inside the plane. It's relatively roomy in there, though you have to climb down a narrow space between the pilots, then crouch through a sort of tunnel to get to it.

But what a view!

Still, I was keenly aware that the original occupants of this little penthouse were in the most vulnerable part of the plane, and that this enjoyment would be seriously tempered by being shot at.

Another awesome feature of this plane -- an open hatch at the top. A sunroof of sorts! I had to climb up a little to stick my head out, providing an incredible sensation. One that was tempered with the additional sensation of being about to be sucked out by the wind, so I didn't stay up long. It's impossible to turn your head forward, the wind is so strong at just 140mph that even it hitting you from behind is only tolerable for a few seconds.

But still, how cool is that. And the ever-present gun too. 5 gunners in a 10-man crew. Not to mention, the bombs. Take that, Luftwaffe! (The flight engineer did take care to tell us that the FAA would frown heavily on live ammunition, so this plane was not armed! I have to assume the bombs were fake or duds.)

It was over too soon, but the thrill will stay with me for a long, long time. The feeling of aliveness and excitement from something so unusual and so raw reminds me so much of when I was motorcycling, like I'm closer to real world or something. (Indeed, there does seem to be a high number of aviation-interested motorcyclists and motorcyle-interested aviators.)

Really, the experience of a lifetime. If this isn't enough to get my scrapbooking stuff out, I don't know what is!



MamaB said...

Wow!! That is so great you decided to take the trip. I can't wait to hear more in person.

Louise said...

Sean says he's really envious of your very cool experience!

My first husband thoroughly beat all interest in airplanes out of me. But I can tell that this was a thrilling day for you and I'm so glad!