A Sentimental Journey: On Board a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
Article and Photos by Barry Griffiths
In the 1930s, Boeing designed and built a four-engine high-flying, long-range bomber for the USAAC (later USAAF) that was to become an icon of American power and one of the most significant weapons of World War II. This was the B-17, dubbed the Flying Fortress because of its defensive fire-power, and destined to emerge as the primary bomber of the US 8th Air Force in WW II.
Throughout the war, combat experience showed Boeing where refinements and design changes could be made to increase the B-17s effectiveness in bombing strategic targets in daylight precision raids. This process culminated in the B-17G variant, the final version of the Flying Fortress, which incorporated all the changes that had been made to its predecessors. Although a total of 8,680 B-17G aircraft were built up to 1945, only a precious few survivors are still airworthy as well as a number on static display in aviation museum collections.
One of the survivors is “Sentimental Journey”, a seventy year-old Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress in mint condition and the pride of the Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) in Mesa, AZ. This historic aircraft rolled off the Douglas assembly line in late 1944, was accepted by the U.S. Army Air Force on March 13, 1945, and has been flown continuously ever since. Although built too late to participate in the European air campaign, its checkered history includes performing missions from military reconnaissance to drone “mother ship” during nuclear testing, as well as firefighting. After being retired in 1978, it was donated to the Arizona Wing (CAF) where it was restored to full military specifications and ever since has been touring North America.
I met up with “Sentimental Journey” again, after having photographed it numerous times in Arizona, as it made its summer swing into the northeast by stopping at Waterloo Regional International Airport, Ontario, Canada to provide cockpit tours and public flights for enthusiasts in this area.
My flight of a lifetime began on the hot ramp at the Waterloo Air Show under the huge wings and engines of “Sentimental Journey” where we received a short briefing by Shelley Bolke, the Loadmaster, and an introduction to our pilot for the flight, Peter Scholl.
The nose artwork of the most famous pin-up girl of WW II, Betty Grable, welcomed me, as I climbed up the ladder, through the small hatch to the Navigator/Bombardier compartment in the nose of the aircraft. To get there, I crawled over steps, ledges and oxygen canisters on my hands and knees to take my assigned seat in the bombardier`s position. And what a seat it was for its bubble-style plexiglass nose provided its occupant with limitless forward and lateral panoramic views at all stages of the flight.
As the in-board starboard engine burst into life, I looked around the compartment and took stock of my confined surroundings. There were the two .50 caliber Browning machine guns, called cheek guns, connected to ammo magazines by snake-like belts running across the floor just behind my head and, to my rear the navigator`s instruments and table. The tachometric Norden bombsite, which allowed for unprecedented accuracy in day bombing from high altitudes, was directly in front of me, and the remote-controlled chin turret with its twin Browning .50 caliber guns was immediately below my feet.
Then, with all four powerful Wright Cyclone R1820-97 radial engines rumbling evenly, we taxied towards the active runway, completed the run-up and cockpit checks, and rolled onto the runway. During “Sentimental Journey`s” climb to cruising altitude, I couldn`t help but think that, prior to 1944, the B-17 crew members of this superb aircraft setting out on their first bombing mission to a German industrial target city, would be well-aware that they had only one chance in four of completing their twenty-five mission tour of duty. What terrible odds …. such bravery!
The B-17 Flying Fortress served in almost every theater of World War II, but it was used mostly by the US 8th Air Force, based all over southern England, to bomb German targets. The B-17`s first missions of the war in Europe were flown in daylight hours in an effort to improve bombing accuracy, but this strategy and a lack of adequate fighter coverage resulted in very heavy losses of aircraft and crew. It is fitting that “Sentimental Journey” displays the markings of the 457th Bomb Group as a remembrance to the B-17`s huge role in the European air war theatre,.
When the P-51 Mustang, with its British-designed Rolls-Royce Merlin engine arrived on the war scene in late 1943, it was able to escort the US 8th Air Force bombers all the way to Germany and back. This had an immediate effect on the air campaign and was the beginning of the Allied dominance of the skies over Germany, and reduced the losses of the Flying Fortresses enormously.
As we were starting our descent into the Waterloo Airport, I realized what a tremendous privilege it is to have the opportunity to fly on an aircraft that was conceived eighty years ago when aviation was still its infancy. That the B-17 is still around and flying safely, well into the 21st Century, is a testimony to the ingenuity of Boeing`s early design and production teams and the subsequent technological advances that were made as the war progressed..
One cannot say enough about the dedicated volunteer organizations such as the Commemorative Air Force (Sentimental Journey), Yankee Air Museum (Yankee Lady), Tillamook Air Museum (Chuckie), National Warplane Museum (Memphis Belle), Collings Foundation (Nine-O-Nine), Liberty Foundation (Liberty Belle; crashed in June, 2011) who restore these historically important aircraft to flying status. Now, seventy years later, although only nine Flying Fortresses are still flying, crowds continue to come out to see these rare and magnificent aircraft perform in their natural element …. the air.
Special thanks to:
Diana Spremo, GM, Media & Public Relations, Waterloo Air Show
The aircrew of “Sentimental Journey”, Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF).