When Birch Bay realtor Mike Kent was a child, growing up in Oregon he played on an old bomber mounted atop a local gas station in Milwaukee, Oregon. Last month he got to play on some of the same parts, except this time the bomber actually flew.
The Commemorative Air Force (CAF) brought its restored original B-17G to Bellingham, and Kent went along for a short ride. Some of the parts the CAF scrounged to rebuild their pristine example came from the bomber that was the symbol for Al Lacy’s Bomber gas station.
“The nose cone, the top turret and maybe a few other pieces came from the one I played on as a kid,” said Kent, looking forward to his ride. The ride was sponsored by the Heritage Flight Museum of Bellingham.
Nearly 12,000 B-17s of one version were built, and they dropped half the tonnage of bombs in WWII. “Sentimental Journey,” the aircraft that came to Bellingham, never saw combat but was used for reconnaissance in the Pacific theater after the war was over.
Each airplane carried 10 crew members: two pilots, a crew chief who also ran the top turret, a navigator and bombardier in the nose, a radio man and two waist gunners in the fuselage, a ball turret gunner on the belly and a tail gunner in the rear. Each position had its special challenges, especially when it came time to abandon ship.
This time, though, the eight passengers including Kent weren’t worried about bailing out. The flight was led by pilot Bob Blue and co-pilot (and the actual pilot for Kent’s trip) Pat McDowell, two retired United Airlines captains with more than 60,000 hours in the air between them.
Preflighting this aging but very well maintained ship takes almost two hours. Once the passengers were briefed (“stay on the wooden walkways and don’t step on the hull it’s only about three coke cans thick and can dent”), the four 1,200-horsepower Wright 1820 radial engines barked into life.
They’re both turbocharged (driven off the exhaust) and supercharged (with internal gearing), which gave the B-17 a higher ceiling – meaning safer missions. Two of the engines on “Sentimental Journey” were built in South Bend, Indiana, by Studebaker in the 1940s when it was on a war footing and not making cars.
It’s loud inside, and the engine exhaust makes it into the cabin almost right away. But the aircraft itself is as solid as a big truck, “Which it is,” said Captain Blue. “It’s like driving a cement truck half full of cement, heavy on the ailerons. You have to be in shape. That’s why these things were flown by people in their 20s.”
After a half hour warming up, Sentimental Journey carried Kent and seven others plus the crew on an extended but brief tour of western Whatcom County, the rural farm areas looking a lot like rural England with the low ceiling and rain, weather that caused an hour’s delay in departing.
“It’s really neat to see the same parts being put to such a good use,” Kent said. “This is part of our heritage.”
For more information, visit www.heritageflight.org
to see more photos.