Loosing our past.

Sometimes it seems that history has a way of slipping away from us. One day it’s all around us, easy to remember; then the next, it’s gone. Something that happened today, fairly near to where I live, brought that home to me.

In the 1930’s, America’s military was in a state of ferment. Some officers were busy trying to perfect the tactics of the last war, while others were looking around the world to try to get an idea of what sorts of nasty surprises the next war might bring their way. In no other field was this more true than aviation. America hadn’t really even had a service dedicated to aviation when it went into WWI, and it found itself embarrassed to find that the birthplace of flight was woefully behind the rest of the world when it came to military aviation. The inter-war years were a time when American military thought turned to flying, but matters were far from settled as far as whether America would manage to make any major advances in military flight. Some innovative designs were put forward, but so were many that might best be described as “furthering the status quo”. Part of this was reluctance on the part of those at the top, but part of it was money, or more precisely, a lack thereof. As conflicts began to break out in lead-up to WWII, though, military aviation thinking began to crystallize around several ideas. One was that American fighter planes would be mostly used as short-range interceptors, used primarily to defend American cities from attack. The other was that, because we hoped to keep our enemies as far away as possible from American soil, if we were going to have a chance to strike back, we would need a large, long-range bomber.

With this in mind, a request was put out to industry for the development of (what was at the time) a very long-range bomber, capable of carrying a a large payload at speeds roughly as fast as those achieved by current-generation fighter/interceptor aircraft. Of the three companies that responded with designs, Boeing won the contract. Thus was born the progenitor of what would become the B-17. A single test aircraft was built that proved to be successful enough to warrant further production. Over the next few years, the design was moved from a flying concept to an aircraft ready for serious production. As 1941 started, Boeing began to churn out B-17 for the war that everyone could see was coming. Over the course of the war, the basic design was refined and improved, often building on lessons learned in blood and death. A total of 12,731 B-17’s built during WWII era, most of them seeing service in the European theater. Bristling with as many as 13 guns, the B-17 flew in attacks that could see hundreds of these massive machines gathered together to attack targets deep inside Nazi-occupied Europe. At the beginning, with their heavy .50 caliber defensive machine guns, it was thought that the “Flying Fortress” could defend itself well enough to go to and from the target without the aid of fighter escort. After loosing hundreds of aircraft and their ten-man crews, American thinking finally realized that if we were not to burn through resources as such alarming rate, a fighter escort would be needed. Even with this added protection, air crews often found their lives depending on the toughness of the planes they flew. Here, the B-17 served it’s crews well, taking damage that would have brought down other aircraft, while continuing to fly.

There was one thing that the B-17 couldn’t defend against, and that was time. As a design first conceived in the mid-1930’s, the B-17 was showing it’s age well before the war ended, and no number of tweaks and refinements could spare it from one foe it could never overcome: obsolescence. Even before the end of the war, B-17’s were regarded as “expendable”, often serving as testbeds for new idea in weapons, or even as targets for new defensive systems. When the war ended, many were simply returned home to go straight into scrap yards. Some few found other uses, such as aerial water tankers for fighting forest fires. The bulk of them, though, ended up going back to the furnaces that had once produced their own aluminum. Today, depending on who’s counting, there are somewhere around 14-17 flying examples of this once-numerous machine.

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to see one, especially to see one fly, it is an experience never to be forgotten. For all it’s size on the ground, once it’s in the air, it is a thing of grace and beauty. To hear one roar overhead, it’s four radial engines radiating a noise that is felt as much as heard, is to have a glimpse into a past age, when they almost literally darkened the skies over England and Europe. But chances to experience that sensation are becoming rarer and rarer. Like the men who once flew them, age is beginning to kill off the last flying B-17’s. Some end up retired to aviation museum, to live a long (if static and somewhat staid) life. Other continue to fly, and those who fly them know what they are, and how rare a bird they have a chance to pilot. There’s now one less of these magnificent birds in the world. After a weekend display at Aurora airport, the Collin’s Foundation’s B-17, “Liberty Belle” took off to continue a tour of Midwestern cities. Shortly after take-off, a fire was detected in one of the engines, leading the pilot to make an emergency landing in a field near the town of Oswego, Illinois. Many airplanes would not have made such a sudden landing without harming their crew, but once again, the B-17 proved it’s worth, as the plane landed without incident and the crew exited safely. Unfortunately, shortly after they had made it out of the plane, a second fire broke out, one that eventually consumed the bulk of the aircraft. Here is a good article with excellent, if terribly sad, photos of the B-17’s end:

http://www.chicagobreakingnews.com/news/local/chibrknews-crews-responding-to-incident-involving-wwii-bomber-20110613,0,5339638.story

Those who know them expect the remains of the destroyed bomber to be salvaged, and any usable parts to go into keeping the rest of the flying examples going. So, in a way, “Liberty Belle” will continue to fly, but the plane itself is no more. Sometimes, when something like this happens, people ask if it’s worth the risk to the few remaining aircraft to allow them to continue to fly. As someone who loves old airplanes, I will miss “Liberty Belle” very much. That said, if the only remaining link we have to these incredible machines, and the brave young men who flew them into deadly skies, are a few “stuffed-and-mounted” examples setting in some dark building somewhere, the world will be a poorer place. If we can’t see one fly by, hear it’s thunder and wonder at the courage it took to take one on a mission that it might never return from, I think all of us will loose something.

Keep’em flying, keep the memories alive.

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