An Amazing Flight Back In Time! – (A Historical Travelogue)
Posted by intellisg on May 13, 2007
Somewhere over Nazi Germany in 1944 in a B-17 flying fortress…..a true story brought to you exclusively by the brotherhood press.
It was supposed to be a special mission – a 30 bomber raid on the heavily defended target, Adolf Hitler’s bunker in Berlin. The Luftwaffe had been alerted that there was a bomber formation heading across France towards Germany. We knew they would scramble their fighter planes once we crossed over to France.
Just before day break when the sun was peeking out, they “the bats” as we all called them, came out like “they’re all on fire from hell” forming up for the kill.
The captain broke through the intercom frantically,
“Get ready boys! There are coming in thick and fast at 9’o clock!”
Some of us looked at each other. Others crossed themselves or hung on to their bunny feet for luck as we readied our guns. The same German squadron had taken out our best of squadrons just the week before. Most of us were scared stiff. Suddenly all hell broke loose as bullets peppered the fuselage. I looked across the deck, the aft gunner an 18 year old from Iowa was slumped.
“The bats” flashed across my port, I let loose trailing them as best I could. From the corner, I noticed one of our bombers had been mauled, it was spewing black smoke from it starboard engines. In a while, it keeled over and disappeared.
Another wave came, this time rolling over inverted while firing. One of them came so close to me. I could see the pilot, he wore an evil grin. I let loose a hail of fifty caliber rounds firing a sustained burst. Suddenly it burst into flames momentarily blinding me. It was then that they broke off. Not before taking out at least 6 of our bombers down. The German fighter planes had mauled us with deadly accuracy. Some of the planes were in serious trouble keeling sideways spurting out precious or barely hanging on for dear life.
Yet it was just beginning. We still had to race towards the target for our bomb run and there waiting for us would be another round of intensely accurate flak fire.
After making the bomb run. I noticed that there were only three planes left. To think that we started with 30 bombers – burned in my mind even today were the voices over the intercom of somebody being hit or going down, the calls to crew to bail out in its death throes, the counting of parachutes as they appeared behind a stricken plane.
Everything still seemed so unreal I still remember the moment like a nightmare in slow motion.
– Flight Gunnery Sergeant Mike Polansky.
We arrive just before daybreak in Peachtree Airport in Atlanta. It’s not everyday that we get to experience a historic flight in a beautifully restored B-17 Flying Fortress. This aircraft is an example of the American heavy bomber that helped turn the tide of battle in World War II.
“Fly a mission back in time,” a banner said. “…and feel the might of this magnificent aircraft, just like those brave young men did more than 60 years ago.” Intoned the seventy something Mike who greeted us that chilly morning as he gave us a brief run down on what to expect – soon we were off.
As the plane started off its port engines, the noise filtered through the wafer thin fuselage, shaking and vibrating as it lumbered along. Mike who was strapped opposite us, smiled,
“Yeap, it was like that then and now! She’s as bare knuckle as they come. You’ve get use to it! Hang on now you hear!”
Soon the aluminum beast taxied towards the run away taking its position. The voice came through the intercom,
As the plane barreled across the tarmac, I felt myself turning back to the period some 60 odd years ago, when young men such as myself once went to war – only during those days, it was real, not like today. But hunching there in the tiny seat, I broke out in cold sweat as we were thrown at one hundred miles across asphalt like a pin ball. Mike curled up into a ball putting his knees on the chair. Later on he explained this was how most the crew took off much of the edge during the shaky take off.
Just two thirds into the take-off everything was shaking around frantically. The engines were opened at full throttled. The smell of kerosene wafted into the fuselage. At that moment, I felt as if everything was just going to give, the floor boards and side panels were rattling and vibrating as if Katrina was outside. The sound was deafening, roaring to a crescendo even our ear plugs didn’t do us much good.
Then as soon as it all began it all smooth out, the noise softening to a slight drone as the B-17 lumbered slowly skywards. The ride was bumpy and we found it difficult to maneuver, till Mike gave us a tip,
“Try to walk side ways, like a crab, bent your knees a little and keep them soft and make sure you keep your hands on something at all times.”
It worked. There were plenty of ribbing to hang on too. Unlike a commercial airliner, the B-17 is as seat of the pants rudimentary as it gets – no panniers or fancy paneling here, just lots of bare aluminum ribbing and a few open cut outs. It reminded me of a flying barn house.
“Everything is functional here and everything that isn’t just doesn’t get to go up.” Mike sniggered sensing our fear had turned into relief.
“Let me show you a neat trick,” the veteran said as he shuffled expertly to the back of the plane.
“See the space where the rear gunner sits, we used to call it the dead pan…You know why?”
Before we could answer the veteran gunner squatted down on a narrow cross-section and wedged himself securely. We got the hint, this was where they crapped during those long haul missions,
“This way a man can his business in peace and he doesn’t get bopped around. Best thing is its down wind.” That broke the ice. We all laughed.
