The Aluminum Legend

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By Dan Verner


I stood on the apron at Manassas Airport with ten other men of a certain age in front of a seventy-one-year-old airplane just three years older than I am. This was the war machine that helped take the war to Hitler during World War II.

The Aluminum Overcast never took part in that war, but had been preserved and used to tour the country giving people like me the chance to do something they had dreamed of for a long time: fly in a bomber called “the Flying Fortress” by newspaper accounts when it made its first appearance. The silver aircraft with red accents still sported guns (spiked, I am sure), and had bombs in its bomb bay, but they were fake. Crew Chief Paul Ritter told us about the armament before we got on: “Ignore the guns; they’re not there.” He also advised us to use the air sickness bags on board if we started feeling green around the gills. “Otherwise,” he warned, “you’ll be cleaning up a B-17.”

I had arrived a few minutes before nine on a somewhat chilly, windy day. A bank of gray clouds threatened in the west, but it didn’t rain on our flight. A couple of ladies from the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) welcomed me and told me that check-in would start in a while. I went out and took some pictures of the Overcast, and then came back in. In a few minutes, they told me to go out to a trailer beside the aircraft to check in. I filled out a release form saying I wouldn’t hold the EAA responsible if I decided to jump out of the bomb bay. The registrar gave me a pager like those used in restaurants, and I wandered over to take some pictures of the Ford Tri-motor that was pulling up to the apron. The EAA offered flights on the “Tin Goose” as well, but there weren’t many takers, maybe because the covering of the aircraft was corrugated aluminum or its instruments were out on the wing on the side of the left engine, even though a ride cost $75 for the Ford while the Fort commanded a fee of $475. You can’t put a price on being associated with a legend, I thought.

My buzzer went off, and I went over with my other would-be plane mates and surrendered the device with its annoying chirp to the registrar. I had noticed before that they all looked up when any kind of aircraft went over, like I do.  We walked to the front of the craft to meet Ritter, who welcomed us and then invited us to “pull the propellers through.” This involved lining up two by two, grabbing one of the long black blades hanging from the engine and then pulling it against the compression of the engine through one complete rotation. I work out, but I couldn’t have done this by myself. And each engine had to be turned nine times to coat insides with oil. If we hadn’t done this, “You’re lookin’ at a dead engine,” Ritter commented.

I allowed to Bob, a fellow Fortophile from Vienna, that the EAA showed some cleverness by having the paying public do some of the work involved in the flight. Anyhow, we got the job done and it was time for the briefing.

Ritter explained the rules the aircraft operated under, including being able to only use certain “gates” at certain times and flying with a minimum cloud base of 1,300 feet, as opposed to 1,000 for other aircraft who weren’t restricted.  We weren’t allowed to carry weapons onto the plane, but we didn’t have to be scanned or searched to prove we didn’t have any. It worked for me. He also cautioned us that if we dropped our cell phones onto the bomb bay doors, not to go after them. “Two hundred pounds of pressure on the doors cause them to open, and it’s a long way to the ground. Wait until we get down to retrieve your phone.”

Our B-17 did not see combat since it was manufactured toward the end of the war ever. It used some parts from tractors and cars since those parts were already designed and manufactured. The military did the same thing with casual (i.e., not dress) uniforms, modifying work shirts and pants for the task at hand.

We climbed aboard, taking one of twelve seats and belting ourselves in with a type of restraint I had never seen before. I fiddle and fumbled with the clasp and finally had Paul do it for me. It didn’t look like those in my Mazda, so I didn’t know what to do. We could visit the various parts of the aircraft once we were at altitude, but that turned out to take a while. The engines had to be run for about fifteen minutes to warm and pressurize the oil first.

The pilot started the engines, one after another, filling the interior with the smell of gas. Exposed ribs painted primer green and control cables at the top of the fuselage made up the interior décor. The unpressurized fuselage required the brave young fellows during the war to wear heated flight suits and use oxygen masks at altitude where temperatures could drop as low as thirty degrees below zero. As we left the apron, as promised at ten o’clock, I was reminded that steering the old bird was done with brakes, which squealed and complained each time they were applied on our way out to the run-up area.

Paul had told us that the crew used iPads to navigate, and Bob pointed out a twenty-first century Collins direction finder, whose antenna looked out of place on the nose of the mid-twentieth century ship.

The engines roared as we started our takeoff roll about 10:30, and I remembered that Paul had told us that if we went deaf, not to blame him. I thought the noise wasn’t that bad, although my ears rang for hours afterward. The aircraft vibrated as it rolled down the runway, and accelerated surprisingly quickly. I suppose having 4,800 horses pulling it along would do that.

Once it the air, we rattled and mushed our way down to the Potomac, passing over Lake Ridge, Potomac Mills and Woodbridge, turning south to run down the river for a while and then coming back on a course for home. Inside, we had to clamber our way to the front of the aircraft carefully, holding on against sudden jolts and drops. None of us minded a bit. We spent time at the various stations in the plane, including the bombardier’s nose bubble with its spectacular views of the landscape.

I kept looking for places I knew (beyond general locations) all the way down and back, although it’s hard to identify anything from the air without a fair amount of experience. The first thing I did recognize was the Target on Route 28 south of Manassas. We passed over that, and rapidly descended to the runway, bouncing once before coming down for good. I thought that wasn’t too bad for a pilot flying something older than he was.

We taxied back to where we started, and when the engines shut down, we applauded and cheered. Several of the passengers asked if we could go up again, and Paul grinned and said, “Show me the money!”

I drove home thinking about those young men who risked their lives and sacrificed so much to give all of us the lives we enjoy today. Without them, I doubt that I would have the freedom to fly in an old bomber anywhere I would like to go (for a price). I said a silent prayer of thanksgiving for them and for those who made possible my flight into history. And I’d do it again.


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