By Fred “Crash” Blechman
There I was at 30,000 feet, flat on my back, when all of a sudden… No. That’s not quite right. There I was, strapped down onto the floor of a B-17 bomber when the engines roared and all of a sudden…
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Each year, the Collings Foundation, a nonprofit educational foundation based in Stow, Mass., tours the only flying B-24 Liberator and one of the few remaining flying B-17 Flying Fortresses around the U.S. Starting around January 20 and ending mid-November, the Wings of Freedom Tour visits about 125 airports, staying at each airport for a few days. Walkthroughs of both aircraft are provided for a donation of $8 for adults and $4 for kids. Half-hour rides on either plane are $400.
Thirty-year-old Rob Collings Jr., who pilots the B-24, B-17 and most of the other 10 flyable foundation aircraft points out, “As a mobile museum, more people get the chance to see these aircraft than if they were sitting static in a museum.” It’s estimated that the tour impacts three to four million people each year.
During their Southern California swing, while the B-17 and B-24 were visiting Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport, I made arrangements for a flight on departure day from Burbank to the next stop, Camarillo Airport. Going with me was Gil Rendon, radio-operator veteran of 50 B–24 missions over Europe during World War II, and then many radio instruction flights in B-17s when he returned to the U.S. We had planned to fly on the B-24, which was fully booked, but there was room on the B-17 Flying Fortress.
This B-17G (serial #44-83575) carries the name and nose art of “Nine-0-Nine,” although it isn’t the original aircraft with that designation. It was named in honor of the plane that completed 140 missions, without an abort or the loss of a crewman, during World War II with the 323rd Squadron of the 91st Bomb Group. While the rigors of war never stopped the original “Nine-0-Nine,” she was scrapped after the war along with thousands of other proud aircraft.
Our flight began with a short pre-flight briefing by flight engineer Steve Swift. Joining Gil and me as passengers on this flight was Bob Adams, a newscaster and personality who broadcasts every weekday morning on Ventura’s KVTA 1590 AM radio. Phil Haskell, one of Collings’ do-everything guys, led us aboard the aircraft.
The inside of the B-17 was bare structure—no upholstery of any sort—with green zinc-chromate coating most of the metal bulkheads and stringers, and with occasional black paint or bare metal for some internal supports. As large as the B-17 looked from the outside, the fuselage was relatively small inside. Facing inward along both sides of the fuselage were thin seat and back pads—on the floor!—with seatbelts for each “seat.”
This was strictly Tourist Class! As instructed, Bob and I took seats on opposite sides, staggered so we could stretch our legs out across the inside of the fuselage to the other side. Phil showed us how to operate the seatbelts. Once buckled in, we tightened our seatbelts and waited.
We were under the two fuselage windows on each side that held a single flexible-mounted 50-caliber machine gun and its long gun belt fed, from an ammunition drum. No, they weren’t loaded. In combat, this model of the aptly-named Flying Fortress carried 13 50-caliber Browning machine guns!
Gil took a position familiar to him, by the radio operator’s compartment. Then we waited as the other members of the crew took their positions for flight. Rob Collings Jr. was the pilot in command in the left cockpit seat, with Max Hodges as the copilot.
After loading and stowing the various paraphernalia to be used at the next stop—tables, chairs, items for sale, signs, posters, etc. (this is, after all, a traveling museum)—Steve Swift, Jim Harley, Maudie Clark, and Phil Haskell completed the crew on this flight and took their places on the plane.
Although sunlight was coming in from the waist gunner windows, Bob and I, strapped on the floor, couldn’t see outside. We could look forward toward the cockpit far ahead, and back toward the tail-gunner position (which was not accessible to passengers). Soon the engines cranked to life one by one and it became fairly noisy, even with the engines idling. After a short time, as the engines revved up, we could see the sunlight and shadows move, so we knew we were moving and then turning.
After several minutes during which we were obviously taxiing out to the runway for takeoff, we stopped. Engine power increased, but we didn’t move. “Ah,” I reasoned, “we’re probably near the end of Runway 15 in the run-up area, checking magnetos, oil pressure, and cycling the prop pitch.”
The sunlight and shadows began to move again, stopped, and then the power (and noise!) increased. We were taking off! The plane rumbled as we picked up speed, and in about 20 seconds the rumbling stopped as the B-17 lifted off Runway 15. Unlike some tail-dragger aircraft, the tail didn’t come up prior to leaving the ground; it just flew off the runway in a shallow climb.
Phil came back to tell us we could release our seatbelts and move around inside the plane. I immediately stood up, and had to grab onto the framework for support, since the plane was bouncing a bit in slight turbulence, and banking to the right. Looking out the right waist gunner’s window, we could see the whole east end of the San Fernando Valley sliding under the right wing. There’s the large Robinsons-May building and parking lot at Laurel Plaza where the Hollywood Freeway cuts across Oxnard Street and Laurel Canyon Boulevard.
Climbing to 2,500 feet (following visual flight rules, aircraft on westerly headings fly at even thousands plus 500 feet) and on a true heading of about 280 degrees, we flew over the southern portion of the San Fernando Valley as I moved forward through the fuselage. First I passed around the structure supporting the ball gun turret, which extended down below the fuselage. Next I traversed the very narrow walkway above the bomb bay doors, with two dummy 500-pound bombs hanging in their racks.
As I approached the cockpit, I dropped below into the bombardier’s glass-nosed greenhouse, where I was seated straddling the Norden bombsight. What a view! You could see directly ahead and below, as well as to the sides.
Maudie and Jim were at the small side windows, through which we could clearly see the two engines on each side sticking out from the front of the wing. During the time I had been moving forward through the plane, we had flown a bit north and were now flying almost directly over Victory Boulevard. There floating by was our West Hills Wendy’s at Platt Avenue, where about 40 aviation enthusiasts meet every Monday at 1 p.m. for our “Wings Over Wendy’s” group. This was truly wings over Wendy’s!
Almost immediately we were over the Simi Hills, where the highest elevation, Simi Peak, at 2,403 feet, was north of us. Thousand Oaks, with literally thousands of homes, passed beneath our wings as we approached Camarillo.
I moved back through the fuselage and got a glance out the right waist window just as the city of Camarillo appeared ahead, and the flaps were dropped in preparation for landing. Bob and I buckled up in our “seats” on the floor and waited. I expected to hear a definite drop in power for the landing, but if the power was reduced (it must have been!) it wasn’t noticeable, and the touchdown was so smooth it was only the rumble of the tires, and the settling of the tail that confirmed we had landed after a 20-minute flight from Burbank.
After a few minutes of taxiing, the engines stopped, we unbuckled and deplaned—to find a crowd of over 200 waiting for us! The B-24 had preceded us, and people were already lined up to tour it, and were ready to tour the B-17. Also, both planes were booked for several paying passenger rides before dark.
Gil Rendon, a veteran of 43 years of service in the Air Force, expressed his feelings about the flight.
“I was thrilled to death since I haven’t flown in a B-17 since 1945,” he said. “I only wish the flight was longer!”
The Collings Foundation is supported by tax-deductible contributions of any size from private individuals. For further information and flight schedule, call 978-562-9182 or visit [http://www.collingsfoundation.org/].