"Excuse me," I said to the mechanic as he walked across the tarmac, "did you say you guys give rides on that B-17?"
"Rides nothing, we'll let you fly it!"
April 1995. I'd been living in Jonesboro Arkansas for only two months. Miserable place, 60,000 people and 300 churches, acres and acres of rice fields, in the heart of a dry county who's borders were lined with liquor stores. The place was so conservative Playboy videos were kept in "enclosures", and Maxim and Stuff were hidden behind the counter.
But on that warm summer afternoon it was also the temporary home of this B-17 Flying Fortress. The backbone of the 8th Air force, the B-17 was a beautiful brute, prickling with machine guns and tasked with a horrible purpose, the destruction of factories through aerial bombardment, it still had the graceful beauty of a swan frozen in aluminum.
I'd spent my whole life studying planes like this. Martin Caidin wrote what was in effect an ethnography of an airplane when he wrote Flying Forts, and my brother and I read it cover to cover at least twice a year for perhaps the entirety of our teenage years. I build countless models of the thing, in every scale imaginable, and had spent who knows how many hours wandering through the gutted (but flying!) example the Confederate Air Force brought to the small Pine Bluff AR airshow every year.
Yet for the admittedly princely sum of $395, I could not only get a ride in one, I could actually freaking fly it!!! Yeah, I know, even now that seems like a lot of money, and I'm making more than twice what I was then. But how much are you willing to pay for something that's literally beyond your dreams? How much to transform a ten-year-old boy's buzzing passes holding a plastic model into a real seat, a real ride?
I was so excited I took the entire day off work and pulled the money out in cash from the ATM. It would mean I'd eat peanut butter and miss rent for the next month, but who could miss an opportunity like that? I'd gotten so excited I'd showed up two hours early, and to my amazement the runway fence wasn't locked. All alone, in the cold velvet chill of a spring morning clear and bright, with sunlight like honey pouring across the birdsong-laced quiet, I literally had the airplane all to myself.
It's funny, you know, when something you've only seen in pictures, or to scale, confronts you in real life. It's the astounding level of detail that always impresses me. You don't just get to look, you get to touch the tight balloon fabric of the control surfaces, and smell the burning iron of the exhaust. Yet standing back from it I couldn't help but feel how small the thing was. This goofy collection of rivets, propellers, aluminum and plexiglass was all that stood between ten guys, ten guys just like me, and complete destruction. By unfocusing my eyes, stepping inside myself for a second, I could imagine staring at this plane as it was loaded with bombs, knowing that for the next ten hours it would be me in there, droning over a sky filled with clever things designed explicitly to answer in an extremely personal way the riddle of what, exactly, happens during a violent death.
In all honesty, I can only hope I would've been able to crawl inside and face it.
Fortunately, I didn't have to. Designed for warfare, this particular lady had quite comfortably settled into a retirement of ferrying civilians around city and farmland. I got to watch the mechanics, one an old man the same age as my grandfather and the other a short wiry guy who should've been driving sports cars, prep her for flight. My flight (well, me and eight other people that is). I did my level best to stay out of the way.
When everything was ready, we were all gathered around the tail of the plane. Of course we had to sign papers that said if the thing were to crash at the end of the runway our heirs would not be able to sue, yadda yadda yadda. It was also carefully noted that this plane was designed to haul bombs and guns and armor and an enormous amount of fuel around the sky, and since we were none of those things, it was noted that even with two engines out we could probably do whatever we wanted and get home safely (I'd read stories about Flying Forts making it home on just one engine if the pilot was lucky and careful, so I smiled as I watched other people's shoulders drop at this).
Then it was time. We had a "full crew", seven passengers and three "real" crew. three could be strapped in on either side of the tubular rear section of the plane, and one could be accommodated in the "radio room" (yes, Virginia, the radios of the time literally filled a room roughly the size of a kitchen). That left one seat, and that left me. I'd been studiously following the crew chief around, and he knew me from the previous day.
"You! Want to sit in the cockpit for takeoff?"
Might as well have asked a junkie if he wanted half a ton of free crack. All I could do was nod and follow him to the front of the plane.
Now, at this point in my life I hadn't flown in any plane since I was maybe five years old. Oh, I'd done a metric ton of simulations, but that was nothing compared to the sights, sounds, and smells of the real thing. Again, it was the level of detail that was amazing. These weren't near microscopic dots on a piece of plastic I could hold between my two fingers, this was a real live instrument panel with real live knobs and levers that did things. Everyone was very professional as they agreed on stuff like abort speeds, gear up timing, and navigational points.
And then the first engine started.
The thing about aircraft engines, at least these aircraft engines, is they're big. Really big. Nine cylinder radial engines totaling more than 1800 cubic inches. Just the starter motors were powerful enough to send silk-through-fingers vibrations through your feet. When each one caught, and they all caught roughly, the entire plane would ratchet and sway. Even better, as each one smoothed out, another one would start, four times in total, until it was all going strong.
Nearly everyone has flown in a commercial jet. Let me tell you, this was nothing like a commercial jet. It creaked and groaned and vibrated and rattled and thumped and made this unholy howl at my feet as a hydraulic pump pressurized the brakes. Yet I couldn't have felt safer, because it was all so basic. Jets are magic things, you can barely see anything move as they fly, and the pilots are behind a door working magic. This thing showed it all. You could still smell the spring air through the open (open!) windows, see the propellers turning, feel the rumble-thump of the runway through the wheels. The pilots were right in front of me doing their job.
The sun moved through the windows and across our faces as we turned onto the runway, reminding me absurdly of an old station wagon as it pulled onto the highway. And then the pilot quickly, smartly, moved the throttles forward...