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Cheating Russians, Nazis and luck on a B-17

Published: Friday, Oct. 14 2011 6:52 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.

It is the first time he has been inside a B-17 since 1950. He stands slightly below and behind the left chair — the pilot's seat he used to sit in. He points over to the opposite wall.

He said they were not as afraid of the enemy fighter planes as they were of the flak — the bursting anti-aircraft shells. They could defend against fighter planes, but there was nothing they could do about flak.

"A piece of flak came right through there," he says. "It bounced off a strut here and then off the back of my chair."

Brim talks about the co-pilot who replaced him when he became a pilot. That co-pilot had his arm cut off by flak and then bled to death. "That could have been me."

In the back of the plane, someone else has come inside and is listening to Brim. It is Matt Green, an active Army helicopter pilot. Green's late grandfather, Fred Sorenson, was a B-17 tail-gunner and ball turret gunner.

Green said his grandfather's B-17 had to make a hard emergency landing near the end of World War II. The Russians had just liberated the town. "They were just as afraid of the Russians as they were the Germans," Green says.

So to get on the good side of the Russians, they offered to fix up their plane and give it as a gift to the local Russian military leader in return for good treatment.

The Russians thought this was a great idea and allowed them to work on the plane, even letting Green's grandfather and crew take the plane for a test flight before finally handing it over.

The Russians never saw the plane again; Green's grandfather flew the plane to safety in Allied-occupied Italy.

As I leave the Aluminum Overcast behind, I walk through the hanger lobby on the way to my car. In the lobby is Gale H. "Pat" Patterson, another B-17 pilot. He missed the flight because of car troubles. I sit next to him as he talks about his B-17, named "Never Satisfied."

On his 16th and last mission over Germany, his plane was hit badly by flak. Gasoline was pouring over the plane and pooling in the bomb bay. "It was a flying bomb," Patterson says.

He gave the order to bail out. Nine men jumped out of the plane. For a moment Patterson was alone in the doomed plane, then he jumped out into the void.

"The B-17 was life or death for us. It was our lifeline," he said. "Once we had abandoned it, we felt pretty bad."

Ten men jumped out. Ten parachutes opened. Ten prisoners were taken.

Patterson spent 7 months as a POW before Gen. George S. Patton's troops liberated the prison camp.

I ask him when was the last time he was in a B-17.

"When I bailed out," he says.

"What day was that?"

"October 13, 1944. It was a Friday."

"Today is October 13."

"It is? I hadn't thought about that."

Some people come with a golf cart to bring him over to look at the plane. I ask him, with all the different B-17s that have come through the Salt Lake area over the years, why did he never come to see one before today?

"I just never got together with one. Now I think I've waited too long — I'm 91 years old," he said. And then, no doubt thinking about his "Never Satisfied," he added, "It would be fun to take another trip."

If You Go: The EAA's B-17 tour "Salute to Veterans" runs from Noon to 5 p.m. through Sunday at Leading Edge Aviation, South Valley Regional Airport, 7365 South 4450 West in West Jordan. Reserved flights are $439, walk-ups are $465. Self-guided ground tours in the plane are $5 per adult or $15 per family; children under 8 are free. Tours for active military or veterans and their spouses are free. To book a flight call 1-800-359-6217 or 920-371-2244 or go to www.b17.org.

EMAIL: mdegroote@desnews.com TWITTER: degroote

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