Story by BUTCH MERIWETHER
BULLHEAD CITY–The distinctive sound of four massive reciprocating engines on a WWII B-17 rumbling through the skies over Bullhead City and the surrounding area could be heard last weekend.
Those unforgettable sounds of the American-made B-17 fighter bombers delivering their payloads on targets during WWII have long passed. However, there are a very few B-17 warbirds that are still airworthy and occasionally take to the skies throughout the world, but no longer on combat missions.
B-17s were nicknamed “strategic weapons” because they were potent, high-flying, long-range bombers capable of defending themselves. They were named flying fortresses due to their ability to suffer extensive battle damages and still return to their home bases.
Because of the concerted efforts of the Flying Legends of Victory Tour conducted by Arizona Commemorative Air Force Museum (AZCAF), based out of Mesa, Ariz., the sound of a B-17G could once again be heard winging its way through the skies over Mohave County.
There are only eight B-17 bombers left in the world that are airworthy and flying today. Of those, only five of them can claim combat provenance. They are: The Swoose (40-3097), Swamp Ghost (41-24460), Memphis Belle (41-24485), Shoo Baby (42-32076), and The Pink Lady (44-8846).
Of the remaining eight airworthy B-17s, one named Sentimental Journey (44-83514), touched down at the Laughlin/Bullhead International Airport and was on display last Friday through Sunday. Besides the static display for visitors to get up close view of the aircraft and take photos, there was a display in the informational trailer, and a select few lucky people were able to have a chance-of-a-lifetime by taking a ride in a B-17G.
The Sentimental Journey, currently based out of Southern Arizona, was built by Douglas Aircraft in late 1944, and was accepted by the U.S. Army Air Forces on March 13, 1945. Assigned to the Pacific Theater for the duration of the war, it did not actually see combat. It’s rumored to be the personal aircraft General Douglas MacArthur utilized to fly from island to island and who is best known for his command of allied forces in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
B-17s were fitted with:12 50-cal M2 Browning machine guns (some B-17s had 13); carried 27 feet of 50-cal. ammunition for each gun; was capable of carrying 8,000 pound of bombs (32 250-pounders, 16 500-pounders and/or a combination of both; and a 4,000-pound-bomb load was typical for long missions and depending upon how many pounds of bombs carried, predicated how much fuel the aircraft could carry and how far it could fly.
The B-17s was powered by four 1,200-horsepower Wright R-1820-97 engines, and could be flown at about 30,000 feet, the average cruising speed was about 150 mph, the top speed of 287 mph and it had an average range of about 3,750 miles depending upon the bomb load.
Most of the B-17 bombers flew in a pack of 18 planes, with a fighter escort. During each briefing before flight, the crew was reminded that if they went down behind enemy lines, they were instructed to destroy the plane and all equipment, and if captured, only to provide name, rank and serial number.
The 10-member crew were an average of 5’ 5” tall and weighed about 140 pounds, and included: four officers – a pilot, copilot, bombardier and a radioman-navigator; and six enlisted – a crew chief who also served as the top gunner, and five others who served as the tail gunner, front gunner, the belly or waist gunner and the two side gunners.
Two WWII veterans from Bullhead City who arrived to view the warbird Friday were able to take a flight on the Sentimental Journey. They are 90-year-old retired U.S. Marine Corps Warrant Officer 2 Bob Krause who served in the Pacific during WWII, and the Korea and Vietnam Conflicts, and 91-year-old retired U.S. Navy Chief E-8 Electrician Donald Rice who served aboard the DD214 during WWII.
According to AZCAF website, flying in a B-17G is an opportunity to see and experience a piece of American history and even take a flight if someone wants to. The website says, “Climb aboard AZCAF B-17G Sentimental Journey for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to fly in one of World War II’s most vital aircraft.”
There were almost 13,000 these aircraft manufactured from 1935 through 1945. The first aircraft, designated as the Model 299 prototype, was designed in 1934, by Boeing Aircraft Company of Seattle, Wash., and its first flight was on July 28, 1935. There were 6,981 B-17s of various variations produced by Boeing and an additional 5,750 were built by Lockheed and Douglas. Of the total manufactured, 8,000 of them were lost in combat.
Most of the combat-era military B-17s are now privately owned and only those designated as airworthy take to the skies for recreational flights, to participate in air shows, demonstrations and for static displays.
Today it is estimated that only about 39 B-17s are in existence today and only six are airworthy in the U.S., and the B-17G Pink Lady in France, and the B-17G Sally B in United Kingdom. However, there are many of the 39 remaining B-17s that are currently under restorations now in the world and some are only museum displays unable to take to the air. The majority of the aircraft that survive today and are airworthy came from the last batches of aircraft produced by both Douglas and Lockheed, which had better corrosion control practices.
For further information about the locations of the dates of aircraft displays and rides available, visit the Arizona Commemorative Air Force Museum website at azcaf.org or call them at (480) 924-1940.
Photos by JEFF ARGANDA/The Bee