August 28, 2006
Yesterday, I took my niece Cathy and brother-in-law Walter to the Manassas Regional Airport, to see a genuine World War II era B-17 "Flying Fortress" that was paying a special visit as part of a nationwide tour. Well-heeled visitors (not us!) had the opportunity to take a short passenger ride on the big old four-engine bomber. We opted for "economy class," taking a tour of the plane's interior while it was parked. This particular aircraft, named the "Aluminum Overcast," was delivered just after V-E Day in May 1945, so it never saw any combat. It has been refitted, however, so that it faithfully recreates an actual B-17G equipped to go on a combat mission. It is one of only a dozen or so B-17s in the entire world that are still able to fly.
After climbing a ladder into the forward hatch (see closeup photo), we had to squeeze our way up into the cockpit, which was not an easy task, I assure you. Then we made our way back, along a narrow ramp through the bomb bay into the radio compartment in the middle of the fuselage. Further back, there were two small convass cots for the crew to get some rest on long flights. I cannot imagine how the tail gunner or the gunner in the turret under the belly of the Flying Fortress could possibly fit inside such a tiny space, especially for an extended period. The engine, machine guns, bomb rack, and radios are all kept in superb condition, and it's hard to believe that the shiny plane is 61 years old. It was a truly memorable experience, and the folks at the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wisconsin are to be commended for the work they put into keeping this grand old plane airworthy. For details on this project, see www.B17.org.
While at the airport in Manassas, we also visited the Freedom Museum that is situated in the lobby. It has a very impressive set of photographic historical displays on U.S. military history, reminding us once again that "Freedom is not free." In conjunction with the B-17 visit, the museum was holding an "open house" with various special displays. We talked to Mr. Jeffrey L. Ethell, who has assembled a collection of rare, unique color photographs that you can browse at World War II Color Archives. We also talked to a U.S. Army Military Police soldier (female) with a dog trained to sniff out explosives -- a crucial and very dangerous task in Iraq right now. Finally, we talked to a retired U.S. Air Force guy who volunteers with a group that honors the memory of the First Canadian Parachute Battalion, which participated in the D-Day landings at Normandy. They hold annual parades in downtown Toronto, and it is apparently unusual to see firearms on public display in that country.