It’s not the fastest or newest plane at the Spirit of St. Louis Air Show and STEM Expo this weekend.
But the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) B-17G Aluminum Overcast is a rarity in today’s world.
Planes like Aluminum Overcast were mainstays for the United States during World War II, seeing action in all theaters.
Perhaps, the most iconic vision of the B-17 family came in the strategic daylight bombing missions over Germany and its occupied territory.
Only 12 B-17 Flying Fortresses are still reported to be in flying condition, which makes visits like this weekend’s stop a rarity.
The Air Show & STEM Expo runs from 9 a.m. through 5 p.m. each day at Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield. Tickets for the Expo are $10 in advance (www.spiritairshow.com) and $12 at the gate. Children 12 and under and active military (National Guard and Reserves) with ID are admitted free.
The U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels will perform during the event.
Flying in the B-17
Thursday’s media flight from Spirit of St. Louis Airport was about 40 minutes in length and flew over the Washington Airport before returning.
There is no mistaking the sound of the four Wright Cyclone engines when the plane is getting ready to fly. It’s something most today will never get to experience.
At takeoff, I was sitting at the radio operator’s position with windows overhead. The plane was designed to take off with a full bomb load and ammunition for the 13 .50-caliber machine guns. The weight of the 10 passengers and three crew members was well short of its war load.
Takeoff was graceful as the huge wings quickly gained lift and put us into the air. The pilots showed skill in keeping the plane from being buffeted too much by the weather and made it easy for the passengers to move around the plane.
As the plane flew over the Missouri River countryside and farmland toward Washington, the passengers cycled around to the different crew positions, including the waist gun windows (this plane has windows, instead of the open frames some earlier B-17 models had), over the ball turret, the radio room, over the bomb bay, up to the cockpit and even the nose of the plane where the bombardier and navigator were stationed.
We were cautioned to keep hold, but not to grab the wires. Unlike newer planes, the wires along the top of the compartments are the controls which allow the pilots to fly the aircraft. While some of the readouts in the cockpit are newer, most of the equipment is as was installed at the factory nearly 69 years ago.
The nose might be the most interesting part of the plane. Not only do you have a view of the terrain, seemingly supported by very little, but you have a great view of the propellers at work.
It was in this position that I got to see Washington in the distance. Our flight was brief (after a delay due to airspace restrictions with the Blue Angels practices), so we just looped around the Washington Airport and went back.
I was allowed to land in the cockpit, pretty much the experience the flight engineer (and top turret gunner) would have had during the war.
It’s hard to imagine how difficult things would be in an atmosphere of having over 1,000 planes flying in formation at altitudes up to 30,000 feet with flak and enemy fighters.
Crews were extensively trained for that task and it’s easy to say they had their hands full. The media ride gave everyone a more full appreciation for what our World War II ancestors went through.
The pilots gave us a very smooth landing and an experience all will remember forever.
The B-17 is flying out of Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield through Sunday with flights at 9 a.m., 10 a.m. and 11 a.m.
The plane also will be open for ground tours.
Flights can be booked by calling 1-800-359-6217 or on the EAA website, www.eaa.org.
Prices for ground tours are $10 per adult or $20 per family. Active military, veterans and children under 8 can tour for free.
Flights are $409 for EAA members and $449 for nonmembers through the preflight booking procedure. For those showing up to ride, the prices bump up to $435 for members and $475 for nonmembers.
The aircraft B-17G-VE 44-85740, now known as Aluminum Overcast, was completed May 17, 1945, at the Lockheed Vega plant in Burbank, Calif.
With the war in Europe over and resources heading to complete the war in the Pacific, the plane was modified and sent to storage in Syracuse, N.Y.
After the Japanese surrender, the plane was sent to Altus, Okla., and sold as military surplus to Metal Products of Amarillo, Texas, for $750.
At that point, most of the military equipment was removed from the plane. Through much searching and work the plane has been restored back to military condition.
That began a series of sales to owners who used the plane for many different purposes.
In 1947, the plane was put into service ferrying beef from Melbourne, Fla., to a ranch in Puerto Rico.
As part of Aero Service, Corp., of Philadelphia, the plane was used to map the Middle East and logged 3,325 hours over Iran, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Egypt and Jordan for mapping and photography purposes.
It also has been intended for use as a sprayer before Dr. Bill Harrison purchased the plane in 1978. In 1983, the plane was donated to EAA, and it was restored to its current condition.
The plane carries the colors of the original Aluminum Overcast (also known as Bronx Bomber II) of the 398th Bomber Group, 601st Squadron, which was shot down on its 34th mission over Le Manior/Rouen, France, Aug. 13, 1944. The group was based at Nuthhamstead, England.
Veterans of the 398th Bomber Group helped to restore this plane.
EAA also accepts donations through its website to keep the B-17 flying and able to make visits like the one to Spirit of St. Louis Airport.