Sunday, June 6, 2010

Memorial Day Rememberance

Memorial Day 2010...
Last weekend presented a unique opportunity to tour a World War Two vintage B-17 bomber, on static (and flying) display at one of the local airports.
Quite an astounding opportunity, considering over 10,000 were built (some 65-75 years ago)- I was told there are around 14 in flyable condition- but only a few are actually flown.

Driving home from work a late afternoon on the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend, I noticed a rather large, rather slow airplane, deviating from the typical flight path of the airline crowd. I pulled over on the shoulder and watched, and it lumbered almost directly overhead: "Look- Up in the Sky- It's a Bird...(no)- It's a plane (well, yes)- it's a B-17 !" Asking around, I found it was the Liberty Belle, on tour. (Nine-month tour, it turns out- becoming a yearly event, since it's $3M restoration).

This particular aircraft was built too-late to participate in hostilities, and was delivered straight to the surplus holding area. "Honest Sam's Used (and Un-Used) Airplanes". Many were purchased for the full tanks of fuel which came with the purchase, and then parted out. This particular one became a test bed for Pratt and Whitney- a turboprop was mounted in the nose, where the plexiglass bombardier's window is on the original. Served as a test bed for 20 years, bought by a museum, stored, hit by tornado, stored, sold- restored ($3M), and has been flying (1,300 hours) since 2004.

While a wonderful static display, opportunity knocked, and plastic credit card answered the door- and for about $12/minute I was touring the countryside, about 1000 AGL, at 140 knots or so. Which, I reckon, almost exactly covered the av-gas bill- my small (REALLY small, in the big scheme of things) and humble contribution and thank you to those who flew in these machines decades ago.

Watching the fine machine taxi in and taxi out, and lumber over, I must say, it seemed rather quiet- sort of like a "squardon" of Harley Davidsons- with mufflers. (The muffler part seems to be increasingly rare, at least at squadron-level strengths). Once inside the beast, the sensations were a bit less...restrained.

Engine start was quite uneventful (the left engines were left running, and the right engines shut down, so pax could use the (right) rear door. The right engines seemed to start quite easily, and the left inboard was a bit smokey. From the 50-year old A&P training material, I vaguely remembered reviewing some regulation about how much oil reserve (gallons, or barrels- I can't remember which- but do remember thinking- "wow, that's a lot of oil") was required for large piston aircraft- I now have a bit more appreciation for that...

Taxi down wind was quite well, stimulating to the olfactory senses- good thing the war is over, or I woulda thought the bad guys were using chemical warefare- the air was thick with fumes of burned, and seemingly unburned, av-gas, plus a good measure of oil smoke thrown in.

At the departure end, a runup was performed- and the noise was- about what I anticipated- deafening, and delightful. The airplane shook some, but did not shudder.

Brake release, and the scenery slides by the open waist gunner station ports (actually, more like 3x4 foot frames) in the aft fuselage, where most of the 10 passengers are sitting on plywood benches, with seat belts. (Two or three were forward at various crew stations- the standard crew was 10- or 11 on some versions I think- here's a nifty interactive crew station diagram for "the real thing", circa WW2. For our "3 hour tour" (well, 30 minutes or so), only the pilot, copilot, and flight engineer were staffed by the aircraft organization- the rest of us were tourists.

The takeoff was so smooth (or the engines vibrations and smells were so strong:) that I literally could not tell when we had lifted off. The big fat tires, which I supposed were capable of rough field landings, no doubt helped.

Once at "cruising" altitude (the actual service ceiling was an an astounding 35K feet, thankfully, we putted around at less than 1/10 th of that), we were free to "move about the cabin"...and anywhere else we wanted to, except the ball turret on the belly. Which, I would have to say, is probably the last place I would ever want to be. The tail gunner's location was second least desirable, from the reactions of my fellow "tourists".

(The waist gunner's stations. Fairly roomy, at least when not wearing artic gear and oxygen apparatus. A family of five was commemorating their father/grandfather's service on a B-17 during the war, mom and dad dug it- the kids seemed a little nonplused- but were good sports about the ride).

It was interesting to see the flight deck- not nearly the mass of instruments and controls I expected.

(Not sure who our crew was- but a real B-24 navigator was invited to the flight deck for the duration of the earlier flight).

I belatedly realized most of the engine instruments would have been at the flight engineer's station...which for some reason didn't catch my attention. What DID catch my attention was the stack of radios- and I DO mean STACK- seemingly 3-4 feet high, a couple banks of them. Wow. I'm sure they must have been non-functional, but realistic of the equipment that would have been carried at the time.

The nose was equiped with a plexiglas bubble for the bombadier to use,
and what seemd to be a real Norden bombsight. I must confess, I was rather taken aback by it's inclusion- I had somehow thought it was still rather "secret"-ish. Guess not, in this world of GPS.

(Some of the reason I thought the Norden device might stil be classified: "Using the Norden, bombardiers could, in theory, drop their bombs within a 100-foot (30 m) circle from an altitude of well over 20,000 feet...".

Part of the reason why it's NOT still classified: "Bombing was computed by assessing the proportion of hits falling within 1,000 ft and 2,000 ft circles about an MPI (mean point of impact). To achieve a perfect strike, a bomber group would have to unload all its bombs within the 1,000 ft circle...Under perfect conditions only 50 percent of American bombs fell within a quarter of a mile of the target, and American flyers estimated that as many as 90 percent of bombs could miss their targets". Hmmm- that's sure to stir up some angst among "many veteran B-17 and B-24 bombardiers swore by the Norden".)

After everyone had clambered around- it really was neat to be able to check out the various crew stations while in-flight; I was a bit surprised just how much room there was- (particularly in the bombardier station- guess in an "operational scenerio" there were several guys down there- the waist gunner stations also seemed roomy, as if a dozen people could have ridden there), it was time to head home.

Landing was almost as smooth as takeoff- gentle sqeak of the mains, and a faint whiff of tire smoke. With the headwind, the engine smells didn't seem to intrude as much- given the thrill of the experience, not a big distraction anyway.

Thanks to everyone who flew and maintains this historical item. And especially to those who flew and maintained the originals , and the generations since with newer equipment.