Bomber Run over the Texas Coast

We came from all corners of the country at our own expense to Galveston, Texas, for a 15-minute ride in an ancient airplane. Nobody came away disappointed. The money spent and the vacation days taken meant nothing, you see, because the airplane was a B-17, the Flying Fortress. This one is in the careful custody of the Lone Star Flight Museum, and she is a beauty.

My host for this aeronautical treat was Commander Peter Hayes, then the Executive Officer at the Naval Air Field in El Centro, California. He had bid on a B-17 flight while attending an airshow convention, and he invited me to join him and three friends for the ride. I had not met Peter, but his mother and father-in-law are heroes of mine; our mutual admiration got me the spot. I had hoped to fly to Galveston from Tampa in our Cheyenne, but a huge mass of thunderstorms over New Orleans made the trip impractical. Circumnavigation to the north would have meant a fuel stop and delayed me beyond sunset, missing the flight. Circumnavigation to the south would have meant a swim. I called Peter to cancel, fully aware of the fact that I'd taken a seat and now I was not going to use it. He was generous with his understanding. "I never let my pride interfere with my life expectancy," he said. I told him I'd try the airlines.

To my amazement, I found a nonstop on Continental to Houston that left in a few minutes at a reasonable fare and a rental car was only $19. The gods had spoken. I could get to Galveston by 6:15 p.m., plenty of time for an hour's flight.

And so I pulled up to the Lone Star Museum site at Scholes Field in Galveston as Peter talked me in on the cell phone. I stepped out of the air-conditioned car into the warm humid Gulf air, looking for a man with a phone at his ear. But where was he? There were at least 40 people milling around and they were dwarfed by some beautiful airplanes. A P-51 Mustang, an F4U Corsair, a B25 Mitchell and, regally parked in the center of them all, was ship Thunderbird, the B-17.

We soon connected, Peter and I. He introduced me to his flying pals: Scott Kirk, former F-14 driver, now a first officer for Southwest, call sign Elvis; Rene Denuit, T-33 owner, if you believe that (his airplane burns 500 gallons of gas an hour on takeoff); and Mark Sterns, president of Higher Power Aviation, a training company where many airline pilot hopefuls get their type ratings. The common threads were clear. Mark's company had provided Peter and Elvis with 737 type ratings, and now they both work for Southwest Airlines. Elvis, Peter and Rene all had flown together in airplanes and in hangars at El Centro.

We shook hands with our pilots, Doug and Keith, both FedEx pilots and both volunteers at the museum. Lone Star Flight Museum vice president Larry Gregory said, "Don't step on the Plexiglas in the nose turret or all we'll hear is the thump when you hit the ground. And don't step on the bomb bay doors either or you'll fall out, too." We were shown to three seats in the radio room and two in the nose turret. Our pilots were a colorful lot. They wore bandanas not airline hats.

Between the radio room and the cockpit and nose turret there was a narrow, maybe nine-inch wide gangway across the bomb bay. On the ground, the bomb bay doors were open and I had a hard time imagining what the trip across this abyss must be like in flight.

Mark and I squirmed down below the flight deck into the nose turret. Headphones connected us to the pilots, and I could hear the ATIS as we got settled. The flight was to be squeezed into some interesting evening weather. The warm moist air was forming an intermittent cloud deck at 800 to 1,000 feet as it came onshore over the rapidly cooling coast.

"Pre-start checklist complete." A ground crewmember positioned himself in front of engine number three with a large purposeful-looking fire extinguisher on wheels. The big Wright Cyclone engine coughed to life, all 1,200 horses cantering smoothly. Next, number four, then two, then one. Now I could hear in the headset a discussion of taxi technique and the instruction to unlock the tailwheel. We lurched forward, our wing just clearing a Mustang parked to our left. "Watch out for the tailwheel on the taxi lights, that thing is a long way back there."

(left to right): Scott Kirk, Mark Sterns, Peter Hayes and Rene Denuit with Thunderbird

Mag check, trim set, rotate at 90 knots, announce our intentions. "B-17, 900 Romeo Whiskey taking off Runway 17 at Galveston, left turn out over the shore." The power came up and we started slowly down the runway, oscillating slightly to each side of the centerline. The view of the end of the runway from the nose turret was unique. You could see straight ahead and straight down. And we weren't going that fast, it seemed to me.

