A Flight Back To Another Era

by Bill Blake
Published in Midwest Flyer – June/July 2018 issue

On April 11, 2018, military veteran and crew chief, Sergeant Bill Kelly of Lakeland, Florida, made his first flight in a bomber since World War II. Now, 75 years later, Sergeant Kelly was flying in the Commemorative Air Force B-17 Flying Fortress “Texas Raiders” in the friendly skies over Lakeland, Florida at the annual Sun ’n Fun Fly-In held at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport.

Born in Camden, New Jersey, Sergeant Kelly enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1943 and was deployed to Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands prior to the arrival of the first Boeing B-29 Superfortress used in the Pacific Theater. There for nearly two years, he was involved in bombing missions against Japan. After he was discharged in 1946, Kelly went on to flight school, obtained his commercial pilot certificate, and eventually went to work for Sears Roebuck. Retiring in 1988, Kelly moved to Florida, and today resides in Lakeland.

“Texas Raiders,” flown by the Commemorative Air Force – Gulf Coast Wing, is one of only nine B-17s actively flying today. The aircraft is also the first B-17 to be restored solely for the purpose of education. The aircraft first flew in the military, then in civilian life, and is now a flying museum dedicated to educating the public about warbirds and honoring the veterans who flew them.

I had the dual pleasure of chatting with Sergeant Kelly while waiting for the B-17 to arrive at Sun ’n Fun, and then joined him on a flight.

As a combat veteran, Sergeant Kelly wanted to know whether or not we were going to be issued parachutes for our flight, so I asked the loadmaster during the passenger briefing. The loadmaster responded in jest by stating there were no parachutes because today there is more interest in preserving the aircraft than the crew.

I was assigned to the bombardier position in the nose of the aircraft, as opposed to a seat in the main cabin. The bombardier position is enclosed in a Plexiglas bubble in front of the engines and cockpit area. There are seats for the bombardier and a gunner. Having flown in military aircraft before, I was not surprised to find the seating austere and the space confining, but I had the best view in the aircraft.

I couldn’t imagine how deafening it would be with the gunner firing a machine gun right behind my head, and no noise canceling headsets at the time. I suspect that it was always too hot or too cold in the bubble. Our flight was short, but long enough. A long flight at altitude would have been very tiring and was for our courageous military flight crews.

For pilots then and now, taxiing, takeoffs and landings in the B-17 must have taken a lot of practice. The nose of the aircraft is pointed so high that during taxiing and takeoff, the pilot has to get his visual cues from his peripheral vision to one side. Landing a B-17 requires great skill, especially in a crosswind.

After our flight, I had the opportunity to look around the rest of the aircraft. The other seats and positions were not much more comfortable than where I was sitting in the bombardier position, but the aircraft was not designed for comfort…it was designed as a weapons system.

To get from the rear of the aircraft to the cockpit, one must use a walkway so narrow that one foot has to be toe to heel in front of the other. Wiring, various gears, and control cables are exposed to help keep the gross weight of the aircraft to a minimum, and to provide easy access for making repairs. There is little padding to protect yourself from bumping your head or other parts of your body on various metal parts.

For me to fly in one of just nine B-17s actively flying in the world today, was an experience I will long remember and definitely worth the price of the ticket. For Sergeant Bill Kelly, it was a trip back in time when he was young, brave and adventurous, and put his life on the line for his country. I bet the flight brought back memories of various missions and comrades who were not as fortunate to come home, or who have since passed away. For sure, Sergeant Kelly is one of the last of the “Greatest Generation.”   

EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Blake, formerly of Peoria, Illinois, and now of Sarasota, Florida, is an active pilot and aircraft owner, as is his wife, Nancy. Prior to retiring, Blake was the AOPA Great Lakes Regional Representative (1999 to 2011), and Director of the Division of Aeronautics for the State of Illinois (1992-99). Bill Blake flew the CH-34 helicopter in the U.S. Army assigned to the East-West German border during the Cold War. He retired with the rank of colonel. Later he was a contract negotiator for the Office of Naval Research in Washington, D.C.

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