Imagine yourself as a twenty-nine year old in 1944, getting ready to be shipped overseas to be part of a B-17 crew. You’ve finished training as a ball turret gunner (one of the most dangerous jobs on the plane) convinced that you are a “coward” but knowing it’s too late to change your mind. You stop at home for a two week leave , maybe the last time you’ll ever see your family, sure that you are “headed for an eventual death in aerial combat.” You stop and visit a friend who’s married and has a son. You fear, “I will have no one to carry on my name, no wife, no child.” You reach New York City where you are to meet the ship that will take you overseas and carry the “heavy barracks bag up the plank…settling in for the night...with no sleep in prospect.”
These were my father, Ed Smith’s, words expressing his thoughts and fears as he bravely faced combat. But he was no different from thousands of other men and women who have gone to war and will continue to go to war.
My father was one of the “lucky” ones who came back alive, uninjured physically and emotionally. He met my Mom in England (an unexpected dividend of his tour there) and had a family as he had dreamed of. My father was my hero in many ways, the least of which was his service in the military, although I learned later (not from him) that all of the thirty two missions he went on were dangerous and there were some close calls.
When I found out the Collings Foundation, a non-profit organization that takes refurbished World War II airplanes around the United States, was going to be in Tampa, I knew I had to see the plane my dad had flown in. I not only had to see it, I had to ride in it.
Three planes, a B-17, B-24, and B-25, arrived at Tampa Executive Airport on February 13. The P-51 fighter plane didn’t make it because of engine problems, but did arrive on Thursday.
The pilots and co-pilots of these planes are volunteers. Some are veterans and some are retired commercial pilots. They do it for the excitement, to honor all veterans and to pass on the history to people across the United States.
Mac McCauley, the B-17 “Flying Fortress” pilot, has been doing this for nineteen years.
“I’m not a veteran, but I grew up on an airport. My dad was a naval pilot. The best part of doing this is meeting the veterans, hearing their stories.”
On Thursday, February 16, I fulfilled my dream of flying in the “Flying Fortress.” We took off from Tampa Executive Airport at about 12:30 for the forty-five minute flight to Venice. We were ferrying the planes to that location for their next stop in Florida. To say I was excited was putting it mildly.
Once inside the plane, I walked around the interior. The nose section housed the bombardier and navigator. There are four gun positons – top turret, ball turret, port waist gunner and starboard waist gunner. Since there were only ten men who flew at the same time: pilot, co-pilot, engineer, radioman, bombardier, navigator, two waist gunners, ball turret gunner and tail gunner, some of the guys did double duty.
Jamie Mitchell, a licensed pilot training to fly one of these planes, was our Flight Engineer. She briefed us passengers on safety and allowed us to walk around the plane after we were airborne.
I was able to go up in the cockpit via a very scary “catwalk,” into the top turret and down into the bomb bay. Afterwards, I proceeded to the rear of the plane to see the tail section. By then, it was time to get into my seat in the radio operator’s area and buckle my seat belt for the landing.
The flight was uneventful – no enemy flak or German fighter planes encountered. That would have been a real surprise! No bombs dropped. I don’t think the residents below would have appreciated that!
We landed in Venice at 1:15. I stepped off the plane where my son, Ed (his grandfather’s namesake) was waiting to pick me up.
I’d like to thank Hunter Chaney, Director of Marketing with the Collings Foundation, who arranged my flight; Jamie Mitchell, Tour Stop Coordinator and Flight Engineer. She made sure the whole operation ran like clockwork. She was never in the military but could have been!
The other folks who made this all possible were: Mac McCauley, B-17 pilot, Paul Reidy, co-pilot; Rich Langer, Will Dismukes and Gary Dunn on the B-25; Robert Pinksten and Roxanne Parker on the B-24. Brian Norris flew the P-51 fighter plane. Last, but not least, Robert Wyatt who was the mechanic.
As Ms. Mitchell said, “The volunteer pilots get all the glory, but nothing flies without mechanics keeping them flying.”
There are countless others involved in the work of the Collings Foundation – most of them volunteers.
I know that I could never feel what the men who flew in World War II felt, but I was thrilled to have been a part of this experience for just a short while.
For more information on the Collings Foundation go to www.collingsfoundation.org.