Why we fly them, and how we make them fly?

by Sean Elliott
Vice President, Advocacy and Safety
Experimental Aircraft Association
Published in Midwest Flyer – August/September 2020 issue

EDITOR’S NOTE: On October 2, 2019, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress owned by the Collings Foundation crashed at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. Seven of the 13 people on board were killed, and the other six people, as well as one person on the ground, were injured. The aircraft was destroyed by the ensuing fire. An investigation of the accident revealed that there may have been safety breaches in key personnel, operations and maintenance, and as of March 2020, the FAA revoked the Collings Foundation’s permission to carry passengers.

I have had the opportunity to take flights on a number of warbird aircraft, from single-engine prop and jet trainers, to the four-engine B-17 Flying Fortress, and while I have enjoyed these flights immensely and would go on them again if given the opportunity, I will admit the age of some of the pilots flying the aircraft, and/or not knowing how well the aircraft have been maintained, have been considerations. I have been least concerned with the possibility of losing the aircraft, as I feel our museums have plenty of non-flying aircraft for future generations to see.

The following article written by EAA Vice President Sean Elliott, who is in charge of flight operations at EAA, discusses the debate of why and how we should continue to fly warbirds. The article is being published here with permission of EAA, where it was initially published in March 2019. After reading this article, I welcome your feedback at dave@midwestflyer.com.

Thank you!

Dave Weiman, Editor/Publisher
Midwest Flyer Magazine

One of never-ending debates regarding vintage and warbird aircraft is the flying-vs.-display discussion (sometimes argument). There are those who maintain that airplanes are meant to be flown; others are just as convinced that keeping them grounded in museums prevents possible tragedies that would destroy a priceless aircraft forever. It would be easy to break that debate into pilot vs. historian camps, but the sides are more nuanced than that.

I’ll remove all the suspense from my position. With a very few exceptions, fly them. These airplanes, such as the B-17 bomber and Ford Tri-Motors we (Experimental Aircraft Association) fly on tours in North America, or the vintage aircraft we fly at our museum’s Pioneer Airport, are living experiences. No book, no video, no social media virtual reality snippet will tell the story as well as being part of the flight experience.

Let’s take our B-17 Aluminum Overcast as an example. For the past 25 years, our national tours have enriched the lives of people, whether or not they experienced a combat mission where the bomber was initially used. This is especially important as time marches away from the people who are the direct connections to the World War II era. It never ceases to touch me at the deep emotional connections that emerge from those who tour or fly aboard our airplane. Often people leave in tears because of the enormity of the experience and the thoughts of a loved one – a dad, grandfather, uncle, or such – who endured the harsh environment of combat missions.

The B-17 is tight as far as quarters go. It is Spartan. Only by moving around in the airplane during flight can one get the sense of squeezing along the walkway and through the hatches, while hearing the engines roar and feeling the air coming through the openings. One can only think of the young men (all men, at the time), who were flying toward hostility in a freezing, lumbering aircraft, knowing that their day would either end very badly or, at best, with a sense of relief. There is no artificial intelligence game that can match that.

Making the experience possible on a daily basis is also why I’m so impressed with the volunteers who fly, maintain, and host the airplane during our tours. They are EAA people at heart and hold themselves and the aircraft to the highest standards.

That holds true for the pilots, to begin with, who follow a five-year path to become a lead pilot on the aircraft. It’s not just finding the “Ace of the Base” as pilots go. We have numerous pilots apply to fly the B-17, but only about half of them succeed. That could be for several reasons: The skills are not quite to the standards we require, or they don’t handle themselves well as part of an EAA team, or we discover they are in it more for themselves than for those who come to see the airplane and the organization that provides the opportunity.

We use many lessons learned from the airlines’ Cockpit Resource Management (CRM) in our training. We give pilots the opportunity to succeed over a five-year pathway to aircraft commander. They begin as a co-pilot in the right seat, then advance to co-pilot in the left seat under an aircraft commander. After earning a type rating in the third year, the fourth and fifth year is spent as a near-equal to the aircraft commander, in a flying partnership instead of a hierarchy.

Our pilots, and ground crew as well, must work as a unit as it becomes a barnstorming team for two weeks at a time. They become problem-solvers and they become family. Most important, however, they become the people who can convey the stories of those who flew in combat to those who are here today, some 75 years later. We tell of one of the most difficult times in our nation’s history, when the threat was real and the outcome was not assured.

When I was teaching at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, people told me about this guy named Paul Poberezny in Oshkosh who was EAA’s founder and president, but could often be found picking up chairs or mopping floors. When I arrived at EAA two decades ago, Paul taught me the importance of leading by example, shoulder-to-shoulder with volunteers. I have had some of my best tour experiences when we have staff and volunteers working together, learning each other’s perspectives. When united for a common goal, we can successfully go on tour, and tell the story of these airplanes and the people who flew them in combat – including those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

That goes back to my initial point of flying these historic aircraft. An airplane is a machine, but I believe each one also has a soul. That soul soars when it is flown and its story becomes real and shared.

That is why we fly them.

To read more about EAA’s B-17 “Aluminum Overcast,” go to EAA’s Aviation Adventure Speaker Series “History of the B-17,” presented by Sean Elliott: https://www.eaa.org/videos/4078216022001

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