As I was flying in the Aluminum Overcast, a B-17 World War II bomber on a brilliant spring afternoon, buzzing the Mt. Diablo foothills, the cities of Concord and Walnut Creek and the Benicia Bridge, I was struck by one thought: How would it have felt to be a 19- or 20-year old soldier squeezed into one of these for hours, facing a known enemy and an uncertain outcome?
Especially after I was becoming airsick in the tight, rumbling quarters after only 15 minutes?
Still, I was a lucky passenger that day, part of a press junket on a 25-minute flight that was highlighting the plane’s visit to Concord’s Buchanan Airport that weekend. And despite the rumblings of the plane’s engines – some of my colleagues wore earplugs – and the rumblings of my stomach, the flight, and the plane itself, were magnificent.
The Aluminum Overcast – so named in honor of the original wartime Aluminum Overcast because pilots of two smaller planes flying beneath it as an escort said the B-17 was so big it felt like it was cloudy outside – is just one of just 11 B-17s still flying today. It is the pride and joy of the Experimental Aircraft Association, which sponsored the tour to Concord and to other cities across the U.S.
The majestic plane has a wingspan of 103 feet, 9 inches and is 74 feet 4 inches long. It weighs a whopping 36,135 pounds empty, with a loaded weight of 54,000 pounds. A whimsical, scantily clad woman – a la Rita Hayworth – adorns the side of the plane in true World War II fashion.
As I climbed into the plane, it was a little bit like the open seating of a Southwest jaunt to San Diego, with the nine other passengers and I jockeying for a window seat. But the closest window to me was occupied by a machine gun, so I was a bit out of luck. Unlike commercial flights, we were urged by the EAA escort and crew member to unfasten our seatbelts and roam through the small space – into the gunneries even – and take pictures. I did as many as my pathetic Samsun phone could muster, of the inside of the aircraft, the other passengers and of the stark beauty of our hometowns below.
Little did I know that this particular aircraft had lived a long and storied life after the war, In fact, it was built by the Vega Division of Lockheed Aircraft Company in May of 1945, right before the end of the war, and never saw action in Europe, where most of the B-17s were deployed. In October of that year it was stripped of all its weaponry and declared “surplus,” eventually selling for $750 to a metal scrap firm. It was “rescued” and resold to Universal Aviation, where it was used for aerial mapping.
It went on to be sold several more times, at one time even serving to haul cattle in Florida and Puerto Rico. In 1949, it was bought again by an aviation company and used again for mapping purposes over Arabia, Libya, Lebanon, Iran, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Egypt and Jordan. If the dang plane wasn’t so loud, it be accused of being a spy plane.
It then went on to inauspicious careers in pest control and firefighting, but was rescued itself in 1978 by Dr. Bill Harrison, heading up the “B-17s Around the World” program. He named it the Aluminum Overcast in honor of the 601st Bomb Squadron, 398th Bomb Group’s plane that was shot down over France in August of 1944. Veterans of that bomb group helped finance the bomber’s restoration to near-wartime appearance, although no armament was installed. It flew at air shows across the U.S. In 1991, the group donated it to the EAA Foundation. The extensive work of rebuilding all the interior stations, including the radio compartment, waits gunner’s stations, tail turret navigator’s station, as well as replacing the cabin’s flooring, was all done by volunteers. Where authentic components were not available, realistic replicas were used. The plane is about 95 percent authentic, although things like new radios have been installed.
All this information flew out my ears as I took the short flight, just enjoying the wonder of the views below and the lingering sense that I was having a much easier flight than those servicemen back in WWII who flew in almost exactly the same types of planes. But the significance was not lost on me.
Nor on others in the air with me. “These planes helped win the war,” said pilot John Bode, a 12-year volunteer with the EAA and a former airline pilot. “The enemies didn’t have a chance.”