Friday, August 21, 2009

Sentimental Journey B-17

by Lance Albertson for Sanity Preferred

I enjoy artifacts. I like going through Europe and touring the castles in the Loire valley, seeing meridian line at the Royal Observatory, or walking through the ruins of Pompeii. But there are artifacts outside of Europe, and yesterday I got see a bunch at the Flying Heritage Museum, at Paine Field in Everett, WA.
The main purpose of the trip was to see one of the last airworthy B-17s, the Sentimental Journey, a Flying Fortress maintained by the Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force. I did not get to fly in the plane, but did tour it on the ground. I was first introduced to black and white WWII footage by the World at War documentary series in the 70s and have been interested in what may have been the last romantic (and not coincidentally, first fully filmed) war. I still recall the images of the huge bombers filling the sky and aerial views of the bombs dropping down and creating their tiny mushroom clouds as they hit the ground.
The plane was out flying when we pulled into the parking lot, but landed about 10 minutes later and taxied to the viewing area. The first thing I noticed as it rolled past a 747 sitting on the tarmac was that the plane was not huge. It was remarkably not-huge, a fact driven home when I climbed on board. I am not a big guy, about 5' 9", extraordinarily average, but even for me, climbing up through the nose turret and up to the cockpit was a chore. The actor Jimmy Stewart piloted B-17s during WWII, and I just can't imagine dragging his 6' 3" frame through such a cramped space.

This version of the plane - I believe it was a B-17E - had six machine guns (top, belly, nose, tail, and one on each side). They were displayed with belts of 50 caliber rounds, thicker than my finger and much longer.
The bomb bay was a revelation. It is just an open space in the middle of the plane full of bombs - no surprise - but the catwalk that connects the front of the plane to the rear can't be more than six or eight inches across, about the span of my hand, not even wide enough to stand with your feet next to each other. I am afraid of heights, and I have this horrible image in my mind of a bomb that doesn't release, and some poor sap (probably me), having to go out on the catwalk, flak exploding all around, rounds from enemy fighters ripping through the airframe as I stand with a six inch plate of steel between me and a mile of empty space while I try to pry the bomb free. Zeesh. It's amazing I slept at all last night.
Very cool stuff.

Then we went into the Flying Heritage Museum itself. It's just a hangar and doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside is a great collection of mostly WWII aircraft. I'm not a particular aircraft buff, but it was neat to see these planes most of which are still in flying condition (there are demonstration flights every other weekend during the summer). If you like WWII era aircraft, this is a nice stop. We went during the week and, in spite of the B-17, the museum was quite empty, which meant we got Woody as our own private docent. He talked at length about the history of the models, how they were used in the war, and sometimes about the specific pilot who flew the plane. It was pretty cool and made the trip much more interesting than just watching the taped interviews and historical footage would have been.
There were a couple of surprises. First was the one of the planes flown by the "Night Witches" of the Soviet 588th Night Bomber Regiment. I didn't even know the story - women called into service as pilots who flew low altitude missions in obsolete biplanes in WWII at night with no lights dropping bombs (sometimes by hand) onto enemy positions. It serves as a reminder that there were heroic efforts by many on all sides during the war.
The second surprise - and this is just great for artifact lovers like me - was getting to see the X-Prize, the actual trophy awarded to Scaled Composites for the first commercial space flight in 2004. There was also a model of SpaceShipOne hanging from the rafters.
Again, very cool.
The last artifact I'll mention was also the first one I saw. I grew up as a big fan of the Guinness Book of World Records. The Guinness book is now associated with lots of bizarre records, but back in the day it was more down to earth. One of those record holders I believe dates back to my childhood. As we pulled off the freeway onto the surface streets going to the airport off to our right was a building, the Boeing Everett plant, where 747s are made. The building next to us was not just a building, it was, at 472 million cubic feet, the largest building in the world. I had never seen it before, and for an artifact hound like me, it was a nice start to what turned out to be a really fun afternoon.

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