In the Second World War, flying in a Boeing B-17—the iconic Flying Fortress—was dangerous beyond belief. Of the 12,731 bombers produced between 1937 and 1945, 4,754 were lost or written off in the course of operations, a loss rate of 37 percent. Ten Americans, the B-17’s standard crew, risked death on every mission. To fly in the plane is to remember that, and them.
But what was a horror in 1943 is an honor today, for only 10 flying B-17s remain—1 in Britain, the other 9 in the United States. Of these, the finest, the most nearly fully original, is Yankee Lady, restored and owned by the Yankee Air Museum in Willow Run, Michigan, 35 miles west of Detroit. In late September, I joined a crew of seven museum volunteers for a roundtrip flight to London, Ontario.
Though I’ve done my share of flying, I know nothing at all about how airplanes actually fly: Commercial aviation today hides as many of the realities of flight from passengers as possible. We don’t appreciate this.We look at the sleek drawings of the future of aviation from the 1950s and wonder—as we sit squashed in steerage-class—why the promised glamour never arrived.
But if you climb into a B-17, you will see that we are living in that glamorous future after all. The Flying Fort makes no effort to hide reality. In my mind, the B-17 is a massive plane, and in its day, it was. But by today’s standards, it is small, dark, cramped, and narrow: The catwalk through the bomb bay is barely a foot wide. It took me a minute to crawl and scramble into the bombardier’s seat at the front, and I wasn’t on fire or being shot at. I tried unsuccessfully not to think of what it would be like to be trapped in that cubbyhole if German flak hit and you were ordered to bail out.
I am not a nervous flier, though I don’t usually enjoy it much either. The bombardier’s seat is just 10 feet off the ground, and it’s surrounded by a plexiglass bubble: There is no closing a window shade and ignoring the reality of what is going on. Nor is it possible to escape the noise: The four 1,200-horsepower piston engines, props spinning feet away from you, produce an honest mechanical roar that makes conversation impossible and shouting pointless.
That roar testifies to the dedication of the volunteers who restored Yankee Lady. The work took 40,000 man-hours, and every hour of flight now requires 8 to 15 hours of maintenance. The B-17 had an expected service life of only 300 hours, but in a lifetime of coastal patrol, crop spraying, and fighting forest fires that began in July 1945, Lady has exceeded that many times over.
The remarkable thing, though, is that, despite her long, tough life, Lady flies like a dream. Takeoff is wonderful, especially if you are seated up front with the runway blurring below your feet. In a jet, there is a definite moment when the plane pitches up. But takeoff speed in a B-17 is a mere 110 miles per hour, which on a broad runway is not perceptibly faster than cruising on the interstate. And because the B-17 climbs slowly, there is no distinct moment of wheels up. Leaving the ground is no cause for nerves. It is effortless and natural. The Lady wants to fly.
As an unpressurized plane, the B-17 can’t go above 10,000 feet unless you use oxygen, and though Lady has a top speed of 285 miles per hour, the museum crew flies low and slow. This limits the strain on the engines and enhances the dreamlike quality of the flight. The tremendous racket of those engines, and the mid-pitched rush of air, should shatter the dream, but all the noise is strangely yet utterly divorced from the sensation of flight. You sail over the land.
Over Germany in 1943, of course, it would have been anything but a sail. The Fortress was named for effect, not accuracy: It was made to shoot down enemy fighters on its way to its target, not to be invulnerable to their fire. But our pilot, John C. Rule—a retired Delta captain—says it remains a pleasure to fly. Its only quirk is its big tail that catches crosswinds easily. But when controlled by skilled hands, that sensation is strangely enjoyable, a gentle drift through the sky.