THOMASVILLE — As the lumbering B-17 Flying Fortress banked on its final approach into Thomasville Regional Airport on Monday, it was hard not to imagine what it was like during World War II when these behemoths of the sky helped win the war in Europe.
The ancient bomber touched down and slowly rumbled onto the airport tarmac as the excitement began to build. I was about to ride in a B-17. Scratch that one off the old bucket list.
The “The Movie Memphis Belle” bomber was in town to promote The Liberty Foundation’s visit this weekend. The local media were offered an opportunity to take a short hop in the Belle, and I immediately accepted.
Sitting on the tarmac, the B-17 seems larger than life. Its wingspan of 103 feet, 9 inches is more than 26 feet wider than the aircraft’s length of 74 feet, 4 inches. The plane’s body bristles with 13 .50 caliber machine guns. Four 1,200-horsepower nine-cylinder engines equipped with 11 feet, 7 inch three-bladed propellers power the Belle.
During the war, the plane carried a 10-man crew consisting of a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, flight engineer (who also manned the top gun turrent), radio operator, two waist gunners, tail gunner and ball turrent gunner.
Climbing aboard the bomber through a two-foot by four-foot hatch isn’t easy. It was then I realized that people were smaller 70 years ago. The interior, as you would expect, is spartan-like. The first thing you notice are the two .50 caliber waist machine guns mounted in front of two large four-foot by five-foot gun holes in the plane’s side.
As I made my way forward I had to cross a six-inch wide gangway that spanned the bomb bay. I squeezed through another hatch and strapped myself into a seat in the radio room. As pilots Bob Hill and Bryan Wyatt brought the engines coughing to life I remembered my grandfather telling me that in 1943 it was estimated that just more than 30 percent of B-17 crews would not survive the war.
It took about five minutes for the engines to get going and as the old warbird rumbled toward take off my mind wandered. What it would have been like to be in an attack formation of 36 aircraft grouped into three 12-plane wedges knowing there was a very good chance that I would not be coming back?
The Belle climbed slowly to 1,600 feet and flew at around 120 mph. Hill said later we got the nickel tour because it costs more than $4,500 per flight hour to keep a B-17 in the air.
We were soon allowed out of our seats and I made my way forward again into the plane’s nose.The vista was breath-taking, a solid glass window to the world below, with the horizon stretching on forever. Moving back to the plane’s waist, the wind through the gun holes was constant and chilly — and this was at just 1,600 feet on a 78 degree day. I didn’t want to think about being at 26,000 feet in freezing temperatures.
We were soon instructed to buckle in and we came in for a bumpy landing. But we were safely on the ground.
Walking back to the terminal, I chatted with Chris Hurst of WPAX-WTUF in Thomasville. As it turned out, the ride was the first time he’d ever flown.
“I really enjoyed the ride,” Hurst told me. “It helps me reflect on what those guys went through in the 40s. That was really and experience and I’m glad I did it.”
And I’m glad that more than 65 years ago, a bunch of very brave young men did it too.