Sunday, May 26, 2013

EAA's Aluminum Overcast: This Flying Fortress Still Has a Very Important Mission

This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

As I write this post over the Memorial Day weekend, it seems fitting to re-visit last weekend, when EAA's immaculate B-17G-VE Aluminum Overcast visited my home field of Mahlon Sweet Field in Eugene, Oregon. Even though this airplane was delivered to the U.S. Army Air Corps on May 18, 1945 - too late to see action in World War II - the airplane still serves the memory of those courageous veterans who gave their life so I could sit here enjoying the freedoms we Americans often take for granted.


Even though Aluminum Overcast never actually "saw action," it certainly plays a key role today in preserving a significant part of aviation history. EAA has chosen to restore this ship as a flying tribute to the 398th Bomb Group of World War II, which flew hundreds of missions over Nazi-held territory during WWII. In particular, Aluminum Overcast commemorates B-17G #42-102515 which was shot down on its 34th combat mission over Le Manior, France, on August 13, 1944.

Before I get to a report on what it was like to actually fly in an airplane this important, let's visit the history of N5017N, from EAA's B17.org:
Scenic low flight over the Coburg Hills east of Eugene
EAA's B-17G Aluminum Overcast was purchased as surplus from the military inventory for a mere $750 in 1946, and since then, the airplane has flown more than 1 million miles. It has served as a cargo hauler, an aerial mapping platform and in pest control and forest dusting applications. The airplane returned to its military roots in 1978, when it was purchased by a group of investors who wished to preserve the heritage of the magnificent B-17. The group, "B-17s Around the World," was headed by Dr. Bill Harrison. Their goal was to return the B-17 to its former glory. But the economic reality of simply maintaining a vintage bomber, let alone the cost of restoration, prompted the group to donate the B-17 to the Experimental Aircraft Association in 1983. Since that time, an extensive program of restoration and preservation was undertaken to insure Aluminum Overcast would be a living reminder of World War II aviation for many years to come. The restoration has taken more than 10 years and thousands of hours by dedicated staff and volunteers at EAA Oshkosh, Wisconsin, headquarters.
There is no doubt when you look at Aluminum Overcast that EAA has done a spectacular job of restoring and maintaining this B-17. I was lucky enough to spend four glorious hours acting as "Aft Security" during the public ground tour portion of the tour stop on Sunday, May 19, and while my job - among other obvious things - was to make sure people didn't use the exposed control cables for handrails, the post provided me with plenty of time to just sit in a flying museum and gawk at the craftsmanship EAA has put into this restoration:
As I sat in a seat just forward of the tail wheel enclosure, I had full view of the right and left waist gunner positions. Between answering questions about bullets, and where the crew went to the bathroom, I really studied the way this airplane has been brought back to life. Every inch of Aluminum Overcast has been overhauled and restored to "better than new" condition, and the EAA crews that fly her around the country take immense pride in maintaining this ship to museum quality. It is literally a flying work of art. Gone is any sign of wear and/or tear, and it is impossible to find places where shoddy work was thrown down just to get this Flying Fortress out on tour.
On the first day of Aluminum Overcast's Eugene tour stop, I had organized and participated in a Media flight for local TV, radio, social media and print personalities. When the departure time arrived, and after we strapped in the Giant Duck (read part one of this story here), it was time to coax those four 1,200-horsepower Wright Cyclone Model R-1820-97 engines to life. Anyone who worships round engines knows you do not "start" them, so much as convince the moving parts inside to somehow get along and convert fossilized dinosaurs into altitude and noise. Oh yeah, that sweet symphony made from gigantic radial engines just gets better when a couple of them are hanging off each wing:
1,200 of Aluminum Overcast's
4,800 horsepower
