I knew a lot about B-17 Flying Fortresses - or thought I did. I spent much of the 1970s assembling models of them in my basement. I once knew the B-17's battle history, armaments, bomb load, flight range and every stat my glue-addled brain could hold.
But I had never been inside one until I climbed into "Sentimental Journey" at the Commemorative Air Force Aircraft Museum in Mesa.
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Despite its name, cocky markings and the machine guns that bristle from every angle, once you crawl into a Flying Fortress, you'll be struck by ... how delicate it is. This is the difference between reading history and touching it. Once inside, you can see how the airplane's controls were just bare wires, strung through a thin outer skin; how wind and engine noise must have howled through the fuselage as young men swung guns back and forth. The planes are impressive, but a visit here underscores the bravery required of those who flew in them.
But the museum is more than just one bomber. To the bounce of Big Band music, 20-plus display aircraft chart the progress of military aeronautics from World War I through the Vietnam era. In between, its displays honor cockpit legends like the Tuskegee Airmen, who shattered the airborne color bar; the "lost" B-17, whose 1944 disappearance was solved more than half a century later; Bessie Coleman, the black laundress' daughter who emigrated to France when U.S. pilots wouldn't teach her, then returned to the states as a scene-stealing barnstormer (and the first black pilot licensed in the country).
The museum isn't as big as Champlin Fighter Aircraft Museum, which left in 2005. But it's still an evocative blast from the past for the Greatest Generation. And if you have kids or grandkids too young to remember, it's a great conversation starter.
Better hurry, though: After next week, "Sentimental Journey" takes one - barnstorming across the Midwest until the fall.