Ten minutes into the flight and the plane began to level off into the slipstream, it was flying just below 8,000 feet and as we looked out through the port holes of the side gunner. Mike turned around and said,
“This was where the best gunners were usually placed, they (the Germans) the really deadly ones would come in from the side, because that’s where the armor was the thinnest.”
Holding the guns Mike showed us how it was done in an up and down fashion.
“Short burst, no longer than 5 seconds at a time. Otherwise they will jam and when that happens you’re as good as dead meat. I remember it got real cold in this section because the whole of the Atlantic comes right in. If a man sweated too much, he could just as well freeze to death. It happened a few times.”
Turning to a blind side just below where we stood, Mike pointed to the belly turret position. For a while he smiled as if remembering something from the distant past. Then bending really low he opened the hatch which revealed a plexi-glass bubble hardly large enough to fit a fully grown man.
“This is where smallest guy in the crew goes, the eight ball that’s what those boys called it. Did it a few times during those days and when I got out, they had to nearly pry me out. My hands, foot and balls were all frozen solid. I was about 2 inches shorter after that.
The belly turret is the hardest gun to handle – visibility ain’t too good there and it takes a hell a lot of skill and guts to go one on one with a German fighter that’s trying to take a bite out a piece of your ass. When you in that eight ball all by yourself, it’s a mighty lonely place. Sometimes when the ball gets shot up real bad, it gets jammed and we cant get the man out till we reach back home. It’s always scary because if the plane needs to ditch, well you know.”
Peering down the hatch I wondered how it must be like to be suspended in free space with German fighters swarming menacing around. As I looked up, the rest had followed Mike to the bomb bay area which was now just an extension of the fuselage.
Drawing an imaginary square roughly the size of two pool tables, Mike mentioned this was the section of the aircraft that carried the bombs.
Surveying the bay, it didn’t look like much today. I reminded myself the B-17 we were on board had been extensively gutted out and modified to met modern safety standards.
“We all called this the balcony and during the bomb drops, someone is supposed to stand along the edge to make sure they all drop. When the first fortresses rolled out they had a problem with the bomb bays, if you asked me someone in Boeing screwed up big time. Sometimes one of those bombs would get stuck and we’ve have to use a wrench to pry it loose. I remember the boys hated it and we had to draw lots, because every now and then some so poor grunt would just get sucked out along with the bombs.”
Moving to the mid section of the fuselage, Mike turned his attention to the forward section,
“That’s where the pilot, navigator and bombardier did their stuff – the officers that is – we called it all kinda of things in those days, the office, high ground, John, but it was the most dangerous place in the plane. The really good Germans fighters would take a bite out of there first usually closing in from a head to head position. That way they could more or less come in at roughly 600 miles or so, too fast for us to even line up to let loose a burst. No sir re, no armor up front it’s as soft as an underside of an alligator. Just a whole lot of plastic and a few wires holding it all together. We once had a flak shell come right through there, taking out two men clean. The skipper brought her home though, till today. I don’t know how the hell he did that. I guess they don’t call her the fortress for nothing. This old lady can sure take a beating. They don’t build them like that anymore.”
As we followed him into the cockpit area, the plane begins to lurch violently. In the cone section light spewed in from all directions and we could see clearly the panoramic view of Atlanta and beyond that the city in the far distance.
‘That’s the bombardier’s seat… We used to call it the eye, because you get to see everything from here. In those days when the navigators needed to check off their positions, they would try to spot something like a church or railway tracks. Not like these days. In those days, it was not uncommon for planes to get lost and even end up hundreds of miles of course. Seems crazy these days, but the navigator was a very important guy, he could make or break a mission. You see that thing like a microscope that’s the aiming device, it’s a complicated piece of hardware and if he (the bombardier) gets it wrong, it just means those babies (bombs) don’t end up where they are supposed too. I remember some intelligence guy telling us once, that if we were ever to ditch the bird (plane) in enemy territory, this was the first thing, we had to destroy. It was top secret, real hush- hush and all during those days.”
Mike peered out of the plexi-glass studying a few cumulus clouds in the far distance. It looked as if the weather was going to change for the worse.
As the plane began its bumpy descent Mike motioned us to strap ourselves in. Looking out of the porthole, the veteran gunner said,
“I’ve done this a thousand times and I like this part the best. The return that is, usually when the boys saw the white cliffs of Dover, it meant that we were home and safe. It’s always good to come back home….home sweet home.”
[Historical Flights onboard the B-17’s usually cost around US$390 per pax plus insurance. There are less than 50 operational B-17’s flying today. Catch them before they go off. Relive history!
Please note EAA members get a 20% rebate. And remember donate generously to those brave flyboys who once fought so bravely to preserve our freedom! The Brotherhood salutes you all. Tally ho!]
(By Atomic Monkey, Repairman and Praetoria / Travelogue Series / EP 992828 – The Brotherhood Press 2007)
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