After that I basically had free run of the airplane. Most people were content to sit in their seats and look out whatever window happened to be near, but not me. I went through that thing like a monkey, taking every position except the tail and ball gunner's (which were off limits). I stood in front of the waist window with a genuine .50 caliber machine gun in front of me, staggered that the view I saw was different from the view so many saw only in place, separated only by time. The radio room of this perfectly restored aircraft was filled with black-crackle, vacuum tubes, and bakelite. I crawled through the partially-ripened-avocado chromate green bomb bay and marveled that in a plane so large it could be crossed with just three short strides. At this point they were still airplanes first, and bombers second.
I got to stick my head through the top forward turret, just behind the flight crew, and look back between another set of .50 caliber machine gun barrels. The 360 degree view was magnificent, and again history crawled inside my head as I remembered how loud a .308 hunting rifle was, and tried to imagine what two guns ten times more powerful must've sounded like going off six inches from my head.
Even better was when the crew chief removed the radio room's upper gunner's window, which was roughly oval shape, perhaps four feet by two feet. The ceiling of the plane sloped sharply downward here, so it was just a matter of walking under it in a crouch and standing up, and suddenly you were sticking your head into the 140 mph slipstream. Strangely, it was actually quieter, just the wind thundering in your ears. With literally nothing between you and the world the view ceased being washed out by scratched Plexiglas, no longer altered in color or tone by a funny angle of sunlight. It was real, and brilliant, with colors so vibrant you could almost taste them. I could stand facing away from the slipstream without much problem (except my ears getting cold), but could only face it very briefly. It reminded me strongly of riding in the back of a pickup truck. Well, if that pickup truck was going 140 mph on a 65-degree day at least. It literally took your breath away.
Most magical of all was the nose of the plane. Second only to the cockpit itself in importance, the nose was where the bombardier transformed this from a truck to a weapon. It was filled with equipment but no armor at all. Looking through the Plexiglas nose, surrounded only by a metal skin thin enough to punch a screwdriver through, you could only sit back once again in near horror at what men risked when they did this job. People shot at you sitting in this thing, sitting just like I was, just exactly like I was, right down to the thunder of the engines and the howl of the wind. Only this was not a black and white newsreel, flat and flecked with scratches. This was real, not just in sight but in sound, in feel, in smell. Many men, good men, younger than I was, met a violent end with these exact same sensations as the last thing they ever experienced.
The whole front end of a B-17's nose is Plexiglas. It had to be, in order for the bombardier to do his work. Surprisingly, the technology of the time did not permit a perfect glass-like enclosure. Instead it's distorted and warped and in places filled with strange bubbles and patches. Only the "clear window", through which the bombsite itself peered, was perfect, like the keel of a glass-bottomed boat. In spite of this, it was still far beyond the view you get peering the wrong way out of the poor excuse for a window you get in a modern jet liner.
This plane had come such a long way. Its sisters were tasked to do a horrible job, and were distorted and pricked with lead-spitting quills meant to fend off other people doing their level best to stop them. It had a phenomenal reputation for ruggedness and reliability, but a wound here put you at times six hours away from the nearest medical care. Once the job was done the vast majority of these noble beasts were hauled into pastures and hacked to bits for their parts, with all the dignity and compassion of a slaughterhouse row. Today no more than a dozen are actually able to be airplanes. The rest are simply frozen, nearly dead things, only able to point at the sky they once ruled.
As I sat there in the tiny bombardierís chair at the very front of this wonderful, terrible, beautiful airplane, I realized something. By moving my body out just a bit, all of the framework, all of metal of the plane disappeared. I was surrounded only by clear plastic and sky, able to look in any direction that mattered with complete freedom, yet safely enclosed in the furious sound of wind and propellers and engines churning away at the sky. Long ago this airplane stopped being a warrior and gave its terrible purpose to other, more capable craft. Decades on, now safely retired, it did what it probably always had done best, simply flying for the joy of it. Flying because it can.
And, as I pressed my head against the cool smooth plastic, with the wind hurtling by less than half an inch a way, so was I.
I was flying!