I spent Sunday afternoon doing something I never thought I would get to do; exploring the inside of a World War II vintage B-17 bomber.
Since I was a kid I always loved airplanes, especially warbirds from World War II. Forget the romance of flying by the seat of your pants in a Sopworth Camel biplane from 1917 or knowing the latest avionics of a revamped F-15 Eagle; just give me those steady piston driven planes of the early to mid-1940's.
When I saw the press release last week that the Collings Foundation was bringing their B-17 and B-24 bombers to Heber for an air show I had to go. So early Sunday morning my two sons and one of their girlfriends and I drove to Wasatch County to see what we could see. Little did we realize that we would be able to feel the planes too.
When we arrived we walked past a British Meteor, and a Korean era Soviet Mig 15 to get to the two bombers. There were people there, but the crowd was sparse. And as we paid our money we realized that they were letting people into the planes, by themselves, to take a tour. I had never seen that before. I expected a heavily guided tour with the "don't touch this" and "don't touch that" kind of format. Instead they just turned us loose.
As I climbed through the forward crew hatch I noticed the bombadiers area cordoned off, but as I squeezed into the upper gun turret, I saw the cockpit was wide open. I thought I and my boys were the only ones in the plane, but there sat an older gentleman who began to talk with me. He looked relaxed in that seat, like he belonged there.
As I spoke with him about the plane my oldest son conked his head on the upper gun turret. Those planes weren't meant for people that stood 6'2" or even those that were 5'9" for that matter. I hit my head a few times too. I commented to the gentleman that the guys who flew them must have been small but they were very brave.
"I don't know," he said to me. "I think we were just stupid."
As I looked at him, his actual age was belied by the far away look in his eyes as he gazed out of the cockpit over the nose of the aircraft.
He looked at me and smiled.
"I'll get out of here so you young bucks can sit in this seat...I'm sure that's why you are here."
As he raised up I could tell he had been in that cockpit like that many times before. He was a short thin man, and when he twisted around I could see that he was probably in his early 80's. However there in that face I could see a young pilot, a dashing one, who had taken one of these planes or something like it in harms way a number of times.
He said goodbye and scurried toward the back of the plane on the narrow catwalk in the bombay surround by 1000 lb. dummy cannisters. I raised myself up and crawled into the seat in which he had been perched. It wasn't easy to get in. When I did leave it was even harder to get out. I couldn't imagine getting out of there if the plane was all shot up and headed to the ground in a rush. Maybe that's the reason that when you look at lists of captured POW's during World War II there were plenty of fighter pilots, waist gunners and bombadiers listed, but not many B-17 pilots.
As I sat there I thought about everything I knew about these planes after years of loving them, watching movies of them, reading books about them, studying them and putting models of them together, I realized it wasn't the planes I loved as much as I did the idea of what they represented.
And as I gazed over the same green nose the old pilot had looked over just a few minutes before it didn't matter to me if the guys who flew them were brave or stupid.
In my book they were the best there ever was.