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The Last B-17 Bomber: One Final Mission

Updated on March 27, 2016
Aluminum Overcast carrying out her last mission: flying soon to a city near you!
Aluminum Overcast carrying out her last mission: flying soon to a city near you!

Mission Remember

Now and again American ingenuity builds a machine that transforms into majestic awe. Few machines compare to this four-engine bomber in flight. Today, Boeing’s B-17 Flying Fortress is one of the greatest icons of American Aviation. G.I.’s commonly referred to the plane as the “Flying Fortress.” During World War II the giant bird filled the skies over Nazi territory and the Nazi’s referred to the B-17 as the “flying death.” You may have seen the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! which featured a few B-17’s in scenes depicting the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, or the movie Memphis Belle, a story about the crew of a B-17 bomber.

Today, the planes are becoming a rarity with only 17 known flying B-17’s left in the world. One of the best restored and preserved samples of the plane which helped liberate millions of European’s is the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) “Aluminum Overcast.”

This B-17 is still flying and has one final mission: keeping B-17 history alive. Every year, EAA rolls out the craft to treat America to a national tour; flying to over 60 cities allowing people to see, touch and even ride in the B17. Since the tours began in 1994, tens of thousands of people have experienced this unique war bird through its visits and grounded tours. Many have actually flown in the unique bomber. (Of course, when it came to my city, it had mechanical problems. While the ground tour was still open, all passenger flights were cancelled. This is in no way a swipe at EEA, it’s a seething acknowledgement of what I call, “Harlan’s Luck.”)

EAA’s yearly national tour… “has become America’s most popular way to learn about this unique aircraft in an up-close way,” says EAA’s President, Tom Poberezny. “EAA is dedicated to preserving aviations magnificent heritage and our B-17 tours are a big part of that. We also take great pride in saluting our nations veteran’s on our tours.”

When Aluminum Overcast is on tour people can actually take a trip back in time and feel the might of a roaring B-17 through the flight experience program. Flight’s generally cost around $350 per-person (when they came to my area anyway). While the price may sound a bit expensive, when you add up the cost of buzzing this old American Hero across 60 cities, it is clear EAA is not getting rich on the deal. One must also consider, it is not an everyday experience, for most people it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Those too young to have lived or even remember World War II can appreciate the history associated with this airplane. Certainly, the Aluminum Overcast has it’s own special history too. This particular plane was one of the very last B-17’s built. It was delivered to the Army Air Corps on May 18th, 1945 too late to see active service in the war. After the war, it was sold as surplus for a mere $750 dollars to a private individual who used it for mapping and spraying services. In 1978, it was purchased by a group of investors who wished to restore and preserve the heritage of the magnificent B-17. The group, “B-17’s Around the World” was headed by Dr. Bill Harrison. Their goal was to return the B-17 to its former glory and thus donate it to the EAA’s Aviation Foundation with the provision of it being maintained in airworthy condition.

Since that time, an extensive restoration and preservation program was undertaken to ensure the Aluminum Overcast would be a living reminder of World War II aviation for many years to come. Most of the original military equipment had been removed. Over the years, every item had been located, carefully restored and returned to the plane in its original factory position. Some of these items include: the Norden bombsight in the nose, the navigator’s position, also on the nose, installation of the waist guns located on each side of the aircraft, restoring the communication equipment and radio compartment, restoring the plane’s floor to original specs, installation of a complete original tail turret assembly, and restoration of the top turret behind the pilot’s seats. Restoration took more than 10 years and thousands of hours by dedicated staff and volunteers at EAA’s Oshkosh, Wisconsin headquaters.

Aluminum Overcast proudly carries the paint scheme and colors of the 398th Bomb Group which flew hundreds of missions over Nazi-held territory during the war. The plane was restored to commemorate bomber B-17G #42-102515 which was shot down on its 34th mission over Le Manior, France on August 13, 1944. Veterans of the 398th helped finance the bomber’s restoration.

EAA’s national tours have created many emotional reunions for veterans who participated in B-17 operations. Though more than five decades have passed since their wartime experience, the out pouring of emotion and memories have created a unique link through these veterans. They often share their stories, recall and honor their long ago comrades during B-17 visits to their communities.

For more information regarding flights and tours visit Special pre-book rates on flights are available for EAA members. Non-member and group rates are available for ground tours for schools and other large groups. The plane’s crew is available at each stop to answer questions, (and probably to keep unruly kids from breaking something extremely valuable).

The B17 is an important part of both U.S. and aviation history. “The Flying Fortress” was one of the primary planes that helped achieve victory in World War II. It can help us understand the technology of the times, the era in which the aircraft was developed and human sacrifices which make today’s freedoms possible. If you ever get the chance to go see this aircraft, load up the kids: your kids, your sibling’s kids, the neighbor’s kids, etc., and treat everyone to a very unique, once in a lifetime experience.

- Harlan Colt


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    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 3 years ago

      Thank you, great article love the inside the aircraft pictures. My son and I saw Aluminum Overcast when it came to Manassas last year.

    • Harlan Colt profile image

      Harlan Colt 7 years ago from the Rocky Mountains

      I really enjoyed your comments Nancy. Thank you. And thank you to your father for his service to our freedom. I would like to think that many people of that generation never talked about the war because to them - after the fact - it was nothing worth mentioning. How noble, to risk your life for your countrymen, and consider it nothing more than your patriotic duty and nothing to brag about. People with that level of character and humility are they whom I admire most. God Bless.

      - Harlan

    • profile image

      NAncy 7 years ago

      My Dad was a B-17 co pilot during world war II. He was part of Hamm's crew.

      There is a book out(not sure how long ago it was printed) called Hamm's Crew. It gives an interesting account of what Hamm's crew went through during the harrowing experiences of World War II.

      My Dad died leaving to me no memories of his experiences in the war. He just never brout up the subject.

      This book gives me fascinating information regarding this magnificent crew he was part of.

      My Dad's name was Pat McEwen.

      For World War II enthusiasts I highly recommend that you read this book.

    • Harlan Colt profile image

      Harlan Colt 7 years ago from the Rocky Mountains

      Thanks Daryl,

      I will check out your blog. I always get a little choked up when it comes to veteran memorabilia. Kinda makes ya swallow hard, but it gives you a sense of importance and national pride. I guess I am a softy that way, I even get choked up when I see veteran headstones.

      Thanks Again,

      - Harlan

    • daryl2007 profile image

      daryl2007 7 years ago

      wow...i am an avid fan of b-17 and i adored so much the Memphis Belle! Wonderful story you got there..

    • Harlan Colt profile image

      Harlan Colt 8 years ago from the Rocky Mountains

      Thanks Saddlerider,

      I enjoyed seeing the plane myself. I actually wrote the story last year. When I discovered it was on my laptop... ie., "oh look this is still on here..." I decided to make it a hub. I have been reading your hubs and trying to "fan-up" but I don't see the link on my website. It must be this slow internet out here. I will be home in a few days and figure it out on my super computer ( well compared to this laptop anyway).

      - Thanks

      - Harlan

    • saddlerider1 profile image

      saddlerider1 8 years ago

      What a wonderful documentary of this magnificent B-17 Thank goodness we had that fantastic machine on our side during the second world war. It certainly was a master of the skies at that period of time. I loved the art work depicted on the side of the plane. It's a pity we have so few of them left, but at least this one is there to enjoy. Great post.