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Buzzing in a B-17
Okay, this is not a story about a hot rod, custom motorcycle, muscle car or any other sort of automobile, but the machine in question does have three wheels, a great deal of horsepower, visual impact and genuinely iconic status – plus it’s not every day you get the chance to passenger in an original B-17 bomber from World War II. Karen Baker takes up the story . . . .
”Our original holiday plan while in the US during October and November of this year included many automotive and motorcycle-related trips, but once there, we stumbled across a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sample something just that extra bit special.
“Our American friends, Jeff McCann (a custom bike painter) and his wife, Suzanne, took us to San Francisco to do our tourist bit. While viewing the Golden Gate Bridge from a suitable vantage point, however, Keith recognised what he described as ‘the unmistakable drone of radial engines,’ and noticed a plane flying over the Bay. ‘Isn’t that a B-17,’ he asked? ‘Oh yes,’ came the reply. ‘They are running trips in it this weekend.’ We couldn’t believe it!
“Jeff checked out their website (http://www.libertyfoundation.org), and from there we were able to book a flight aboard the Liberty Belle from nearby Hayward Airport that day. We arrived well in advance of our scheduled departure time, which gave us a chance to watch several flights take off and land. There were a lot of people milling about, and although there was a security gate, everyone was allowed through!
“When it was our turn to board the plane, we were given a short (very short) pre-flight briefing: ‘Fasten your seat belts for take off. As soon as we’re in the air, the crew will give a thumbs-up and you are free to walk around the plane. We recommend you go forward into the bombardier’s nose cone. You can lie on the floor, press your nose to the bubble and pretend you are Superman.
“’When walking around, take care not to grab hold of the cables running through the fuselage, as these control the plane – elevators, flaps and so on. When walking over the bomb-bay doors, please take care not to step off and fall through the doors. If this should occur, please attempt to take photos on the way down as we don’t have many from that angle and they should be pretty spectacular – if we can find your camera.’
The relaxed and entertaining pilots
“Imagine this kind of briefing on a flight happening in the UK, with all of its red tape over health and safety legislation.
“As we had booked our flights first and were from England, we got to sit behind the pilots for take-off. We sat on small, fold-down ‘jump’ seats and fastened the ancient lap belts – that made us feel really safe! The pilot then gave Keith instructions: ‘Turn that red knob to the right, and again – okay, that’s the fuel turned on.’ It’s always nice to be part of the crew.
“As you can imagine, it was really noisy as we took off. We couldn’t see out on take-off, but captured the event with mini video on my mobile phone. Once we got the thumbs-up, we quickly made our way down the hatch to the nose of the plane. The plastic cone was cracked – talk about patina – but we didn’t attempt the Superman thing, as we were so busy looking round and out.
Plexiglass covers have been added to the side mounted gun positions. Imagine what it must have been like with a Messerschmitt hurting towards you at 400 mph!!
“I experienced a strong wave of emotion, feeling how it must have been when in battle – you feel so exposed and vulnerable – and it was terrifying to imagine what the air crews must have gone through.
“We had to move from there to allow others space to come in, but we left one individual, whom we nicknamed ‘the General’, playing with the machine gun. He had turned up in uniform, but seemed to be treating the experience as a Disney ride. We then moved through the fuselage, crossing the bomb bay on a nine-inch wide steel panel. The bomb doors were held closed by the will of God, and not much else, by the look of things.
Karen gets ready to fire - fuselage looks narrower than imagined
“The sides of the aircraft where the machine guns were located were covered with Perspex panels, but the observation area at the top was open to the elements. We had been warned to hang onto our hats and cameras when we stuck our heads out for a look round at a speed of over 100mph. I was glad I was too short, although Keith kindly offered to lift me up. A man who had taken his three-year-old daughter happily held her up for a look round – she loved it. Keith poked his head right out to take a photo and promptly got covered in fuel spray from the engines. Later, slightly concerned by this, Keith informed the pilot, who said, ‘Don’t worry. They all do that!’
The view from the observation area - and the effect below!
“The flight took us straight over Alcatraz Island and was over all too quickly. On touchdown, we both felt so lucky to have experienced the flight and Keith expressed our gratitude to the pilots, who seemed genuinely surprised to receive such praise.”
The Liberty Belle originally flew missions from the UK during the war, and will be coming back to Suffolk next year, when the aircraft will take part in displays to honour all veterans of WWII.
Story: Karen Baker
Photos: Karen & Keith