B-17 “Flying Fortress” lands in Sac
The legend goes like this: A Seattle Times reporter sees an early B-17 close for the first time in July 1935, machine guns emanating from its nose, tail, top, bottom and several points in between — 13 in all — and gasps, “Why, it’s a flying fortress!”
Boeing officials, recognizing a great brand name when they hear one, trademark their new heavy bomber the “Flying Fortress.” Historian Phillip Meilinger tells the story, and many others in a 2004 airforce-magazine.com article about the B-17.
The Luftwaffe had a less flattering name for the B-17: “fliegendes stachelschwein,” or “flying porcupine.”
One of the last surviving B-17s, “Aluminum Overcast,” was at McClellan Air Base last week. The local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association offered B-17 “flight experiences.”
Who could resist? Not this reporter.
The B-17 was the first long range bomber in the arsenal of the Air Force’s predecessor, the U.S. Army Air Corps.
It had everything a big bomber needed: firepower, speed, bomb capacity, high altitude capability and, importantly, range. The B-17 could go 1,000 miles with 6,000 pounds of bombs in its belly and make it home on fumes.
That meant it could reach industrial targets deep in Germany from southern England.
And it had firepower. The B-17 put 50-caliber machine guns in the hands of six of the 10 crew members, two guns each in the four turrets — dorsal, ventral, nose and tail — two waist positions, two cockpit gunners and one in the lower dorsal position.
The B-17s flew in the familiar staggered “combat box” formation, which allowed their guns to overlap coverage. But the rigid formation prohibited individual aircraft from maneuvering to avoid attack.
Luftwaffe fighter pilots, the “jagdflieger,” quickly developed strategies to whittle down the large formations. Early in the war casualties were high.
The B-17s flew at great altitudes — up to 35,000 feet — in numbers that guaranteed some would reach their target.
The B-17 quickly earned a reputation for being able to absorb punishment, get the job done and limp back to base. Stories and photos of B-17s surviving extensive battle damage were widely circulated during and after the war. Nonetheless, up to half didn’t return on some days, early in the war.
The B-17 was dependent on fighter support.
That’s where Triple Ace Bud Anderson came in. Anderson flew a P-51 Mustang in the Eighth Air Force, stationed at Leiston Field, England, at the peak of the air war over Germany.
At 89, Anderson maintains his Flight Instructor rating and regularly flies.
He’s also a great interview. The secret to his longevity? “No minor vices,” he quips, with fighter-jock bravado.
Standing on the McClellan tarmac beneath Aluminum Overcast’s 100-plus foot wingspan, Anderson explained that the Spitfires that initially protected the B-17s lacked the range to stay with the big bombers deep into Germany.
The P-47 Thunderbolt, and especially Anderson’s P-51 Mustang, had the range and the firepower to get the B-17s to their target and safely home.
Anderson’s timing was fortuitous. He arrived in England fresh from flight school late in 1943. The Mustangs arrived in February 1944.
An Auburn resident, Anderson grew up near Penryn and attended Placer Union High School. “For as long as I can remember, I wanted to fly,” he said.
As a boy, he knew the Army Air Corps requirements well: unmarried and two years of college. With that in mind he enrolled in a two-year aeronautics program at what became Sacramento City College.
His entire class was hired as aircraft mechanics at McClellan base before they graduated in 1941. They attended class by day and worked the swing shift, he recalled.
Anderson somehow found time to secure a private pilot’s license. Pearl Harbor was attacked shortly after graduation, in December 1941. Anderson turned 20 the following month and went straight to the recruiting station. He received his wings in September, and shipped off to England.
He’d trained on older P-39s, but was soon assigned a shiny new P-51 Mustang.
“It was an incredible aircraft,” he said, “fast, agile, and great range.”
Right from the start, the missions were heavily contested bombing runs deep into Germany, he recalled.
The arrival of the P-51 Mustang, in conjunction with a policy change made by General Jimmie Doolittle, “broke the back of the Luftwaffe and set the stage for the invasion of Europe,” he said.
Pre-Doolittle, fighter pilots were ordered to retain “close escort” when attacked.
“We could drive them away, but had to come right back,” said Anderson. “But Doolittle changed all that. He told us to pursue and destroy.”
The result? His 357th Fighter Group was credited with shooting down 609 1/2 enemy aircraft in just 15 months, producing 42 “Aces” — pilots with at least five air victories.
Anderson’s 16 1/4 victories was fourth highest in an all-star group that included Chuck Yaeger.
What was it like? “We’d have up to 1,000 bombers and 1,000 fighters in the air at the same time,” he said. “There was a lot going on up there.”
The Internet is replete with stories of Anderson’s aerial exploits. He’s also written a book, “To Fly and Fight,” in which Yaeger calls him “a mongoose … the best fighter pilot I’ve ever seen.”
At McClellan last week, Anderson reflected on the difference between a good pilot and a great pilot: “situational awareness, good gunnery skills and something in here,” he said, thumping his chest. “Some sort of fighting spirit.”
With that, Anderson broke away to greet the Aluminum Overcast flight crew, which delivered just three preflight directives: “There are things inside this plane that will make you bleed,” “Do not grab the cables over your head” and “If you puke in the airplane you clean it up.”
The vintage war bird seats 10, none comfortably. There are no seatbacks or tray tables.
The craft is unheated and drafty. In the early days there were casualties from the cold, which could reach minus 50 degrees Centigrade at the B-17’s altitudes. The crew survived by wearing heated suits.
Gusty winds whipped across the McClellan tarmac as the Aluminum Overcast left the ground. We were allowed to move around the plane after we got in the air, but had to use the superstructure and each other for support.
We squeezed past the 50-caliber machine guns into the Plexiglas nose turret for a spectacular view of the rice fields and the Sacramento River.
In the back of the plane, the exhaust fumes and the bumpy ride took their toll. The last directive began weighing heavily on our minds, and especially our queasy stomachs. The short flight ended without any gastrointestinal casualties.
Iris Taggart organized the event. She directs the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association. Her late husband, Robert Taggart, flew 32 B-17 missions.
He was also instrumental in the Berlin Airlift and the “Chow Hound” mission, which dropped food parcels into Holland.
Taggart is bringing in other vintage war birds between June 3- 6, including a P-51, a B-17 and a B-24. Check www.cfdn.org or call (800) 568-8924 for prices and other information about tours and flight “missions.”
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