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The Last B-17 Bomber: One Final Mission
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 www.b17.org. 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