Last week our Roadtrippers team had an opportunity we won’t soon forget. The kind folks at the Experimental Aircraft Association invited us to fly on the B-17 Bomber mentioned in this post a few months ago.
For getting ready to go up in a plane this old and priceless, our pre-flight briefing was… brief. Our crew chief reminded us not to pull the exposed tail control cables running overhead as it would actually turn the plane. Oh, and if we dropped our camera in the bomb bay, don’t try to get it. The doors will open and you will fall out. Are you serious? After that, it was wheels up.
Soon after takeoff all on board were allowed to wander about the plane and even spend a few minutes in the panoramic nose seat of the bombardier. Just being up in the air in this plane was a feeling you never forget. You expect a 70+ year old plane built for war to be bumpy and turbulent, but it was quite the opposite. Even our landing was smoother than any commercial flight we've been on. Those four giant engines just pushed us through the air like a knife in butter, but, of course, no one was shooting at us.
We were also honored to fly with a few WWII veterans who actually flew on the B-17 in Europe. Over lunch we learned the story of one of these veterans, Herb Heilbrun.
The 91-year-old Herb flew 32 missions during the war, all while still a teenager. This number of runs certainly made Herb part of the “Lucky Bastard” club of men who flew more than 25 missions. We also learned of a special bond he has with a local Tuskegee Airman named John Leahr. Leahr and Heilbrun were neighbors as kids, and Leahr provided air support for Heilbrun throughout the war. Only years later did they learn of how closely their paths intersected. Today Herb spends much of his time reminding others of the sacrifices made by the Tuskegee Airmen like Leahr.
We went back to the office that day with our toughness in question. After flying on the B-17 you have a mental framework for just how courageous and utterly bad-ass these men were. One of the veterans mentioned he was embarrassed to tell his buddies his plane only had 82 bullet holes after a run.
We will never have 82 bullets fired at us sitting in this office. Ever. And our office is in a "neighborhood in transition." When we were 19 we were complaining about an econ test or chasing some skirt at a college bar. These guys flew in freezing temperatures over hostile territory in a flying brick hoping to not get shot down and killed or captured. Suddenly our 3pm vision and strategy meeting seems pretty pathetic…
The local chapter of the EAA, the Cincinnati Warbirds, mentioned they don’t get much publicity for the B-17 tours… “Not sensational enough,” they told us. Well folks, there is nothing more sensational than flying on one of these beasts after hearing stories from the men who were brave enough to fly them in combat. Twerk on that, Miley.