My weekend? Thanks for asking. Let’s see. Dinner with a friend on Friday, bowling on Saturday night. Oh, and I was the bombardier on a B-17 bomber on Saturday morning.
I know what you’re probably thinking: Since when did Southerners bowl?
As for the bombardier thing, well, it was my good fortune to climb aboard “Sentimental Journey,” a World War II era B-17 bomber, popularly known as the Flying Fortress. The bomber is the pride of the Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force at Mesa’s Falcon Field. Although designed for long-range, high-altitude bombing, Saturday’s mission was a quick hop from Falcon Field to the Chandler Municipal Airport.
You could call it a 20-minute history lesson.
The bombardier, I learned, sits in the nose turret and flies the bomber once he locks onto his target. Two of the plane’s 13 50-caliber machine guns poked out of the Plexiglas bubble where I sat. In front of me was the Norden bombsight, a technology so advanced it was kept a secret until the end of the war. On my left was a box with a toggle switch labeled “bomb release.” I spotted a good many politician’s homes during the flight, but I couldn’t get that switch to work.
Otherwise, the mission was a success.
Sentimental Journey rolled out of the Douglas assembly plant in Long Beach, Calif., in 1944 and was assigned to the Pacific theater in March, 1945. The war ended before the bomber could see combat.
The restoration, which began in 1978 and completed in 1984, was done by volunteers. In fact, the Arizona museum was built, staffed and maintained by volunteers. The Commemorative Air Force was founded 1957 when veteran pilots realized the government had no interest in preserving aircraft that helped win the war.
Over the years since, vintage military planes have been refurbished and put into museums around the country. Missing pieces were bartered for and swapped. Sentimental Journey’s top turret came from a B-17 that was sitting on top of a gas station in Oregon.
From fall to spring, the Sentimental Journey makes short hops around the Valley. It’s open to the public, too, which would make a unique Christmas present. The museum is worth a look, too. If interested, call (480) 924-1940 or visit www.arizonawingcaf.com.
The B-17s were a decisive factor in World War II. But success had a price. Some 27,000 airmen from the 8th Air Force were killed, most during daylight bombing missions over Germany. As I sat in the nose turret, I tried to imagine what the young men who sat in that seat more than 60 years ago must have felt like during their missions. It took immense courage, I suspect.
All I know is that as soon as I landed, I had an insatiable desire to smoke an unfiltered cigarette and kiss a girl with an English accent.
Of course, that’s true most every weekend.