B-17 bomber salutes veterans, gives lessons

Published 1:58 am Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Charles Hull sank into a recliner on a recent afternoon, his blue eyes scanning a black and white photograph of himself next to a shot up World War II bomber. He’s just 21 years old in the picture, “never been kissed,” and grateful to be alive.

Even now, decades later, the 89-year-old Mississippi native gets emotional talking about bombing missions as a pilot in a B-17 Flying Fortress. And he knows those memories will be vivid this week when he climbs aboard one of the massive bombers for the first time in years.

The “Aluminum Overcast,” a Boeing B-17G, is one of only a handful of the roaring, four-engine Flying Fortresses that’s still flyable. The Experimental Aircraft Association, which owns the plane and flies it around the country, will be offering tours and rides this week in Mississippi and Louisiana, before moving on to Arkansas and Oklahoma.

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Flying Fortresses, made famous in films like “12 O’Clock High” and “Memphis Belle,” were crucial in breaking Nazi Germany’s industrial war machine. But this particular plane has a new mission — saluting the dwindling ranks of WWII veterans and reminding the American public of their sacrifices.

During a recent interview at his retirement home in Madison, Miss., Hull pointed to the damaged propeller in the black and white picture, which was taken in 1943 after Hull’s third mission.

Hull had taken a glancing blow in the shoulder from shrapnel from an enemy aircraft, but he wasn’t seriously hurt. Other crew members were. Hull and the co-pilot used all their strength to wrestle the damaged plane back to friendly territory.

“You can imagine what that did to my morale,” he said.

Hull flew 22 missions after that, including the famous raid on ball bearing productions in Schweinfurt, Germany, on Aug. 17, 1943. That was his 22 birthday.

When the Aluminum Overcast tours the country, the EAA tries to arrange for WWII veterans, often former B-17 crew members or pilots like Hull, to tour the plane or take a flight and talk to the public about their war experiences.

Sadly, that’s getting harder to do. Most WWII veterans are in their upper 80s or 90s and are passing away at an alarming rate, taking with them heart-wrenching stories of fear and loss; determination and victory.

“It is absolutely a race against time,” said George Daubner, a senior pilot for the EAA crew that now tours with the Aluminum Overcast.

“We generally can find WWII veterans at every stop. But it’s getting harder every single time,” Daubner said.

The last time the Aluminum Overcast came to Jackson, in 2008, one of several veterans who got a ride was Hunter Gates, who was 86 at the time.

Gates described a flood of memories as the plane lifted off the runway.

“I’m just hoping I get to land in this one,” he said, smiling. The last time he had flown in a B-17, it was shot down.

Gates died in May.

Creating poignant moments, like Gates climbing in to a machine gun turret and peering reflectively out the window of the Aluminum Overcast, is one thing the EAA is trying accomplish. The association hopes the plane will promote interest in aviation and war history, especially among young people.

For children, it’s not like learning from a book, Daubner said. “They get to touch it. Smell it. They can ask questions. It’s a rare opportunity.”

The Aluminum Overcast will be offering rides and tours Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon at Hawkins Field airport in Jackson, Miss.

It will be in New Orleans this weekend, including on Veteran’s Day, and the EAA is working to coordinate activities with the renowned D-Day Museum there. The museum is planning an expansion that will include a B-17G as the centerpiece of a new exhibit.

The Aluminum overcast will be in El Dorado, Ark., Nov. 16-17 and Tulsa, Okla., Nov. 19-21.

Ground tours are free for all veterans and their spouses. Children 8 and under also tour for free.

On the Net: http://www.b17.org/