A Ride In A B-17

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One of my favorite things about being an editor of 573 Magazine is all the experiences that come my way. Organizations, chambers, city administrators… seeking a presence in the magazine offering ideas and invitations to cover events, places and people in their area. When I received an invitation to ride in a real WWll B-17 bomber from the Commemorative Air Force, Arizona, I knew it was going to be a great opportunity. IT WAS.

There are only ten B-17Gs left that are still flying. Man to get to ride in it was a dream of a lifetime and better yet, I got to ride in the nose of the aircraft in the bombardier seat hanging out over literally nothing but down. Once the 4 engine fired up, accompanied by the defying sound and vibrations, it was easy to let my thoughts wander. All I kept thinking is those young guys certainly had some guts. The idea of getting into this thin skinned thing, filled with bombs, while a pile of lunatics fired at you is mind blowing to say the least.

The first thing you notice when you climb into a B-17 is how small and primitive everything is. The most frightening thing is the realization that even though it was known as the Flying Fortress, it has very little protection outside of all the manned machine guns on board. The haul was actually only 1/32nd inch thick aluminum. You can easily punch a hole in the aircraft with a screwdriver, let alone sharp flak or the standard Nazi 30mm cannon round -both of which cut through the B-17 like butter.

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There were 13,000 made and more than 8000 were lost in combat. Not great odds for the 10 person crews required to make 25 missions in a tour of duty. The average airman only had a 1-in-4 chance of surviving the war. The average life expectancy of a B-17 crew member was 12 missions.

There were hundreds of ways to die on a B-17. When fully loaded with bombs, you had a good chance of crashing on takeoff. In the unheated or pressurized haul of the aircraft traveling at 29,000 feet, you needed oxygen and a heated suit just to stay conscious. Open to the outside, the temperatures dip down to 60 below zero on missions that could last more than 8 hours deep into Nazi territory. When you sit in the nose it’s hard not to imagine what these young guys went through. Heavy heated suits, origin masks, heavy gloves, thermal boots,… and then to have to peek through tiny windows shooting a machine-gun firing at Nazi fighter planes zipping past at 400 miles an hour.

There are machine guns poking out everywhere on the B-17, but the tail gunner was perhaps the most important gunner of them all. He protected the rear of the aircraft with twin .50 cal. machine guns. B-17 tail gunners shot many a Nazi out of the sky. Enemy pilots gained a healthy respect for the tail guns of a B-17 rarely launching attacks from the rear.

Tail gunners had a rough existence -just getting to the tail is a trick. Their compartment in the rear of the plane was one of the tightest, next possibly only to the ball turret. The gunner sat on a modified bicycle-type seat in a kneeling position for the majority of the mission. The tail was drafty and the gunner had to constantly battle frostbite and clearing the windows of frost. Escape when bailout was called was also difficult. The tail gunner was the only fixed rear-facing crew member. He was responsible for passing along anything he saw behind the aircraft. He would relay fighter information and track bombing results as the formations left the target. He also aided the navigator and radio operator by counting chutes from B-17s that were going down and the condition of other wounded B-17s.

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Before the fight I was introduced to a real WWII B-17 tail gunner. At 91 you could still see the pride he had for the Flying Fortress. We chatted a bit and walked to the rear of the aircraft. It was at that point you could see that he was overwhelmed by his emotions – obviously thinking of the brothers he lost in England when his B-17 crashed, taking the lives of all but himself. Meet Sgt. Clifford Heinrich.

It was December 1944. The Mission was in support of ground troops engaged in the Battle of the Bulge. On that day a crew of nine men boarded the B-17, known as 812. After they completed the mission they returned to a foggy evening and were forced to divert to Great Rollright, a small town in the county of Oxfordshire in South East England. The next day, in an attempt to return to their home base, the aircraft began to lose altitude and began to start clipping the tree tops. Sgt. Clifford Heinrich of Cape Girardeau was the tail gunner and managed to make it to the center of the plane just as it crashed. All on board were killed except Clifford.

His injuries were so severe that he was not expected to survive. But at 18 years of age, Clifford was not ready for his life to end. He fought. He spent time in two hospitals in England and then two in the United States. The war was well over before Clifford could even walk again.

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After years of recovery, Clifford became a salesman and later moved into management for a large automotive parts distributor. He currently lives in Cape Girardeau.

When Sentimental Journey entered service with the Commemorative Air Force, Arizona in 1978 members immediately undertook the chores of cleaning, polishing and repainting in WW II markings and putting the plane into excellent mechanical condition. From the gun turrets, operational bomb bay doors, navigator and radio operator stations, Norden bomb sight and machine guns, Sentimental Journey has been completely restored to original condition and now offers flights to anyone interested in the experience.

My name is Larry Perkins. I am the pilot of Sentimental Journey. I retired last year and now devote much of my time to flying the B-17 for the Commemorative Air Force. I have been very fortunate to fly many pilot hours in my favorite WWII fighters, bomber and transport: the P-51 Mustang, F4U Corsair, B-17 and C-47.

It is a privilege to bring these warbirds on tour to give local people the opportunity to tour the aircraft and ride in them so they can personally experience the history. Giving warbird rides is my favorite activity.

To learn more about the CAF and tour dates in the 573 visit: www.azcaf.org

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