Friday, May 04, 2012

How I Went to See Some Airplanes and Met Some Living History

The men in my immediate family love airplanes. Me, not so much. They love to go to air museums, air shows, travel on planes. I dutifully go with them but my interest does not lie in planes.

I find air travel truly terrifying though I do go into a state of denial a few times a year so I can attend conferences. Right before I have to get on an airplane I become anxiety ridden with all the what ifs that flow through my mind.

But not the men in my family. They LOVE it.

So this week the Wings of Freedom tour  was making a stop at the airport near our home. I knew that the men would love to see this so we went at lunchtime and dinnertime to check out the B-17, B-24 and P-51. 

B-17. Photo by author.

B-24. Photo by author.

P-51. Photo by author.

We had a few days ago watched these planes circle our home as they took off and landed at the airport, giving rides to those who paid for the privilege. It really gave you a sense what it would have been like to live during the 1940s.

Now I don’t mind looking at planes and I knew this would be interesting to be so up close and person with planes that actually flew during World War II.

But what I got was so much more than I could have ever anticipated.

As I waited outside the B-17 for my kids to finish touring the inside an older gentlemen approached me. He had a baseball cap that said “pilot” and he asked me what I thought of the B-17. I told him I thought it was amazing that young men during World War II could sit in such tight places like the ball turret that is attached underneath the plane. I told him how I have been inside one that is housed at the Palm Springs Air Museum and couldn’t believe how small it seemed on the inside.

He then said he had been a B-17 pilot.

As I looked at him my mind did those mathematical equations you do when someone tells you that they were part of a historic event. He didn’t seem old enough to have been a pilot in World War II. So I asked, “you were a B-17 pilot in World War II?”


So like most genealogists who have just uncovered a find I started peppering him with questions. That’s when I learned how as a 22 year old he flew 50 missions over Italy, Germany and other parts of Europe. His job was to take out the refineries. He did get shot at but they returned from all 50 missions with very little damage.

He had been a bank clerk when Pearl Harbor was attacked, so at age  22 he enlisted with the Air Force. He did his service and then went back to banking.

He told me he could spend hours with me describing all that happened but before he left to go home he did leave me with one tantalizing story. 

One day they needed to get rid of some weight and that bubble under the plane (ball turret) weighs in excess of  500 pounds.*  So they decided to drop it. So they unbolted it from the plane and expected it to drop.

It didn’t.

So they did what they had to do. They jumped on it.

Yes, they jumped on it. Knowing that when that thing dropped if they weren’t careful the soldier jumping would go with it. Oh and by the way, they had no parachutes.

I asked him if he was ever scared as he flew those 50 missions not knowing whether he would come back or not.

He said no. He said he had a job to do and he did it.

I went to the airport yesterday to see some history. Lucky for me I talked to history while I was there.

*I consulted another source that said it weighed 1200 pounds including the gunner . I chose not to include this pilot's name because I had not planned to write about this originally. However, he is available for presentations in communities near where I live. I have his phone number if you are interested.

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