A Ride Along On One Of the Last B-17 Bombers

fromKPBS

Tens of thousands of Americans flew dangerous missions in B-17s during World War II. Today, only a few of these four-engine giants are still flying. And their crews are dwindling, too. One of these so-called "Flying Fortresses" tours the country, taking veterans up for one last flight.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The B-17 bomber is legendary. Tens of thousands of Americans flew dangerous missions in B-17s during World War II. Today, only a few of these four-engine giants are still flying, and their crews are dwindling too. One of these so-called Flying Fortresses tours the country, taking veterans up for one last flight.

Katie Euphrat, of member station KPBS in San Diego, got the chance to ride along. She sent us this audio postcard.

(Soundbite of airplane engines)

Mr. ED DAVIDSON (Army Veteran; Former B-17 Pilot): It's a good airplane, and I'm just so happy that there are 12 of them still flying in the United States. My name is Ed Davidson. I was a pilot on the B-17 of a 10-man crew. And whenever one comes to San Diego, I make sure I go out there to look at it, just admire the airplane for what it is.

Mr. GEORGE DAUBNER (Assistant Director of B-17 Flight Operations, Experimental Aircraft Association): My name is George Daubner, and I'm from the Experimental Aircraft Association. This is one of 57 tour stops that we make each year, where we fly around the United States. It's called the EAA's Salute to Veterans tour. And we're losing our World War II veterans at a very high rate, and in a couple of years, they're all going to be gone. So we're looking at this as really, our last opportunity to honor, you know, what they did during the war. So we're out, you know, saluting them.

(Soundbite of airplane engines)

Mr. DAVIDSON: I got shot down on my seventh mission, which killed my co-pilot - sitting in the seat next to me - and the four aft gunners bailed out. They presumably drowned because their bodies were never recovered. The five of us that landed in the water got into the life rafts. And we're about four hours in our life rafts; the Germans came out in a flying boat, landed beside us and said: For you, the war is over. And we spent - I spent 16 months there as a prisoner of war.

Mr. DAUBNER: They would send out two, three, four, 500 of these in a formation, and they'd drop their massive, 8,000-pound bomb loads. You know, two, three, four, 500 airplanes dropping 8,000 pounds - that's a lot of bombs.

(Soundbite of airplane engines)

Mr. DAVIDSON: It felt good. A little bit of turbulence today, and it made it a little difficult to stand up inside the airplane. It brought back a lot of memories of flying this airplane and so forth.

It brought me a chance to survive the war and come home. So many of the airplanes just exploded in the air, and no crew members got out. So I was fortunate. I just wish I could get in the pilot's seat again.

BLOCK: That audio postcard about the B-17 bomber came from Katie Euphrat, of member station KPBS.

During World War II, the military made training movies to teach pilots how to fly the B-17.

(Soundbite of archived training video)

Unidentified Man #1: Well, how do you feel?

Unidentified Man #2: OK. I feel great.

Unidentified Man #1: Remember, it's just another airplane. It's a little bigger than most. But the fact that you're flying, it means that you've moved into the big time, and the payoff is, it's the safest crate you ever flew.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Those crates are credited with helping to win World War II. The Air Force says nearly 13,000 were built. Soon after the war, they were retired from service.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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