About three-quarters of the way down the 6,001-foot runway, the tail came up and then we lifted off at a surprisingly shallow deck angle, which yielded an impressively modest rate of climb. A beach resort hotel occupied the majority of my field of vision out of the turret. I had been sitting behind Mark, and as we turned east along the shoreline he motioned me to the front seat in the turret. To move I took off the headset and was stunned to hear the racket produced by those huge engines. It was loud, was about all one could say about the noise.

Between my feet raced the beachfront of Galveston. We were level at about 700 feet, I guessed. I could see waves breaking on the shore and piling up on the piers. Sensing that the weather was going to make this trip a short one, we all scampered about the big airplane. It was easy to hit your head. I clambered up to the flight deck in time for the turn to the north over Galveston Bay. We could clearly see crewmembers on the decks of the freighters. Our pilots held those big old Boeing control wheels with sturdy grips. There was an overall solid and very mechanical feel to the airplane. I was reminded that museum volunteer Ralph Royce had said that the B-17 was an "Armstrong" airplane "not a boost system on her."

As we turned back west, I braved the gangway across the bomb bay to the radio room and the aft machine guns. Rene and I stood back there, lurching and looking. There was much more movement in the back of the bomber. The yaw was slightly uncomfortable. Fifty-caliber bullets lay in their nine-yard long belts.

I rested my arm on a machine gun and peered out at the haze, thinking of the effort that these dedicated people had expended to make this part of our history so real. I thought about the fact that I have never really had much interest in military aircraft. As a boy I was more taken with DC-3s and later Connies. When I was drafted in 1971 it was into the Army and all I ever flew in was the occasional Huey or, if lucky, a DC-9. I was just beginning to understand the exuberant interest that many pilots, especially military and ex-military ones, have for the airplanes that made and make us safe. How could it be, I wondered, that a flying nut like me could still find new and captivating things in aviation after 45 years of maniacal interest? Here was a whole new world opening up, 700 feet over the Texas coast.

Rene's sharp handclap startled me out of this introspection, and he motioned me to buckle up for landing. So soon? Yes, the weather was dropping. I strapped in the radio room, where I had a window seat to the wing and an ancient hand crank radio on a table before me. With a headset back on, I could hear gentle instructions about power and flap settings.

Looking at the radio and its dials, I thought for a minute about what it must have been like to be 20 years old, freezing in this space, trying to detect the faint signal of other airplanes in the group, hoping not to hear the explosion of machine guns just behind you. The B-17 was used mostly for the dangerous daylight bombing of Germany, and the airplanes were notoriously cold. Nose, waist and tail gunners were all that stood between you and the German fighters. It was all on the line.

We lined up for the runway and touched down gently. We just rolled on, and I could hear a discussion about not using the brakes as we used the whole runway. We taxied back in, turned around in a surprisingly tight fit among other vintage airplanes, and shut down. After shut down, checklist complete, the headset went dead.

I just sat there, drinking this all in. All of us were airplane crazies. Some got to fly this beast, some were Navy pals, and some were now in the employ of a major airline. All of us were awestruck, as much by the history as by the airplane. Over 13,000 of these monsters were built at a cost of about $314,000 a copy. We had just touched down. The care and cost of the restoration could be keenly felt in the early twilight.

I came home and rented the movie Memphis Belle. The best actor in the film was the airplane. Despite the theatrics, I did learn more about daylight bombing during the Second World War. But the movie slickness was just off the mark for me. No, the sound of those Cyclones heard low over the Texas coast, that is my defining experience when it comes to big bombers. You can bet that I'll be paying way more attention to the warbirds section at Oshkosh next year. I worry that the aviators who flew these airplanes in the Great War are leaving us rapidly now. I hope to catch up with some and ask questions before it is too late. Someday I hope to tell a grandchild about the time I flew in a B-17, the Flying Fortress.

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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