By Chris Winters
SEATTLE — On a hot June day at Boeing Field south of Seattle, 13 men in their 90s gathered together to meet an old friend.
The Aluminum Overcast is one of the few Boeing B-17 bombers still flying.
The old gents were former crewmen who flew B-17s during World War II.
“It was a good, tough, tough airplane,” said Arthur Unruh, of Arlington. Unruh flew 50 missions as a waist gunner during the war.
“We brought some back so badly butchered up they never flew again. But they got us home,” Unruh said.
Unruh spent two years, seven months and seven days in the U.S. Army Air Corps, which later became the U.S. Air Force. He kept a daily journal that he later turned into a book about his wartime service, “The Shadow Casters.” First published in 2000, the book is now in its seventh printing.
He was stationed in Foggia, Italy, as part of the 301st Bombardment Group, 15th Air Force.
Another veteran from that group, Ret. Lt. Col. Ken Wheeler, recalled the group’s various missions.
“We dropped on oil refineries, ball bearing plants, marshalling yards,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler, a spry 93-year-old who was wearing his wartime uniform, flew as a navigator on 35 missions. The bombs had to hit a target to be credited as a completed mission, he said.
“In the end result I guess I went over targets 50 times to get 35 mission credits,” Wheeler said.
The B-17 was a workhorse bomber during the war. It supplanted earlier and smaller twin-engine bombers such as the Boeing B-9, and served as the nation’s first heavy bomber, capable of dropping 8,000 pounds of explosives from up to 35,000 feet in altitude.
When the plane was first unveiled in 1935 at Boeing’s Plant 2 in Seattle, a local reporter saw the all-metal frame and the bristling gun mounts and nicknamed it the “Flying Fortress.”
All told, 12,726 of the four-engine bombers were made, 6,981 by Boeing in Seattle and the rest under a wartime collaboration contract by Douglas Aircraft and Lockheed in southern California.
Famous B-17s include the Memphis Belle, one of the first to complete a 25-mission tour of duty, and the Chief Seattle, which disappeared Aug. 14, 1942, while on a reconnaissance mission over the Solomon Sea. It was presumed to have been shot down by Japanese “Zero” fighters.
With an all-metal airframe, a massive bomb load and most important, a range of 2,001 miles, the B-17 changed the way war planners thought about air power, said Boeing Corporate Historian Michael J. Lombardi.
“The idea of flying an airplane behind enemy lines and destroying an enemy’s capability to make war, it was something they tried during World War I, but it didn’t work out the way,” Lombardi said.
The B-17 often performed the same role as the Consolidated Aircraft B-24 “Liberator,” another heavy bomber with a higher carrying capacity, but a lower top altitude.
The Liberators also weren’t as tough as the Flying Fortress, and the B-17 wouldn’t be truly surpassed until Boeing rolled out the B-29 “Superfortress” in the late stage of the war against Japan.
By the end of the war, the jet age was beginning, and most of the obsolete B-17s were scrapped.
But in the European theater, the B-17s ruled the skies, and were tough enough to return to base even with hundreds of holes from flak shells, destroyed engines or missing nose turrets.
Four of the old soldiers gathering June 6 were veterans of the 398th Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force, which flew thousands of missions from the British air base at Nuthampstead against German targets.
Keith Anderson piloted 29 of those missions.
“That was the whole idea of the B-17: precision bombing,” he said. “From 30,000 feet we could hit a target 100 yards wide.”
But flying in an unpressurized, unheated aluminum tube at an altitude higher than Mount Everest was grueling. “It was around 60 below zero,” Anderson said.
And then there were the other dangers: enemy fighters, flak, mechanical failure.
Lou Stoffer, a flight engineer in the 398th, said he flew 35 missions.
“It should be 36, but they don’t count crashes,” he said. His plane crashed Dec. 24, 1944, on takeoff from Nuthampstead, killing two of his crewmates.
Aluminum Overcast, now owned and operated by the Experimental Aircraft Association of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is painted with the “Triangle-W” tail code of the 398th, and with the tail number of a B-17 from that group shot down over France. (Its pilot, Harold “Hal” Weekley, survived and later flew with the EAA until he died in 2010.)
This plane was made at Lockheed’s Vega factory in Burbank, California, one of the last B-17s produced. It never saw combat, but was used in the U.S. for bug spraying and aerial mapping, changing hands until it was donated to the EAA. It’s now flown across the country for air shows, giving people a chance to get up close and even ride in a piece of history.
On Monday, the 72nd anniversary of D-Day, several of the vets went up in Aluminum Overcast for a quick ride over Seattle and Puget Sound.
EAA Pilot Rick Fernalld, a former Alaska Airlines pilot, described the plane’s handling this way: “Cement truck, two flats, no power steering.”
“It’s 1935 technology. Heavy on the ailerons,” Fernalld said.
The inside of the fuselage was hot in the afternoon sun, and the roar of the engines drowned out almost all other sound.
The interior was cramped, with just a nine-inch catwalk between rows of dummy bombs and a tight crawl into the nose turret, an exposed clear plastic bubble where the bombardier and navigator sat.
On a sunny day, the Overcast’s shadow tracked the plane across north Seattle, Shoreline, Edmonds and Puget Sound 2,500 feet below. Mount Rainier and Mount Baker rose on the horizon and the sky was unbroken blue.
When the bomber landed, it bounced gently on the tarmac, the tires squealing and the smell of burning rubber wafting through the plane.
“Those are smoother than silk,” Fred Parker said after stepping off the plane. Parker was a tail gunner who flew 33 missions with the 398th.
Looking back at the plane, its engines now at a standstill, he added: “We never came back with all four running.”
Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.