CEDAR RAPIDS — I’ve never served in the military.
The most recent uniform I’ve worn in a service role is a Cub Scout uniform.
But when I had the opportunity to take a ride aboard a B-17 heavy bomber, also known affectionately as a “Flying Fortress,” at The Eastern Iowa Airport Thursday, I wasted no time in pursuing it. More on that later.
The aluminum-skinned, World War II vintage plane was brought to town by the Oshkosh, Wisconsin-based Experimental Aircraft Association. Dubbed the “Aluminum Overcast,” it’s in rare company — of the 12,731 B-17s built, only about a dozen remain airworthy. It helps that this one was delivered in May 1945 and never saw combat.
“Aluminum Overcast,” named for a B-17G shot down over France in August 1944, narrowly escaped being scrapped after the war. After tours of duty hauling cattle, aerial mapping in the Mideast and spraying crops, it was sold to the EAA, where it underwent an extensive restoration before returning to service as an operational military artifact, offering flight experiences to hundreds of enthusiasts each year since 1994.
But I’ll admit, I was excited to board this plane for a very personal reason. My grandfather served as a ball turret gunner on a B-17. That’s the turret under the belly of the plane — perhaps the most dangerous and most vulnerable position on the 10-man flight crew.
And I wanted to get a taste — as best I could — of the sights, sounds and sensations he experienced in his flight missions in the European theater.
I got a taste, all right. First there was the roar and whine of the four 750-horsepower engines coming to life next to the fuselage, each emitting plumes of blow-by oil smoke that briefly wafted into the cabin. Then came the bouncing and rattling as we taxied into position for takeoff. This would be no luxury jaunt, to be sure.
But as we jerked airborne and soared across the Eastern Iowa skies, I felt a sense of awe. I was aboard a plane designed more than 70 years ago, using obsolete technology and construction methods — and it was simply spectacular. The media professionals on our flight were grinning like schoolkids.
I was grinning, too, in my own way. The few stories that I had heard from my grandfather as a child (he didn’t share many, and I think I know why) sparked my curiosity. Could I, in any way, relive his experiences as an Army Air Corps soldier?
One of the EAA volunteer crew members found the right words. “In my opinion, the personnel who flew these aircraft were part of the greatest generation,” said Craig Schueller of Neenah, Wis., himself a 20-year flight engineer. “When they tell me their stories, I have nothing but the greatest respect for them.”
I always respected my grandfather and his service. And though he passed away in 2001, we now have just one more thing in common — a flight on a “Flying Fortress.”
I think he’d be proud.
IF YOU GO
• The EAA is offering flight experiences and walk-through tours aboard the “Aluminum Overcast” from Friday through Sunday at the PS Air Terminal at The Eastern Iowa Airport. Flights run hourly from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day, and walk-through tours are available from 2-5 p.m. each day.
•For ticket information and pricing, visit www.b17.org or call 920-371-2244.