The 1944 B-17 G catapulted from the gray clouds, eliciting cries of delight from those gathered at the Lima, OH airport. We had been waiting anxiously for a glimpse of the aluminum WW2 warbird, and the cloud cover hid her dramatically for as long as possible. We'd been suffering through exclamations of, "There it is!..oh, wait, buzzard. Never mind," that flitted through the crowd for the past twenty minutes.
Finally; the Sentimental Journey had arrived.
The pilot did a low fly pass, banking over the airport as we all clapped, hooted, and cheered. I had a moment of unease as I heard a woman behind me sniffling, saying, "I don't know why I'm the one crying." I didn't feel right invading her privacy, but I had noticed earlier how she escorted her husband, walking slowly across the grass with the aid of his walker. He looked to be the age of a WW2 vet.
The Sentimental Journey, a beautifully restored traveling museum, is one of 12,731 B-17's built during the war. Roughly ten or so are in flying condition, with only approximately fifty left in existence. Her wing span is 103 feet, and is 74 feet in length. Powered by Wright Cyclone engines, her top speed is 302 mph with a cruising speed of 160 mph. The SJ consumes about 200 gallons per hour and costs around $2,000 an hour to fly. This year marks the 75th anniversary of this legendary plane which served in both the Pacific and European theaters during WW2. The Flying Fortress was perhaps best known for daylight bombing raids over Germany, an extremely dangerous proposition.
Owned by the Commemorative Air Force out of Falcon Field in Mesa Arizona, the crew is an all volunteer staff. I was fortunate enough to meet Sam Korth, Jim Ritchie, Russ Kozimer, Vern Mathern, and Pat Coldwall, who were on this tour. Lima airport manager Ryan Huizinga did a wonderful job hosting the event, with the exception of telling me, "You missed the media flight by a half hour." NOT funny Ryan. Sooo not funny!
As I lovingly drank in the sight of the beautiful bird, my nerd fest was interrupted; one of the crew members approached the fence to talk to us, and noticed the gentleman with the walker. Immediately, the elderly vet proudly proclaimed he flew in the B-17 during the war, flying eleven missions before being shot down, then having been rescued, flew eleven more missions. After being shot down a second time, he became a POW.
As a prisoner of war, Ted Stott, now residing in Lima, Ohio, was forced to march from Frankfort to Nuremburg. While marching, he saw an American plane strafe the line of POWs, thinking they were the enemy. According to Ted, once liberated from the POW camp by Patton's troops, Patton told the prisoners, "get back to work, you're done resting."
Flight crew member for this trip, Russ Kozimer was an active audience for Mr. Stott. He thoughtfully provided lawn chairs for Ted and his wife, Imogeone, and asked if they needed a bottle of water from their cooler. Now, I mention this because as I wandered about, I noticed that all the crew members, when speaking to veterans, always said "thank you for your service." A small gesture? I don't think so. Five simple words that convey much more than most of us can hope to express in a quick meeting of strangers.
After signing our lives away, the media filed into the plane. I began the trip sitting in the radio operator seat. I never wanted to flip switches so badly in my life, but good manners prevented me from fiddling with the radio. Temptation of course eventually won, and I tapped the Morse code lever a few times.
Buckled in, we waited for takeoff. The engines roared monstrously, and as I stared out the window, I noticed the cowling vibrate wildly. In front of me was the bombay catwalk, close enough I could lunge at it and touch the dusty bombs strapped in securely. At 5'3 and 120ish (the things I'll admit for a story) the B-17 catwalk always struck me as mighty thin, even for someone as short as I. Sure, I could run across it if I had to, perhaps not nimbly, but I can't imagine stalking the catwalk in boots and bulky jackets. We weren't, however, allowed to walk over the catwalk while in flight; apparently if we lost our balance and fell, we could fall through the bomb bay doors. Who knew.
While waiting for takeoff, the engines surged, but the brakes were held fast. It rather felt like having a horse beneath you who was fighting, heaving to break free; an extreme amount of power, harnessed for the moment. The plane rocked gently, almost begging to be let go. We taxied a bit and it now reminded me of sitting on the water undulating with gentle waves. I grabbed my pen and wrote a few things in my notebook; spidery writing thanks to the vibrating engines. I quickly pushed the pen and paper aside and craned my neck to see past the two engines, not wanting to miss a moment of the take off. But then the engines slowly wound down; we had to cut the power for a caution light. The crew opened the bomb bay doors and the pungent burning oil smell dissipated quickly.
