September 06, 2012My plan had been to write a column about soaring through the wild blue yonder with my brother Willy in the World War II vintage B-17 bomber the Memphis Belle, but that plan didn't pan out.
Willy and I did get to tour the the Memphis Belle at the Smith-Reynolds Airport in Winston-Salem on Labor Day courtesy of the Liberty Foundation, but there was no soaring. In fact, the time we should have been flying over Winston-Salem we were instead driving down I-40 in a downpour that kept our ground speed to about 40 mph.
One reason we were so interested in flying on a B-17 is that our dad, Dick Hammer, who died in 2004, flew 35 combat missions over Europe in WWII as a bombardier in a B-17.
Getting a good look at where the bombardier sat during the bombing raids gave me a whole new perspective on his bravery, and the bravery of the greatest generation.
The bombardier during the bombing runs rode in that little glass bubble at the very nose of the ship. It's a scary place to be on the ground. I didn't get to experience it in the air. And the idea of sitting up there with flak from exploding shells of anti aircraft guns all around you seems insane. Dad said that on some runs over heavily defended targets there was so much flak it looked like they were flying into a thunder cloud. Flying into it would be scary enough. Sitting in a little glass bubble while you flew into it seems to be above and beyond the call of duty.
We didn't get to fly on Monday, but one of the stories my dad used to tell, and that he wrote a column about for this newspaper, was when a bomb got hung up in the bomb bay and he had to hang out over space and kick the bomb loose. First of all, kicking an explosive device that weighs a couple hundred pounds never seemed like a great idea to me, but I don't think I ever appreciated just what he must have been going through to hang on with one hand, lean over a drop of thousands of feet and kick a bomb.
That bomb broke free and, as luck would have it, destroyed the town square in some small German village. Dad said he always wondered what the people in that village thought when a lone American bomber appeared out of nowhere, flew directly over their village and dropped a single bomb in the middle of their town square.
One of the things that impressed me about actually being in the B-17, albeit on the ground, was how small it is on the inside and how tight all the spaces are. There is kind of a drawbridge over the bomb bay that I had to turn sideways to get through. The plane was definitely built for young men, not middle-aged men, because you've got to be lean and mean to make your way around this airplane.
The B-17 had a crew of 10, and somebody had to be getting out of somebody's way every time anyone moved around the ship.
But it is a piece of history, and the opportunity to fly in an airplane that is now over 70 years old can't last forever.
It somehow seemed fitting, however, that we couldn't fly because our dad said that one of the hardest parts of flying 35 missions was all the missions you didn't fly. If the weather was bad in England – where he was based and where the weather seems to always be bad – they couldn't fly. If the weather was good in England but bad over the target they couldn't fly. And if the weather was good in England, good over the target but – by the time they returned from the mission, usually about six hours – the weather was going to be bad they couldn't fly.
Dad said that going out to the field and waiting was almost worse than flying because when you were flying at least you got to cross one more mission off your list.
And if you've read Catch-22, this will sound familiar. The plane we were in was never in the war but was refurbished to look like the Memphis Belle of WWII fame for use in the movie of the same name. The Memphis Belle was famous because it was the first plane to complete 25 missions, which was all they had to fly at that point in the war. By the time my father was flying in the winter of 1944 and 1945, they had to fly 35 missions before they could go home.
So we didn't get to experience flying but we did get to experience waiting. We were getting our instructions on how to behave on the plane in the air when someone told the pilot, Ray Fowler, he needed to look at the horizon where there was a storm coming our way. Fowler said it might just pass over and we could fly as soon as the rain stopped. So instead of running to our cars we stood under the wings of the plane and waited.
A B-17 makes a pretty good umbrella for 10 or 15 people. After a few minutes it was obvious this storm was not going to pass over. Fowler took a look at his iPhone and said we wouldn't be flying that afternoon. Something about the pilot of a B-17 checking the weather on his iPhone seemed wrong.
But we did hear the sad story of the Liberty Belle, which was The Liberty Foundation's original B-17 and was unfortunately destroyed by fire. Because of a small fire on one wing, Fowler had brought the plane down in a corn field. Scott Maher, the director of flight operations told me they left their luggage on the plane because the fire trucks were on their way and it looked like they would put the fire out in a couple of minutes. He said the plane suffered no damage on the emergency landing. However, when the fire trucks arrived, the firefighters wouldn't take their trucks into the field, so they all had to stand there and watch the plane burn. They did let them get their luggage off first.
The Liberty Foundation is leasing the Memphis Belle until the Liberty Belle can be restored. But it is a good indication of why getting to fly on a B-17 is such a fleeting opportunity.
Weather permitting, the Memphis Belle will be flying out of the Smith-Reynolds Airport on Saturday, Sept. 8 and Sunday, Sept. 9. It's not a cheap plane to operate and not a cheap ride. Tickets are $450 a person. However, once the flights are complete, the public is invited to walk through the plane at no charge. Donations, however, are requested. It's a great opportunity to help keep a part of our history alive, or, perhaps better said, in the air, weather permitting.