Cheating Russians, Nazis and luck on a B-17

Published: Friday, Oct. 14 2011 6:00 p.m. MDT

A dummy sits in place at the tail-gunner position at the back of the B-17 'Aluminum Overcast.'

Michael De Groote, Deseret News

WEST JORDAN — The night before I am to fly on a B-17, I watch a video on YouTube of the World War II bombers in combat.

Again and again the planes are shot down. Spinning out of formation and breaking up. Engines fly off wings. Tails collapse. Smoke. Flames. The bombers fall as crews bail out over Nazi Germany and as Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter planes pound their bigger American counterparts with heavy gunfire.

Watching footage like that can make a person nervous about flying in a vintage airplane.

But the next afternoon, there will be no enemies firing upon the "Aluminum Overcast" — a restored B-17G — as it begins a weekend of flights from South Valley Regional Airport in West Jordan. The plane is a historical artifact, operated by the Experimental Aircraft Association out of the plane's home base in Oskosh, Wis., on its annual nationwide city tour. People can take ground tours through the plane — but the real wonder of the B-17 is reserved for those who fly in it.

On Thursday a few B-17 veterans have been invited to fly along with members of the media.

If they want to.

Ray Brim, 89, is a former B-17 pilot in 92nd Bombardment Group. He flew 25 combat missions over Nazi targets. "We were scared every mission," Brim says. "I never flew a mission but what my plane was damaged."

Dan Ragan, 77, encourages Brim to come on the short flight of the plane: "Come on."

"No way," Brim responds. "I used up all my luck."

Ragan is a Navy veteran of the Korean War and a former B-17 crewmember. In the 1950s he flew along the coasts of Korea and China in a specially modified B-17 called a PB-1W that had advanced radar capabilities to monitor suspected enemy aircraft. His brother was 10 years older and had been a B-17 pilot. "It was a little brother's dream to fly the same plane," he says.

And now he was going to fly in it once again.

Ragan and his clutch of passengers climb aboard the B-17 and strap themselves in. The engines start up. Vibrations and bouncing fill the fuselage as the bomber begins to taxi to the runway. On the ceiling are wire control cables that move back and forth as the pilot controls the tail rudder.

Then the engines really cut in with a sustained growl as the plane picks up speed. The tail section rises off the ground, and then the front wheels rise as the 66-year-old flying fortress zooms into a clear blue sky.

At that point everybody unbuckles their seatbelts and begins to explore the plane, walking around the belly ball gun turret in the floor and then across the bomb-bay catwalk.

The bay is full of bombs — they are empty, but it is a grim reminder of the plane's original purpose. The seam between the doors is not tight and the bright light from outside shines through. A high hissing sound complements the unceasing throb of engines.

At the front of the plane passengers can go up to the cockpit or down to the very front of the plane where a chair is perched in a clear Plexiglas nose tip. This is where the bombadier made his calculations with the top-secret Norden bombsight.

Throughout the plane are machine guns and long streams of ammunition belts; each gun had only about one minute's worth of shooting time.

Ragan sits at the radio station. He is in a full tan flight suit like he wore in Korea.

Everybody is all smiles as the plane makes its way back to the airport. After a smooth landing, the plane taxis back to outside the hanger.

Now that it is quiet, the WWII B-17 pilot Brim comes on board and slowly makes his way to the front of the plane — back to the cockpit.

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