A few weeks ago, Rich and I visited the Museum of Flight in Seattle. This is our second year where we’ve gone and then in the afternoon, taking a helicopter ride courtesy of a discounted Groupon. Our plan-of-action was to see the parts of the museum, which we hadn’t seen the previous year, principally, the World War I and World War II galleries.
After getting our wristbands, Rich wanted to go back outside and check out the planes we’d never seen before. He was particularly interested in the Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress. After learning, we need to enter our name in a drawing to get a tour of the inside of the plane; Rich huffed back into the museum and submitted our names.
The drawings was going to be held in 30 minutes or so, providing us with an opportunity to see a smidgen of the T. A. Wilson Great Gallery, which is a giant glass structure with over 40 aircrafts suspended from the ceiling and on the ground. It’s breathtaking. You can easily spend several hours gawking at the aircrafts and snapping photos.
However, thirty minutes passed quickly and we zipped back to the table where they draw the names for the B17F tour. Amazingly, our ticket was drawn first. I could feel Rich’s humor immediate improve.
With ticket in hand, we waltzed outside along with two other men whose names were also drawn. The B-17F, owned by the museum is the most authentically restored B-17F in the world, and the other one, which is capable of being airborne. According to the tour guide, “no amount of money was spared in restoring the plane.” Boeing — as much a part of Seattle as Starbucks, Nordstrom’s, and Microsoft – provided a blank check.
Over 12,700 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses were built, starting in the 1930’s. Improved over the years, the heavy bomber aircraft became pivotal during World War II for bombing missions, most notably the Eighth Air Force raids on Germany and occupied territories. They were built tough to hold a crew of ten along with 8,000 pounds of short-range or 4,500 pounds of long-range bombs, and up to thirteen machine guns in the nose, tail, gun turret beneath the plane, two in the middle, and one behind cockpit. A further advantage of the B-17F was its ability to fly at 10,000 feet for ten hours at 200 to 250 miles per hour.
The B-17B at the Flight Museum was built in 1943 at Boeing’s Plant II. A year later, it left for the European Theater, but was never used in combat. Instead in November 1945, it was withdrawn from service and shipped to Altus, Oklahoma for disposal. A year later, it was stripped of war-making items and plunked in a War Memorial park in Stuttgart, Arkansas.
In 1953, it was purchased and turned into an aerial sprayer and later used for fighting forest fires, and as a tanker. In the late 60’s it appeared in several movies, including Tora Tora Tora, and the Memphis Belle. By 1991, it was in terrible shape, but was fortuitously purchased and installed at the Museum of Flight, where restoration began.
Ten years later, Rich and I got to tour the plane!
While Hollywood portrayed the glamour of being a World War II fighter pilot and crew member, it must have been miserable. Miserable!
The aircraft is as it names, implies, a flying fortress. There’s no heat so everyone wore heavy uniforms that were heated, along with gloves, hoods, helmets, boots, and an oxygen mask. Everyone was trained to constantly watch their individual oxygen regulators to make sure it was working – see the blinking “eye” in the B-17 album.
One crew member, usually a smaller man, would crawl into the tail section and shoot one of the machine guns. Another man would climb into the turret beneath the plane, lie on this back with his feet in stirrups, and spin around 360-degrees, firing at enemy planes. Two men sat in the nose of the plane, ready to shoot their machine guns. Two men stood in the middle of the plane, with no protection from the weather, as they fired machine guns. The navigator also had a gun, and was located behind the cockpit. In the cockpit were two pilots. The ten men stood or sat on a “swing seat” behind the navigator and fired a machine gun by looking through the “blister” on top of the plane.
These men stood at their post for up to ten hours. The “bathroom” was a tube that extended out of the plane with a metal funnel at one end. The tour guide noted the crew was very careful to make sure the funnel – icy cold – never touched any part of the skin. The kitchen was a thermos of hot coffee with paper cups.
The tour guide said that up to 1,000 B-17’s would fly in format, and then drop their bombs at once – carpet bomb – over Germany, France, and other axis strongholds. It also mentioned that there were huge fatalities with over half of the B-17’s being shot down.
It took over an hour to go through the Boeing Bee, the B-17, at the Museum, but it was certainly worth the time. Afterwards, we saw most of the World War I and II galleries. There’s so much to see… next year!