The Liberty Gazette
November 29, 2011Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: Over the East Texas landscape while deviating around, over and under clouds I studied the layout of the cockpit and the view out along the massive wings. The control inputs required a little heavy-handedness to roll the big airplane right and left but overall not too heavy. Just a little pressure to maintain or change altitude. Though this airplane never actually saw wartime service, I thought about the history of airplanes like it that had been so thick in the skies over Europe during WW II that they cast an Aluminum Overcast, the name of this Boeing B-17G I was given the privilege to fly.
Linda: The Experimental Aircraft Association owns and operates Aluminum Overcast on a very busy tour schedule around the country. This is one of about 30 B-17s remaining in the world and one of eleven still flying. Our EAA Chapter 12 hosted her this year as she toured through Houston, and worked as ground crew for the event. I took a flight earlier in the week; Mike joined the crew in this piece of flying history to her next venue, Shreveport, Louisiana.
Mike: I crawled around inside the beast, carefully twisting though passageways into the nose compartment, where the navigator/bombardier sat at a small desk on the left side of the compartment. There, they’d plot their course, maybe using a sextant to “shoot the stars” for navigation. Did the men ever get used to looking out the windows mere feet forward of spinning propellers? Here I was, where they once were, sitting out way over the front-most part of the aircraft in the massive Plexiglas bubble nose. They’d have to hunch over to look down through the Norden bombsight. Acrophobics will likely pass on this opportunity as it feels like being on a plank in front of the aircraft with your feet dangling in space five thousand feet above the ground. I could sit there for hours and watch the world go by at 150 knots.
Working my way back to the radio room and the rear waist gunner position I squeezed through the narrow catwalk through the bomb-bay, where payload was carried to Europe in war time. The catwalk, suspended in the crux of two “V” shaped beams extending from the top of the bomb-bay, is attached to one of the wing spars that crosses through the aircraft above the compartment. I was once as agile as the 18-21 year old kids who were flying these machines during the war. Working my way around the lower ball-turret, I took in the view from the waist-gunner windows, decommissioned 50-caliber machine guns still attached. Plexiglas encloses the window now, but in wartime it was open for a vast view of the horizon on either side of the aircraft. The tail-gunner position was closed to visitors, but that’s okay, it would almost require a shoehorn to get into anyway.
Some of the few remaining veterans who manned these magnificent machines came out to tour and fly in the aircraft one more time, and to remember and mourn, as we all must, those who didn’t return. This is something I thought about on the one and a half hour flight from Sugarland to Shreveport. The cost of freedom isn’t free.