B-17 flight a 'Salute to Veterans'
BY BILL WASSERZIEHER
I am aboard a relic of the past, a B-17 Flying Fortress, strapped in on the floor next to the radio operator position. The canopy above is open, and I can feel vibration rattling through the fuselage as the four big Hamilton Standard blades whip the air. Alongside is a B-24 Liberator bomber, ready to fly formation on a sentimental journey from the San Diego [Calif.] area to Long Beach, Calif., where this Boeing B-17 came off a Douglas assembly line during the final months of World War II.
Waiting for takeoff, I think of the WWII films that play on television "Air Force," in which a lone B-17 escapes the Philippines during the Japanese invasion; "Twelve O'Clock High," with Gregory Peck learning the pain of command as B-17 crews fail to return from bombing runs over Axis-held Europe; and "Memphis Belle," the fine 1990 film which follows a Flying Fortress crew as they approach their 25th and last mission.
The engines on this plane, the Nine-0-Nine, sound exactly the same. All that's missing is maybe an accompanying soundtrack by film composer Alfred Newman, the late uncle of pop tunesmith Randy Newman.
The roar and the vibration increase as the Wright Cyclone engines take us down the runway. The clouds above the open canopy begin to move, and a black knob on the U.S. Army Signal Corps transmitter next to me digs into my knee. This is how men once flew to war.
The takeoff is so smooth that at first I don't realize we are in the air. We head out over the Pacific Ocean, and I can see the sparkling California coastline. At 2,000 feet, the air coming through the gun turret slits is cold. At 25,000 feet it must have felt like a thousand needles piercing your skin.
We fly past the nuclear power domes at San Onofre. It's like a shift in the time-space continuum. The B-24 is below us and seems to skim the wave tops. A T-34 trainer has joined this odd little formation, with a cameraman in the second seat shooting these ancient warplanes as they fly by the beachfront high-rises.
I spot a life preserver floating in the water. Though this one probably came off a careless cabin cruiser, it is a reminder of the many aircrews who bailed out over the English Channel and didn't make it back. The real bomber group portrayed in "Twelve O'Clock High" had an 87-percent casualty rate.
We fly over Laguna Beach, Newport and Balboa; Huntington Beach, Seal Beach and Alamitos Bay; and then circle the HMS Queen Mary in her permanent, cement-locked berth.
Just minutes shy of an hour in the air, we touch down at the Long Beach Airport, adjacent to the Boeing facility where 3,000 B-17s came off the then Douglas Aircraft assembly line between 1942 and 1945. There are about 300 people lining the fence as the Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator taxi in. The crowd is applauding.
After their stay in Long Beach, the planes continue their journey cross-country as part of a "Salute to American Veterans" staged by the non-profit Collings Foundation. Tour schedules for these and other aircraft can be found www.collingsfoundation.org/cf_schedules.htm
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