The problem was a detector that warned of metal fragments in the oil line. A magnet designed to catch metal fragments and stop them from getting into the engine, it's a fairly important piece of equipment that needed to be cleaned. I didn't mind waiting until the part was removed, cleaned, and reattached.
Within about ten minutes or so, we were ready. At sixty-six years old, who doesn't need a little maintenance occasionally? Still strapped in and ready to go, the SJ's engines were fired up again and this time, off we flew. The takeoff was superb and I loved seeing the alfalfa field fall away beneath me. Due to the low ceiling, we were about 900-1000 feet above Lima. During the flight, we were allowed to walk back in the plane, but no matter what, if we lost our balance we were told not to grasp any cables above our head, or we'd be the ones flying the plane. Intriguing.
Once when I lost my balance I blindly reached out and my hand grasped the handle of one of the .50 caliber machine guns. To think I had nothing more to worry about than my camera, while decades ago, men had to worry about flack and German fighters attacking from all angles. I stood there in tennis shoes on a pristine floor, and gunners had to keep their balance wearing heavy jackets and boots, sliding about in empty shells and sometimes, blood. I laid my hand against the side of the plane; so little protection against flack and shells.
After the glorious flight (yes, I'm a nerd, I freely admit that) I hung back to talk to people. Admittedly, that is part of the fun. Someone asked crew member Sam Korth, why do you fly in this old plane? "Because it's too pretty not to," he told us, grinning with delight. The nose art is the iconic photograph of Betty Grable in a blue bathing suit, high heels, back to the camera, smiling over her shoulder. But the bird itself is beautiful, indeed.
The Sentimental Journey came off the assembly line in November of 1944 and wasn't in any WW2 battles. Her many duties included serving in the Phillipines as a mapping plane, a search and rescue plane, a mothership for nuclear testing, and as a firebomber for forest fires. She's appeared in two movies, 1941 and All The Fine Young Men, and has been seen on the History Channel.
On being part of the Commemorative Air Force team, Russ Kozimor enthused, "it's so much fun- we're the dumbest volunteers ever; we pay dues to do this!" He admitted that one of the best aspects of traveling with the SJ is meeting the veterans; all the volunteer hours are worth it to meet them, and hear their stories. It was wonderful to meet people who so obviously loved their jobs and truly appreciated the history and people involved with this plane.
The visit of the B-17, while fun and informative, became much more than a media joy ride; it was a chance to meet and talk to a generation that is fast fading from our ranks. Men and women who left family, friends, and home to sail, fly or march to an uncertain future across hostile territory, perhaps not knowing how much their contributions would effect millions of people generations later. "Thank you for your service" from someone who was born in 1970 seems so… ineffectual? Woefully inadequate?
Seeing the B-17 was emotional for Imogeone, who lived through WW2. She reflected on the past, and mused about the young wives of men overseas right now, knowing what they're currently experiencing. You could tell she was proud of the current batch of military, volunteering for service when it's not necessarily the popular thing do to now. In the 1940's, men fought for their country with a determined vigor and the country was behind them, wholeheartedly. She related how back in the day in her small Montana town, once a month the whole town and band would turn out at the Greyhound station to send the boys off to war in style and appreciation. "Different times," she said with a sad smile.
Russ had offered her husband a ride on the Sentimental Journey for free; a courtesy to veterans. Mr. Stott politely declined. He'd flown enough, he admitted quietly.
Imogeone went out to stand in line to tour the inside of the B-17. We saw her out on the runway, frantically waving a dollar. None of us knew why she was doing it, but we waved back. Turns out, she didn't realize there was a $5 charge to tour the inside, and she didn't have any money with her. The people behind her spotted her the $5. Unfortunately, Imogeone decided it was better if she didn't go in, because of her knees. Her husband though, could tell her all about it.
The Sentimental Journey is a wonderful example of a flying museum; a beautiful piece of lethal machinery that helped secure the fate of millions of people, and a proud memorial to the men who flew her. I can't encourage you enough to see these fabulous warbirds when they come to your area. And take the time to talk to the veterans; interesting stories, my friends. Well worth your time to listen.
For more information on the Sentimental Journey and the Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force, please visit www.azcaf.org or call 480-924-1940.