A Flight out of History: B-17 Bombing Run

Flying out of history, this US Airforce B-17 visited Coeur d'Alene's Pappy Boyington Airfield at Hayden last weekend, hosting flights for anyone who could. I got to go. Photos and story by Dwayne Parsons

Flying out of history, this US Airforce B-17 visited Coeur d’Alene’s Pappy Boyington Airfield at Hayden last weekend, hosting flights for anyone who could. I got to go.
Photos and story by Dwayne Parsons

US Airforce B-17 Bomber flies N. Idaho Skies

For me, it was an opportunity of a lifetime. I was ten years old when I first became fascinated with B-17 aircraft, a literal war horse in the sky contributing to not only allied air power, but American victory over Germany at the climax of the European theater near the end of World War II.

Like many young boys, I pretended with mouth sounds and cartoon like drawings that I was in the air battles with flak and inbound enemy aircraft, with belly and tail gunners firing lethal defensive rounds at enemy fighters on the attack. And yes, I pretended to get shot down too. Two-dimensional, static drawings were live motion pictures in my imagination.

Up close, but friendly, this well-maintained World War II B-17 was authentic in everyway except live rounds and live bombs. Flying on board gave on the feeling of what it was like for hundreds of men who flew and died on flights over Europe, deep into Germany where ground fire put up serious and often very effective resistance to these lumbering but awesomely stable and capable war machines.

Up close, but friendly, this well-maintained World War II B-17 was authentic in everyway except live rounds and live bombs. Flying on board gave on the feeling of what it was like for hundreds of men who flew and died on flights over Europe, deep into Germany where ground fire put up serious and often very effective resistance to these lumbering but awesomely stable and capable war machines.

We flew at 2000 feet over passive Lake Coeur d’Alene

But I could still imagine what it was like, with my feet resting on the inside of the bare-metal fuselage, when Americans in true service flew winter-time bombing runs over enemy ground at altitudes of 22,000 to 30,000 feet, wearing oxygen masks and layers of insulated clothing at temperatures reaching sometimes 60 degrees below zero.

Like many, I knew such a man named George Smith, who flew as a belly gunner in a capsule so small I couldn’t see how he was able to get in and out let alone fight from the cramped position, turning his turret by hand crank to aim at inbound fighters, all the while looking straight down, seeing flak explode in black puffs, throwing hot metal shards designed to destroy and kill him, his companions and their planes.

George froze his feet on the first flight of 28 missions, unable to stretch or move for the eight or nine hours of flight time that mission took. He was young then and he lived to old age, never really complaining that his feet were not normal, not like mine. And the fact that he went back up, dutifully, willfully 27 more times in the same little, ultra-cramped pod, never ceased to impress me.

This view from the waist gunners position over the left wing is peaceful, but you can still imagine the fear and the determination these men had in throwing themselves into precarious danger. Life expectancy on these missions was 13 flights. If a man made it through 25, he earned the right to go home. Some flew more than their quota.

This view from the waist gunners position over the left wing is peaceful, but you can still imagine the fear and the determination these men had in throwing themselves into precarious danger. Life expectancy on these missions was 13 flights. If a man made it through 25, he earned the right to go home. Some flew more than their quota.

They called them Clay Pigeons

B-17 Bombers were really a flying boat of sorts. The machine guns, fore and aft, top and bottom were 50-caliber weapons that had to be fired in spurts…or the barrels could warp, rendering the guns useless, if not dangerous to the plane. The two waist guns, perched behind but over the wings were also 50-caliber, the bullets fed from boxes attached to the fuselage. I wondered if any of the waist gunners had shot down their own planes by following an enemy fighter diving past the wing.

Only the waist guns were single barreled. The front, back, top and belly guns were all two barrels of lethal capacity, firing rounds capable of penetrating enemy aircraft.

Only the waist guns were single barreled. The front, back, top and belly guns were all two barrels of lethal capacity, firing rounds capable of penetrating enemy aircraft.

What did it feel like?

Let’s just say that it was unlike any air transport flight I’ve had on a jet. The plane vibrated as if it were an old rail car pulled on a rough track. It was loud and there was air moving through that took the sultry summer heat away from sitting on the tarmac.

The nine of us lucky passengers could talk, but it was kind of hard to hear. I stayed in the waist area just aft of the belly gun pod, which I could still not imagine held my old friend when he was young. I could see the pilot’s hands as he flew our course, but I could not hear conversations from other parts of the confined area.

Would I do it again?

I speculate I will fly with my friend many times in my remaining life, imagining the cold, the fright, the challenge, the dedication it took. Imagining the willingness to give oneself in cause to defeating an enemy of power that would otherwise destroy in a similar manner.

Yes, I will fly again many times from this one thankful experience at Pappy Boyington Airfield, for now I know at least partially first hand what it was really like, what the risks were and how the victories of each return must have felt. I’ll give you this testimony: I am very grateful to the men and women who serve America and American freedom in all the wars to date. I thank them personally when I can.

I wish and I prefer that we didn’t have to fight wars, but as I watch daily what’s happening around the world, I shake my head and shudder even at the thought that war in this day and age can come to any country, including the quiet beautiful setting over which I flew in the friendly skies above Lake Coeur d’Alene. But I pray not.