Warbirds – Amazing Pilots of the Past – Ghosts in the Machine – B17
People say that we never appreciate what we have until we lose them, but a reverse is also true: we don’t know how primitive things are until we look back at them from a future with evolutionary changes. An iPad that contains all the charts, POH, nav logs, CF/D data, and other materials that a pilot needs to have available to him is an evolutionary change in the way pilots go through their career, from student to professional. Smartphones had this effect on our daily lives by eliminating Thomas Brothers map books and the ability to truly get lost in a city. Drop me in any first world country with my iPhone and a data plan or wifi and I’ll be able to navigate, learn the local language, find things to see and do, and basically live like a local. Flying large airplanes has also evolved, including in some very rudimentary ways. A brief visit to the Palm Springs Air Museum at the Palm Springs Airport (KPSP) and a walk through the ‘Miss Angela’ B-17 on display there brought this fact home.
Visitors to the museum are encouraged to take a walking (crawling!) tour inside Miss Angela (no pun intended), and there are several details that really stand out to other pilots – details that make the accomplishments of the young men flying these planes into combat, and into 40% attrition rates from flak alone, even more amazing. First – the lack of comfort of any kind. Flying above 30,000 feet in an uninsulated and unpressurized tin can alone is an accomplishment, doing so for hours at a time and into deadly combat takes that up a notch. Second – the controls. The flight deck (see photo above) is spartan, and the yokes are linked directly to the control surfaces via cables. Yes – no hydraulics or mechanical assistance of any kind! This is an amazing fact when you physically trace the dozens of feet of steel cable that runs along the length of the fuselage, through the bulkheads, and to all the control surfaces. Then you wander outside and see the HUGE size of the ailerons, rudder, and elevators, and wonder further about just how you could move those monsters around with cables. Obviously this WAS done, but the efforts required must have been herculean. And a bunch of 19-20 year olds flew these things into combat, and many never came back. That’s what attracts people to the warbirds – its not just history, its a relic that takes us back to the days of old in a way that no photo, video, or even first-hand account can do…
A Little Background on the B17 Flying Fortress
From WikiPedia: “The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress is a four-engine heavy bomber developed in the 1930s for the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC). Competing against Douglas and Martin for a contract to build 200 bombers, the Boeing entry outperformed both competitors and exceeded the air corps’ performance specifications. Although Boeing lost the contract because the prototype crashed, the air corps was so impressed with Boeing’s design that it ordered 13 more B-17s for further evaluation. From its introduction in 1938, the B-17 Flying Fortress evolved through numerous design advances.
The B-17 was primarily employed by the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) in the daylight precision strategic bombing campaign of World War II against German industrial and military targets. The United States Eighth Air Force, based at many airfields in central and southern England, and the Fifteenth Air Force, based in Italy, complemented the RAF Bomber Command’s nighttime area bombing in the Combined Bomber Offensive to help secure air superiority over the cities, factories and battlefields of Western Europe in preparation for the invasion of France in 1944. The B-17 also participated to a lesser extent in the War in the Pacific, early in World War II, where it conducted raids against Japanese shipping and airfields.
From its prewar inception, the USAAC (by June of 1941, the USAAF) promoted the aircraft as a strategic weapon; it was a fast, high-flying, long-range bomber that was able to defend itself, carried a very good bomb load and was able to return home despite extensive battle damage. Its reputation quickly took on mythic proportions, and widely circulated stories and photos of notable numbers and examples of B-17s surviving battle damage increased its iconic status. With a service ceiling greater than any of its Allied contemporaries, the B-17 established itself as an effective weapons system, dropping more bombs than any other U.S. aircraft in World War II. Of the 1.5 million tonnes of bombs dropped on Germany and its occupied territories by U.S. aircraft, 640,000 tonnes were dropped from B-17s. In addition to its role as a bomber, the B-17 was also employed as a transport, antisubmarine warfare platform, drone controller, and search-and-rescue aircraft.
As of May 2015, ten aircraft remain airworthy. None of them are combat veterans. Additionally, a few dozen more are in storage or on static display. The oldest is a D-series combat veteran with service in the Pacific and the Caribbean.”
And Now, Back to the Present!
There are several B17s restored and currently in airworthy shape around the country. Miss Angela, a B17G, is one such plane, but I came across some other excellent examples on-line. Here is a flight by another B17G with cockpit view, ATC audio, and excellent exterior shots:
Here is another flying B17, this one owned and operated by the EAA: