The difference between this aircraft and a jet liner on takeoff was immense. First, the noise was unique. A jet rumbles and hisses and whistles like a turbocharged teakettle. This thing creaked and rocked and vibrated and had an engine note somewhere between an 18-wheeler horn and a hundred giant ventilation fans. Modern aircraft, with modern tricycle landing gear, lift their nose first and then the whole thing comes off the ground. This aircraft lifted its tail first, and then came unstuck to fly away.
I was sitting just behind the co-pilot in a jump seat, facing the wrong way but craning my neck just the same. The need for headphones and a microphone became rapidly clear as the sound level increased well beyond a shout and into the range of a rowdy rock concert ten feet from the speakers. Thirty-six cylinders firing in sequence made the whole plane vibrate worse than the stick-shifter in a high performance car. It rocked and wobbled and thumped in time with every imperfection of the runway, faster and faster as four propellers seemed to literally beat the air into submission.
Then, just as I thought the next big bump might bounce me off the roof, we were airborne. The change was remarkable. The noise and the vibration were still there, yes, but as the plane lifted its wheels it came alive, moving in three dimensions doing exactly what an airplane was supposed to do. This was no static lump of metal, nor was it a set of pictures in a history book. It was a living, breathing thing carrying us, as it carried our fathers and grandfathers, into the skies.
As soon as we were safely in the air the co-pilot unstrapped and we swapped seats. And there I was, not just sitting inside a real B-17 staring at real instruments with a real control column in front of me, but sitting inside a B-17 with all of those things at 5,000 feet as they sedately went about the business of flying the aircraft. Flying the aircraft. Holy crap! I was flying around inside a B-freaking-seventeen!
"Unfortunately you're going to have to wait just a second to take the controls," the pilot said as he banked the plane rather alarmingly, "we've got a smaller local chapter just south of here we promised a flyby to."
Mind? I had one of the best seats in the house, why would I mind? I was enjoying the view trying not to have my head split open from the grin I was wearing. It was only as the pilot pitched the plane down to make its first pass on a tiny grass airstrip that I realized something disconcerting.
Airplanes do not move like cars. They pitch up and down and snake and slide and roll and just about everything else. All at once! I hadn't been on an airplane at that point since I was a small child (with an iron stomach). On the second pass the pilot rolled this big beast to the point I was peering out my window straight down at the people waving up to us from below, looking like tiny grains of rice with baseball caps on. I began to feel a bit of distress. It wasn't just that my stomach was trying to crawl out and have a look of its own, rather that after all this dreaming and working suddenly it seemed my one memorable reaction to the event would be to coat the cockpit with my breakfast. I took a deep breath and vowed I would not get sick in this airplane.
Fortunately after the one pass we were done. Then they said the magic words, and airsickness was long forgotten...
"Ok, it's all yours."
A B-17 doesn't have a stick, it has a yoke. Pulling back and forth on the yoke brought the nose up and down, while moving the wheel side to side banked the wings left or right. The rudders are the same as any plane, yes, but they are working a mighty tail indeed. The overall impression I got was almost absurd but I couldn't shake it. To me, the plane felt like an old golden retriever; it was simple, direct, responded happily but took its own good time doing it. This was only half its job, and the easy half at that, and it felt about as laid back as a machine could.
All of the controls were completely mechanical... there were cables and pulleys and levers that went from the controls in the cockpit straight to the surfaces on the plane. It was a very direct feel, and feedback was extremely positive. The elevators and rudders were surprisingly light for a plane this size, and it was quite easy to move it in the vertical. The ailerons (moved when you turned the yoke) were actually quite heavy, requiring a good bit of muscle to get things moving in the right direction. I could barely imagine what it must've been like to fly for ten hours, half of which loaded down past the gross maximum weight, to assault "Fortress Europe".
They didn't just let me put my hands on the controls, I was actually asked to climb a little, dive a little, and turn a little. I'd paid my bucks, and God bless 'em they wanted to make sure I got my money's worth. I couldn't help be impressed how incredibly simple it was to fly, extremely forgiving. Sixty years ago Boeing designed a combat aircraft a twenty year old with less than two hundred hours could fly in tight formation with other twenty year olds with less than two hundred hours. It showed.
All too soon the requisite pictures were taken (one with the goofy flight hat, one without) and it was time for the next person to have their turn. I gave up the seat only reluctantly, but did my best to be a good sport about it. After all, the next guy wanted to fly it just as badly as I did.