By Frederick A. Johnsen
One silver B-17 rumbled high overhead. Another was angled onto the paved ramp beside a Quonset hut. Nearby, a P-51 Mustang returning from a sortie grumbled and popped to a halt in a long row of fighters. Someone in mechanic’s fatigues with chevrons on his sleeve sat on a bench by the hut. Singer Theresa Eaman finessed a live rendition of “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” No, this was not a scene from England in the spring of 1945, it was AirVenture 2017 in Oshkosh. Some things must be experienced to be fully appreciated. There’s an essence, an expectation of adventure that members of Warbirds of America strive to create for all who come to celebrate aviation here.
Yesterday, the ambience complemented a Warbirds in Review session highlighting the B-17 Flying Fortress. On hand was the Madras Maiden, formerly known on the warbird circuit as Chuckie. Now owned by the Jack Erickson Collection of Madras, Oregon, this B-17 currently tours the country in a collaborative effort with the Liberty Foundation.
As emcee David Hartman asked questions, panelists including pilot Ray Fowler, a lieutenant colonel in the Alabama Air National Guard, described the B-17 and its world. Ray also flies airliners, but he was an experienced warbird pilot even before his Air Force training to fly F-16 jet fighters.
Ray said the decision to name the B-17 Madras Maiden was a tip of the hat to the B-17 training base that flourished there during the war. Since Madras has to be a purposeful destination in central Oregon, the ability to fly this B-17 all over the United States helps get its story out. But that’s not cheap. The B-17 burns 200 gallons of gas an hour while consuming the bomber’s total of nearly 160 gallons of oil at a rate that would shock any automobile owner. “Radial engines are incredibly reliable,” Ray told the audience. “They’re just not efficient.”
Ray was joined in the B-17 session by authors Steve Snyder and Charley Valera. Charley authored My Father’s War: Memories From Our Honored WWII Soldiers, which was inspired by his dad’s service in B-17s. Steve researched and wrote about his father, Howard Snyder, who spent a harrowing seven months in enemy territory after his B-17 was downed over Belgium by a pair of German Fw 190 fighters.
Charley said his father didn’t share much about his World War II experiences, so he wanted to capture the memories and recollections of many veterans in writing. “The day-to-day stuff,” he said. Some of the veterans were emotional in the telling of their experiences. There was an uncertain existence in the skies over Europe. When Charley asked one veteran who had flown with B-24 pilot James Stewart whether he had asked for the actor’s autograph, the veteran replied, “Autograph? We were supposed to die the next day!”
Steve’s journey into his father’s wartime adventure led him to one of the two German pilots who shot his father down. Four trips to Belgium later, he has come to appreciate the times and sacrifices of that generation even more.
Ray Fowler was then asked about flying the B-17, which he likened to a four-engine Piper Cub. But, like any tailwheeled airplane, it’s fussier on the ground than a tricycle-gear aircraft. “These airplanes are doing everything they can to not go straight,” he said. Ray opined that it would be easier to teach someone to fly a tricycle gear F-16 jet fighter than it would a B-17.
Ray modestly downplayed his own overseas sorties in F-16s in action against hostile targets. Smart weapons have made a single F-16 more lethal than a B-17, whose bombardier had to compute a bomb release point, often under the stress of flak and fighters. “Today we don’t miss,” Ray said, because of GPS-guided weapons. “We’re really protected,” he added as he described the comforts of an air-conditioned F-16 cockpit. His remarks underscored the bravery and innovation of WWII bomber crews, and contrasted the world in which they fought.
And just like that, the session was over. To the south, within strolling distance, it wasn’t WWII. It was homebuilts, antiques, how-to classes, air show, and modern marvels. It was AirVenture.