A Good Story of Life

by Jack

For the last week the Chico Air Museum, a completely self-funded endeavor, has been host to another self-funded organization, the Commemorative Air Force.   These dedicated professionals give freely of their time, talent and money to bring to the public extremely rare and historically important aircraft.

For about three thousand visitors this week it was the chance of a lifetime to see a real B25 Mitchell bomber and a B17 Flying Fortress, both of course from World War II.   The bombers were parked just outside our hanger and this allowed people to observe them from the museum’s viewing area.  Others took a tour and a few lucky folks signed up for a flight on their favorite plane.

The flights began Friday and ran through Sunday, with the bombers ending air operations around 2 pm, then they were opened up for more ground tours.

Let me tell you, this was a very big deal for the people of Chico, the air museum and for the Commemorative Air Force.  Everybody had a great time.

I flew in the B17 today from Chico to Lake Oroville.  This was not like any commercial flight or civilian aircraft I’ve ever been on.   I was seated in the radio operator’s area close to the pilots flight deck.  Others in my group took up various positions from front to back in such places as, right and left waist gunner area,  navigator’s seat and in the nose section.  I was about 10 feet behind the starboard engine and it was pretty darn loud there.  Of course I had ear plugs and that helped, but this made conversation near impossible with other crew members.

During the taxi I surveyed the inside of the 75 year old B17 and noted it carried 10 .50 cal. machine guns that pointed in every conceivable direction, thus the name Flying Fortress.  This plane was a beast.

During our pre-flight safety  briefing we were warned not to stand on the bomb-bay doors, it only took 100 lbs. of pressure to make them open.   Also overhead and right above my station were the control lines for the tail section, they were only about 1/8 inch thick of stainless steel wire and if they failed… well, lets just say life would get real interesting in a matter of seconds.

On take-off I was surprised to feel the sudden acceleration as this big bomber’s 4 radial engines roared to life.  We were pushed into our seats and we stayed there until we were well above 80 mph.   A few seconds later we were lifting off into the blue skies just like B17 crews had done so many times in WWII.   What a rush.

Amid the noise, vibrations, drafts and smell of engine oil, I suddenly gained a new  appreciation for what the real bomber crews must have gone through back in the day.  The inside was not pressurized and like I said, it was drafty.  This was not a problem because it was 95 degrees outside, but I thought what if wasn’t?  What if it was in the freezing cold of January flying over France and Germany?   There would be wing icing, it would be well below freezing inside the bomber, windows would be icing over and the crew would be in electrically warmed flight suits.  We would also be on oxygen above 12,000 feet.

Weather conditions were one thing, but what about being jumped by a bunch of German ME109’s fighters determined to blast us out of the sky?  Or how about the sheer terror of encountering incredibly accurate German 88 mm flack guns that would fill the skies with puffs of deadly black smoke?    There was not one safe place to be on this ship during combat, the aircraft skin was just thin aluminum that you could punch holes in with a screw driver.  Your only defense was manning a .50 cal machinegun and fight for your life.

It’s obvious to me that the crews of B17’s and other allied bombers during the war were all heroes.  They knew the odds of survival were slim, yet they kept taking to the air, mission after mission.  For example, the 8th AF ran a casualty rate in excess of 50 percent of crew force. In the 8th AF, the pioneers of 1942-43 paid the heaviest cost. Only one in five of these fliers completed their tour of duty. Of the 110,000 aircrew in Bomber Command, 56,000 were killed, a loss rate of 51 percent!   Not good odds was it?  Think we could tolerate those losses today?  We asked an awful lot of the young men back in WW2, but they delivered.

As a side note, among our dignitary visitors today was a former USAAF, P-51 pilot, Clarence “Bud” Anderson, the last living triple ace of WWII.  Bud is an author and a decorated pilot who has been a featured guest speaker on the History Channel and the Smithsonian channel.   It was an incredible honor to meet this man.  If you don’t know anything about him you should, click this link.  




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11 Responses to A Good Story of Life

  1. RHT447 says:

    Outstanding! And congrats on the ride. Puts a whole new flavor on everything you have ever read or watched. Those Wright Cyclone engines put out 1200 HP each at war time max power.

    My dad was a B-17 pilot with this Bomb Group–


    –and flew 35 combat missions over Europe.

    I’ve been up for a ride as well. Here is a paste of that came to be–

    “OK. Here’s my B-17 ride story. This takes place in Chico, CA in 1997. I won’t take up space here with the back story as to how I snapped my left Achilles tendon a wound up with my leg in a cast.

