B-17 History Lessons

B-17 History Lessons

By Steve Reiss, EAA 1245225

Every Monday since April 1, 2012, I have e-mailed two stories to my four young grandchildren, presently ages 2 to 7.  I call them “Granddad’s Mondays,” and there have been 700 stories so far. I am more than 65 years older than my grandchildren so we’re never going to have heavy adult conversations; these stories are the only way I can pass along important family history, etc.  Following is the story I will send on November 6 about EAA’s B-17 Aluminum Overcast.

Dear Will, Kayla, Ava, and Blake,

Next Saturday is Veterans Day. That’s when we honor those men and women who served in the U.S. military during times of both war and peace. That date marks the anniversary of the end of World War I. Major hostilities were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. I want to dedicate the story that follows to my father and to all of our family members who served in various branches of our military.

In early June, your dad/uncle Adam called to say that the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) was bringing their vintage B-17 Flying Fortress to Springfield, Illinois, in late June for flights by the paying public. He asked if I would like such a flight and offered that he and Heather would then buy a ticket. I quickly said “of course” and mentioned that this could be their combination birthday and Father’s Day gift for me. Little did I know the ticket was almost $500 and that it included a one-year membership in the EAA. I also learned later that the EAA was founded in 1953 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and has 200,000 members in 1,000 chapters worldwide.

EAA’s B-17 is nicknamed Aluminum Overcast. Overcast is a weather term like the sky is overcast with clouds. The aluminum part comes from World War II when 600 to 1,000 B-17 bombers would be in formation over Germany dropping their 8-ton payloads of bombs. So the sky was overcast with aluminum airplanes instead of clouds, hence their name.

Here’s their plane. Flights last about 45 minutes and make a wide circle at 4,000 feet around the airport. They can take up to 11 guests at a time. There are two EAA pilots who volunteer two weeks of their time plus a crew chief who tells the guests what to do and when to move around the airplane when it’s flying. Guests can pretend they’re operating machine guns from top and bottom bubbles, two side bubbles, a tail bubble, and a nose bubble in front of and below the pilots.

Here’s an enlargement of the specifications from the backside of my ticket. Notice the B-17 was designed by Boeing in Seattle and that this particular plane was built by Vega (now Lockheed), which was located in Van Nuys, California. It was delivered to the Army Air Corps on May 18, 1945.

When I saw that date, I got goosebumps on top of goosebumps because I knew my dad had worked for Lockheed in Van Nuys about that time. I had written an earlier story to you four about the three California jobs my dad had after returning home from World War II. I called Adam and asked him to find that story from about 2015 and check the dates. He called back a few minutes later and said it was written on September 23, 2013, and that it contained my dad’s Lockheed paycheck stubs showing he worked in Van Nuys from April 30 to May 25, 1945. He worked only 15 hours per week and was paid $.85 per hour, so he made a total of $51 in a month. I was extremely excited and somewhat emotional knowing I was about to fly in a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber that my dad had helped build. I told Adam there was one seat left on my flight and that I would like to buy him a ticket so we could enjoy this hour together. He politely declined saying he wanted me to enjoy these moments reconnecting with my dad in this radical new adventure. Nevertheless, reciprocating for his thoughtfulness is now major on my bucket list.

Ten of us had a briefing by the crew chief about this plane and our impending flight. We were told these were barebones planes with no insulation for cold or noise. They were not pressurized. So during combat missions over Germany, the crew wore heavy coats, ear protection, and breathed oxygen. Without all three assists, they could not survive more than five minutes at 20,000 feet elevation. Lockheed sold these planes to the government for $58,000.

Aluminum Overcast is one of only 10 presently airworthy Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 48 complete surviving airframes in existence. It never saw combat, and it escaped the fate of many aircraft that were scrapped after World War II. It is owned by EAA and is still touring the United States and Canada offering flight experiences.

Before it began touring, Aluminum Overcast spent more than 10 years being restored by staff and volunteers at EAA. It is painted in the colors of the 398th Bomb Group of World War II, which flew hundreds of missions over Nazi-held territory during the war and commemorates B-17G AAF Serial No. 42-102516, which was shot down over France on its 34th combat mission in 1944.

Will, Kayla, Ava, and Blake, flying in my dad’s B-17 was an incredible and very meaningful experience for me. It will forever be one of the major highlights of my life. I’m totally grateful to my Springfield family for making this flight possible.

All this World War II history was brought closer to home a month ago when I stood on the podium where Adolph Hitler stood in Nuremberg, Germany, when he addressed 100,000 of his troops at Nazi Party rallies from 1933 to 1938. Please continue to pray for world peace. Please thank a veteran next Saturday for his or her service to our country.

Love, Granddad

 

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