By most of today’s airline standards, this flight leaves a lot to be desired.
The seats are uncomfortable and don’t recline. Smoke spews from the engines as they start up. There’s no in-flight entertainment system nor do you get a minibag of snack mix. The brakes squeal, loudly. And when the engines power up for takeoff, oh, the noise.
It makes a flight even on publicity-challenged United seem good.
What makes it all worthwhile, though, is the opportunity to ride aboard a World War II-era B-17 bomber.
The Experimental Aircraft Association and its Cascade Warbird Squadron No. 2 is offering rides aboard Aluminum Overcast on Friday (May 12) through Sunday as the centerpiece of activities at the Olympic Flight Museum.
“This plane should be in a museum, behind velvet ropes,” said Neil Morrison of Port Townsend, one of the pilots flying the bomber Wednesday.
“But here, you get a chance to ride a flying piece of history,” chimed in Matt Ott, crew chief.
Throughout the war, more than 12,700 B-17s were built, including more than 6,900 at Boeing Plant 2 in Seattle. “Aluminum Overcast” is just one of about a dozen B-17s still capable of flying. There are fewer than 50 complete airframes still in existence.
This particular Flying Fortress, a B-17G model, was built in May 1945 in Burbank, California, under a license from Boeing by Vega Aircaft Co., now Lockheed Martin. Too late to be sent into action, the plane was destined to be scrapped. Before it could be cut up, the plane was purchased in 1946 for $750 and began a civilian career that included aerial mapping, fire fighting and hauling cattle. The plane was retired in 1976.
In 1978, a private group bought the airplane and restored it to commemorate the original Aluminum Overcast that was shot down in August 1944 while over France during its 34th combat mission. In 1979, the aircraft was donated to the Experimental Aircraft Association. It was on display until 1983, when a 10-year restoration effort began to make the plane airworthy again.
Now, as the plane tours the country, anyone has a chance to experience a flight aboard one of the most famous planes from World War II.
On a series of preview flights Wednesday, eight B-17 veterans were on hand to take to the sky once again aboard a familiar plane. Among them was 93-year-old Fred Parker of Lacey. He survived 33 missions as a tail gunner.
Parker was somber for a moment as he looked across the tarmac toward the plane.
“The guys that didn’t make it back, that’s what I think about when I see that plane,” he said.
But Parker was unabashed in his admiration for the rugged bomber.
“We never came back with all four engines running,” he said. “There were times we shouldn’t have made it back, but those planes hung in there.”
As the plane soared over downtown Olympia, bumping in the thermals of a sunny day, younger passengers moving about the plane could only guess what Parker and his crew mates experienced. But they thrilled at the opportunity to sit in the nose of the plane, looking out the expanse of Plexiglass of the bombardier’s station. The waist gunner positions offered great views as the plane circled the Capitol. With the Plexiglass removed, you could stick a camera out the port above the radio operator’s station.
After the short flight and the plane came to a stop on the ramp, the 10 passengers burst into applause, letting out whoops of excitement and thanks.
It was, after all, no ordinary flight aboard just any plane.
Visit Aluminum Overcast
What: The B-17 bomber will be at the Olympic Flight Museum. It will be open for ground tours and flights will be offered. The flight experience is about an hour long, with 24 minutes spent in the air. When in the air, passengers can move around the plane. Also on hand will be military re-enactors and other displays.
When: Friday (May 12)-Sunday.
Where: Olympic Flight Museum, 7637 Old Highway 99 SE, Olympia.
Cost: Museum admission is $5. Ground tours on “Aluminum Overcast” are $10 a person or $20 a family. Flights paid in advance are $409 for Experimental Aircraft Association members and $449 for nonmembers, or $435 and $475 when purchased at the airport.