    The main point is that it was a toes down non-walking cast, which meant that I was pretty much stuck at home for the duration of said cast (7 weeks). Watched TV until I was sick of it. Read books. Bored out of my mind. One of the things that helped me keep my sanity was that there was some decent local talk radio.

    So one day while I’m sitting there with my leg up, the local station starts to promo a visit to the Chico Airport by the Collings Foundation B-17 and B-24. Not only that, but in the weeks prior, there will be a contest on the radio for a ride on said aircraft. Callers answering WWII history questions correctly will get their names tossed in a hat, with the winner to be drawn. I am on this like white on rice. At some point, I manage to be the first caller in line to answer the question “who signed the surrender documents for Nazi Germany?”. Bingo. My name is in the hat.

    Comes the big day of the drawing and I am glued to the radio. They mix the hat, draw the name, and ta-da, it ain’t me. I recognize the name and know who it is (good for him!) but, it’s not me. Oh, well. At this point, I decide to turn off the radio call my army buddy as it has been almost a year since we last yakked.

    I find out after the fact about the following train of events.

    The radio station calls the contest sponsor (Thrifty car rental?). “We have a winner for the plane ride”.

    Thrifty: “Great! Who’s the other winner?”.

    Station: “Whut? What other winner?”

    Thrifty: “Yeah, you know. Two planes, two rides, two winners”.
    Station: “Standby”.

    Pandemonium breaks out. Recover the trash can. Dig out all the names that didn’t win. Toss them back in the hat, and draw another name. THAT’S when they drew my name.

    They announce this on the air, along with the fact that I have one hour to call in to claim my prize. Except that I’ve turned off the radio and am yakking on the phone. Everyone in the county who knows me and heard this is calling me and getting a busy signal (land line) and are ready to drop mortar rounds in our yard to get my attention.

    Luckily, I got off the phone with about 10 minutes to spare. It rang the instant I put it down. It was my good friend and reserve XO (ex-Navy enlisted) who told me in a most direct and eloquent manner to “CALL THE FIRE TRUCKIN’ RADIO STATION!”

    So I got my ride, along with my crutches and my cast. And I got to tell my dad all about it.”

    Your remarks are spot on, Jack.

    • Post Scripts says:

      Great story RHT, well said and ironic too. What are the odds that we should both be members of that very small group of people that can say they have flown in a B-17? If only as a passenger and without anybody shooting at us. It was one of those once in a lifetime kind of things that we’ll never forget and it was an especially poignant moment for a couple of military history buffs like ourselves.

      I forgot to mention that Sunday while I was working I had the great pleasure of meeting and exchanging a few words with our old buddy Cherokee Jack who came to see the bombers. (CJ I hope you had a good time out there?)

      PS My first cousin (Bob Hall of Yuba City) was tail gunner on either the B24 or B25 during the war and he had some remarkable action photos taken during bombing raids and aerial combat, priceless pictures that he accumulated for almost 3 years. Unfortunately, somebody swiped them and his camera before he was discharged. Bummer.

  2. J Soden says:

    Thank you, Jack, for your article – well written and with love.

  3. Libby says:

    “We asked an awful of the young men back in WW2 and they delivered.”

    Like they had a choice? Should you be going all sentimental over such a thing?

    • Post Scripts says:

      Libby, but they did have a choice! 38.8% (6,332,000) of U.S. servicemen and all servicewomen were volunteers, but an even higher percentage volunteered for the air corps and almost 100% of pilots were volunteers.

      Surely you would not be trying to diminish the bravery and patriotism of these world war two veterans, be they volunteers or draftees?

      • RHT447 says:

        My dad was inducted. He was two weeks into basic training at Ft. Ord on that fateful December 7th. He was safely tucked away in Texas as an enlisted medical clerk when he was offered, and accepted, an application for the Air Corps to fill out.

        Some years back, I checked out a book from the Butte County library about the 8th Air Force. Like a dummy, I didn’t write it down. It was full of first hand anecdotes from both sides. I remember one from a German fighter pilot who first flew against the Russians, then was transferred to the Western Front.

        When he first encountered the American bomber formations, his thought was “My God, our formations for Hitler’s birthday never looked that good”. He also said “And they came on. Always, they came on”.

      • Libby says:

        “Surely you would not be trying to diminish the bravery and patriotism of these world war two veterans, be they volunteers or draftees?”

        Sentimental tripe.

        My great-uncle was drafted (not inducted) … and snuffed at 18 years of age. His parents never got over it.

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