By Terry Stephens
Six decades ago, when Foster “Foss” Rodda was a navigator and bombardier aboard a B-17 over Europe, he survived 25 missions and returned home with indelible memories of seeing “fighters shooting at us, anti-aircraft fire below us…bombers blowing up around us and parachutes on fire.”
“It was horrible,” he said.
Now 85, Rodda’s July flight over Seattle, from Paine Field to Boeing Field, on the Collings Foundation’s B-17, “Nine-O-Nine,” was memorable, too, but far less frightening.
“When I went overseas, I was with replacement crews for the 88th Bomb Group in England. When I finished my 25 missions, I realized only 14 percent of our group survived to return home,” he said. “We lost 86 percent of them, so you can see what the attrition rate was.”
He was only 23 at the time and the second oldest crewmember.
“Our pilot, a terrific pilot, was only 20,” he said.
Seeing the B-17 Flying Fortress again was fun for him, he said, but so was hearing it.
“The sound of those four radial engines running on a B-17 is as distinctive as a Harley engine. I can still recognize them anywhere,” Rodda said.
Along with aviation and history enthusiasts across the country who pay $400 for flights on Collings’ B-17 or B-24, “Witchcraft,” veterans such as Rodda, a Seattle resident, are enjoying those same flying opportunities through donations from local businesses to honor the nation’s veterans.
Also, hundreds of people pay $8 “tour” fees to climb through the two planes at each stop on the foundation’s 120-city Wings of Freedom tour, contributing to Collings’ efforts to keep the rare, historic “living history” artifacts flying. Out of the 12,000 Flying Fortresses built, most of them in Seattle, only eight are still flying. The foundation’s B-24, the most produced aircraft of World War II, with 19,000 models, is the world’s only remaining flying model of the famous bomber.
All of those touring and flying contributions, and other donations sent to the nonprofit foundation, cover the maintenance and operation of the aircraft, which includes the $3,000-per-hour flying costs of each plane. The authentically restored bombers are on tour 10 months a year.
“Next year on our Northwest visit, we’re excited about bringing the planes into a new venue, the Future of Flight and Boeing Tour facility that opens in October at Paine Field,” said Ryan Keough, media spokesperson for the Collings Foundation in Stow, Mass.
The 14-minute flight from Everett to Seattle offered views of Puget Sound, downtown skyscrapers and then Seattle’s Space Needle as the B-17 approached Boeing Field. Passengers steadied themselves as they walked along the narrow passageway, past the 50-cal. Browning waist-guns and ammo belts, stepping around the top of the belly gun-turret, then stepping up to the radio operator’s domain on the way to the cockpit.
Crouching low, passengers also slipped into the nose-gunner’s realm, which was shared at times with the bombardier, who also was the navigator until the bomber was over its targeted drop zone.
Taxiing to a parking area in front of The Museum of Flight, the B-17 joined the B-24 that had flown in from Paine Field a few hours earlier. Soon, hundreds more people waiting behind chain-link fences for the plane’s arrival were rushing to line up for their tours.
The Collings Foundation, founded in 1979, was created to promote education through providing hands-on learning experiences for people by restoring historic aircraft and touring the nation to reach as many people as possible. The foundation’s efforts also are designed to honor the veterans who fought in World War II, often giving up their lives to free the world from the Nazi regime.
The two planes continued south into Oregon and California, then headed eastward, scheduled to make stops in Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maryland and Virginia.
For more information, visit [http://www.collingsfoundation.org].