Saturday, May 21, 2011

5/21/2011 B-24 flight

I flew on another WWII bomber plane today! The Collings Foundation is here for a week on their annual Wings of Freedom tour. The past two years, I've flown on their restored B-17. This year, it was time to try the B-24 Liberator.

This plane is pretty funky-looking. It's larger than the B-17, has a broader wingspan, and a big fat tall belly. This particular B-24 Liberator, named Witchcraft, is painted a dark color, making it look like something of an ominous apparition in the air.

Plus the nifty tail fins.

I "volunteered" to be up front on the flight deck for takeoff, which means sitting right behind the pilots. My seat was a tiny swivel chair, as opposed to a piece of plywood on the ground. But that meant I got one of the headsets and could hear the pilots talking to each other and to the control tower during takeoff.

I was amused that the few questions or confusions the pilots had ("is that on button number one or two?") had to do with this modern navigation system installed on the plane.

I was less amused by their discussion of what to do in case they had to abort after takeoff, but I felt better hearing that this runway is so long that it wouldn't be a problem. Yikes!

We wouldn't be needing this today.

Takeoff was by far the smoothest takeoff I've ever experienced on a plane. In fact, I didn't even know we were airborne, so I stopped the video early thinking I'd re-start when we were closer to taking off. Then I looked out the window and realized we were flying!

Like with the B-17, this is a military aircraft and a vintage one at that. Everything is out to see, there are sharp edges and things to bang your head on all over the place, many places open to the outside, and lots of doors and hatches that are designed for quick-release.

And getting from point A to point B involves some hands-and-knees action. I wasted no time going to the nose of the plane, which involves climbing down and crawling through the belly of the plane.

The nose was incredible. It's really small, but your head is surrounded by plexiglass and you can see on all sides, below and above tou. The noise, the wind rushing around, and the panoramic view make it almost feel like you're not in a plane at all -- just out there.

There's also a plexiglass view at the bottom part of the nose.

This is what I mean by "nose" -- the top area that's surrounded by plexiglass, where a gunner would sit; but at the bottom of the nose there's more plexiglass to see down (in an upside-down teardrop shape) -- that's the view in the previous photo.

There's also a curious little portal looking straight down.

It's remarkable looking out the window and seeing these old props keeping us in the air.

Getting to the back of the plane meant walking a catwalk to cross the bomb bay. This catwalk is wider and quite roomy compared to the B-17, but it's much longer, about 20 feet. The bomb bay doors below are meant for wind protection and quick-release -- not to hold someone who stumbles. I tried to imagine walking across the catwalk with the bomb bay doors open -- that'd be a trip.

This is what this same catwalk looks like with the bomb bay doors open (on the ground) -- but they used to fly it this way too. What else are you going to do when it's time to blow away German munitions factories?

The side windows were completely open, making it easy to take shots at imaginary Japanese Zeros. I was surprised how hard it was to move the gun around in the wind.

This small side window had plexiglass, so was easier to look out without being blown around. You could see and track the shadow of the plane from there.

(Shadow at bottom center.)

The tail was also remarkable. These spots are intended for a person of apparently about my size to slide their legs down into a pretty small space and sit on a small piece of wood (perhaps added by the Collings Foundation restorers, as were the "seatbelts") and shoot at the enemy. Another panoramic view, with the interesting sensation of following the plane.

When it came time to land, everyone took the nearest spot, but there was one person left over (musical chairs!). Being among the more agile (and younger and smaller) of passengers, I volunteered to scoot quickly to the front of the plane, and zoomed around the ball turret and across the bomb bay catwalk and up to the flight deck -- only to find that it already had 3 people.

The flight engineer motioned for me to sit below the flight deck, in the belly part of the plane that you have to crawl through to get to the nose.

Uh, really? Is this allowed? With the landing gear down, the space around the nose wheel was completely open, and the wind was REALLY strong. I could barely breathe in the wind. The flight engineer offered to move me up to the flight deck where it was more protected, even if there were 3 guys there already. No way, I wasn't missing this, breathing or not!

This was a really amazing, terrifying and thrilling experience all at the same time. It was SO loud and windy. Worse, or better, I could see all around the wheel, so I could see the ground getting closer and closer. I couldn't take my eyes off the runway as we approached it, and had the closest sensation possible to what it must be like just before a crash. The wind got much stronger just before touching down, and seeing the runway rush up at us from my spot about 3 feet off the ground was pretty shocking. Despite the intensity of hearing, feeling and seeing the landing so up close, the landing was really really smooth.

The landing from my stowaway vantage point behind the nose wheel was really exciting and amazing and I'm so happy I got to experience that!

Where I sat for the landing (though facing away). The red flag on my left points down to the nose wheel, and it's all open around it.

The landing. The video doesn't show much, but the white spots are where everything is open. I'm still not sure what was freakier: the wind or being able to see the ground rushing up (which unfortunately the video doesn't show). Touchdown is right at the end of this, but you really can't tell.

Taxiing after landing, a not-great panorama, but here's the view of where I was.

I took the kids to walk the planes the next day. Gabriel demonstrates about where I sat for the landing, just behind him.

In front of the Liberator. I actually think this one was more fun to fly in than the B-17, though I wouldn't trade my B-17 experiences for anything. I have great respect for the B-17's hardy reputation, and I'm always about function over form.

From everything I've read about the B-24, including the best-seller "Unbroken" which I'm halfway through, it wasn't the airmens' favorite because it wasn't as robust as the B-17. The B-24 flew faster and smoother and carried a heavier payload, but the B-17s were known for getting guys home on just one engine or practically blown apart and for doing better in water landings. The B-24 had a very different feel to it than the rougher, smaller B-17, but I take the reports to heart that if you really were under fire from anti-aircraft flak or enemy fighters, or were about to make a crash water landing, you really were better off in the B-17.

Regardless of which WWII-era vintage aircraft you're riding in, it's unimaginable that guys would be up in these planes for hours at a time, with oxygen masks, being shot at. My comfy half-hour on the plane gives barely a teensy inkling of what that must have been like, and makes what I read all just a little bit imaginable.

A joy ride in history!


1 comment:

Stephanie said...

Wow! How awesome. What a thrilling landing you got to experience!