The duck was cinched down, and everyone was in a seat as we heard the first hint of engine start. It was the inboard left engine, which erupted to life in a planned series of explosions that produced a signature white cloud of smoke passing swiftly by outside the left waist gunner's window just forward of my seat. When the twelve hundred horsepower round engine came to life, it sounded like the world's largest Harley-Davidson was kicking over somewhere up in the front of the airplane. When the left side outboard engine came alive, the rumble and reverberations of this great round engine sound only intensified. Soon, the right side inboard engine erupted and coughed itself to a rough idle, and again the sound of raw power came up a notch. And finally, when the fourth and final right side outboard engine sparked, the stereo note of 4,800 horsepower shook the airframe, and I swear each power stroke of each cylinder could be felt clear through the seat of my pants to wonderfully rattle every bone in my body. That was SO cool.
From the left seat, Pilot Sam Bass - a volunteer pilot who has been flying Aluminum Overcast for nearly 20 years - nudges the collection of red power levers forward and the four Wrights tug on the bomber's squishy tires hard enough to get the B-17 rolling. Sitting directly over the tail wheel, it is a weird sensation as the back end of the airplane tries to follow the nose towards a runway. We eventually found our way out to the numbers in a "line up and wait position" when this trip's awesome factor went straight up off the charts:
With the oil warm in all 27 cylinders, Bass and fellow volunteer pilot Dan Bowlin firewall the throttles and four gigantic three-bladed Hamilton Standard propellers of 11 feet, 7 inches in diameter attack the cool Oregon air. That low rumbling from out there on the wings now becomes a growling, almost deafening sonic explosion as the Wrights dig into the sky, spitting smoke out the back while shoving massive amounts of horsepower out the front. With a wartime gross takeoff weight of 65,500 lbs., the Fortress was built to carry as much as 17,600 pounds of bombs, so the few pounds of media people, cameras and even a Giant Duck was a very, very light load. Aluminum Overcast jumped off the runway quickly but gracefully, and began a leisurely tour above the Willamette Valley at 2,000' MSL.
The point of this Media Flight was to make sure every reporter in attendance got at least a minute or two down in the best seat in the house, the bombardier’s position in the nose. As Aluminum Overcast made gentle turns over the countryside, my opportunity to visit the nose came last, but what I found once I got there made the wait worthwhile:
B-17 veteran Elton "Andy" Andrews,
Bombardier, 11 missions
Making your way from the aft waist gunner's seats to the nose of Aluminum Overcast when getting pummeled by an abundance of Oregon's notorious springtime low level wind shear and turbulence is no easy task...especially with my Canon 7D on one hand and the fuselage jammed with TV people, each carrying a large TV video production camera. After making it through the radio room and squeezing through the catwalk over the bomb bay - one built for tiny, fit airmen from the 1940s - I staged myself just aft of the flight deck and waited for this flight's Crew Chief, Terry Tucker, to signal a go for me to wiggle my way into the bombardier's kingdom. Once there, sitting where he had for 11 missions over Europe was B-17 veteran Alton "Andy" Andrews, enjoying every second of this flight. I had arranged this special treatment for Andrews, and as our faces met about a foot apart, he mouthed the words "THANK YOU" to me...and my day was complete.
The flight - and this entire B-17 tour stop weekend - made me become an even bigger fan of EAA. The whole Aluminum Overcast operation is a class act, from the beautiful restoration to the coordination of the tour stops to the devotion of the all-volunteer crews that go out on the road so we can enjoy this gorgeous piece of aviation history.

Left side Waist Gunner's position
What completely blows me away is that 68 years after it came out of Vega Aircraft Company's Burbank factory (built under license from Boeing), Aluminum Overcast is still a hard-working airplane. It regularly flies several loads of people every day, week after week, from coast-to-coast. When not flying, it has long lines of admirers wandering through, touching this, pulling that, climbing here and there. To make sure this airplane stays airworthy takes a superhuman effort from EAA's crews, and these dedicated people will tell you straight up...their work on Aluminum Overcast is nothing compared to the veterans who flew the Flying Fortress in battle...they consider it a privilege to crew this plane.

On this Memorial Day weekend, I stand and salute each and every veteran who ever flew a B-17 mission, as well as the EAA crews who keep this ship flying to honor those vets. Someday, these vets will be all gone, and left to keep their memory alive will be historically significant airplanes like Aluminum Overcast.

So if you are out somewhere this weekend and run into a WWII veteran who is still alive and kicking, thank them for their service before its too late. Look them in the eye when you tell them, these vets deserve to know you mean it.