During the 2017 Thunder Over Michigan airshow, I had the opportunity to ride on Yankee Air Museum’s B-17G Flying Fortress “Yankee Lady”. The aircraft, serial 44-85829, was built by Lockheed Vega at their Burbank, California plant and delivered to the USAAF in July of 1945, but never flew combat missions. After the war ended, the aircraft was transferred to the Coast Guard and configured for air-sea rescue. In 1958, she was retired by the Coast Guard and subsequently sold for scrap. However, she was spared the torch and used for aerial survey and aerial fire-fighting work. She even appeared in the 1970 film “Tora! Tora! Tora!”.
Thanks to the warbird movement to preserve the historic aircraft of World War II, she escaped the torch again when the fledgling Yankee Air Force purchased her in 1986 and began the extensive restoration from aerial tanker to her original bomber configuration. After a nine year restoration, Yankee Lady took to the skies as the flagship of the Yankee Air Force (now Yankee Air Museum) fleet.
The flight experience began with a safety brief at planeside and seating assignments. The crew of three boarded first, then the twelve passengers. Yankee Lady came to life as the four Wright R1820 engines coughed to life. After the engines warmed up and safety checks were complete, we began to taxi to the runway.
As I sat there, I could not help but think of my Mother’s uncle, who served as a B-17 tail gunner in the 99th Bomb Group in Italy during the Second World War. He shared countless stories of his missions over Europe and of his experiences as a prisoner of war after being shot down on his 23rd mission. The vibrations, the noise and even the mechanical smells he described to me as a kid came to life before me. This was a machine of war. There are no comforts for passengers and every space was used for required equipment. As we turned onto the active runway for take-off, I remember him saying that besides flak, the worst part of the mission was take-off. When fully loaded for war, a Fortress needed a lot of runway, but not this day. Even with a full load of passengers, the aircraft took off smoothly and with little effort.
After takeoff, we were permitted to move freely about the aircraft to explore the various crew positions. Forget any preconceived notion that the aircraft is spacious. Moving around was challenging due to the cabin’s small space and the continuous movement of the aircraft. The experience of walking in flight was similar to walking on a boat in a light chop. You had to develop a sense of balance to move around easily. Transitioning from the waste gun position to the radio/navigator positions required walking around the ball turret. No easy task for a novice flyboy. To get to the main cabin required a trip across a very small bridge across the bomb bay! It was challenging, and one can only imagine doing it with a full bomb load and the stress of war around you. Access was available to the top turret and bombardier/navigator position in the nose, but was unable to take advantage of the opportunity this time.
After a few minutes, we began a sharp turnaround to begin our return to the airport (below us was the University of Michigan football stadium) and eventually got the signal to strap back in. As we touched down, one passenger looked at us with a huge smile on his face and two thumbs up yelled “that was awesome!” and none of us disagreed. As we taxied back to the ramp, we all smiled and the chatter was non-stop about our amazing flight experience. Each was different as many of the passengers went to all of the available crew stations, including the incredible bombardier position in the glass nose. In addition to rides in the B-17, the Yankee Air Museum offers flight experiences in three additional aircraft: B-25D Mitchell, C-47 Skytrain and a Waco biplane. The museum is located at the historic Willow Run Airport in Belleville, Michigan and rides can be purchased at their website yankeeairmuseum.org. Thank you to Yankee Air Museum Director Kevin Walsh and Canadian Editor Kerry J Newstead for making this opportunity available. The flight was truly an unforgettable experience.
This article was previously published in the January/February 2018 edition of WORLD AIRSHOW NEWS.