The first thing you may notice on entering a B-17 is its economy of space. The next thing you may notice, once its engines roar into motion, is the raw, mechanical power driving the Flying Fortress. Over the weekend the public got a chance to experience that in person, thanks to a traveling exhibition at McKinnon St. Simons Island Airport by the Experimental Aircraft Association.
“From a pilot’s perspective, it’s a challenging airplane,” said Bill Hoofen, EAA crew chief and an Air Force veteran. “It was started — the design period was in the ‘30s. I mean, the things that it replaced made this airplane look like a space shuttle compared to those. It’s just that big of a jump in technology. But, it doesn’t have what we call control harmony. It’s not very good — in other words — they all feel and operate differently as opposed to with a great level of harmony, so to speak, they all kind of work together and they feel about the same, and that’s not the case here.
“This thing, it’s designed to eat your lunch if you’re not paying attention. That’s the challenging part of it, and it’s fun for us to be able to do that, because when you master something that’s hard, it’s a little more job satisfaction.”
He said it’s important to remember that a lot of the crews than manned B-17s in World War II were new to aviation entirely.
“The thing that’s hard to imagine is that most of the people that flew in these things had never even ridden in an airplane before they started through the flight training program,” Hoofen said. “Then they flew around a couple hundred hours and they went off to combat, and that was about the same — I went through pilot training and then I went to (combat control team) school, where they train you in your combat aircraft, and then you’re off to Vietnam at about the same time. Not a lot of difference all that much time later, but we had learned a lot more.”
A number of sons from local families wound up on crews of B-17s during the war, and a few received special recognition in the pages of The News.
The News would run a column of local men in uniform and what they were up to — in March 1944, Cpl. Edward Rigdon of the Army Air Corps was assigned as a B-17 tail gunner stationed in Oklahoma, awaiting orders for overseas duty. In June 1944, Sgt. Robert Ricks wrote home and advised that while stationed somewhere in England, he received an assignment as a B-17 tail gunner.
Sitting in one of the turrets put crewmen at some unusual risks. The News ran the photo of Sgt. James Raley of Kentucky in an April 1944 edition after Raley survived a fall of around 19,500 feet from his plane after his B-17 collided with another during a mission. According to the AP, he was only slightly hurt after landing in a tree.
In May 1944, word came that Staff Sgt. Waundell Sikes, whose parents lived on Reynolds Street, received a promotion and a medal for his work as an operator-gunner on an Army Air Corps B-17.
The dispatch from the 15th Army Air Force ran, “He has participated in 14 mission over Italian, German and Balkan targets as a member of the 15th Air Force, commanded by Maj. Gen. Nathan F. Twining. He has been awarded the Air Medal for ‘meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flights.’”
He wasn’t the only local serviceman to receive such honors in the 15th — in December 1944 came word that Staff Sgt. Charles Courson, a B-17 aerial gunner based in Italy, completed his 50th mission and received the Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters.
In March 1945, Sgt. Vernon Rutter, an engineer/top-turret gunner on a B-17 in the Eighth Air Force, also received the Air Medal and was on the 91st Bombardment Group’s 300th operational mission, which was to bomb a railway yard.
The EAA event Thursday drew two men with World War II bomber experience — Jim Russell, who flew on a B-24 with the Eighth Air Force out of England, and David Blackshear Sr., also a B-24 veteran, but who was in missions in the Pacific Theater.
“There were nine or 10 people on the plane — it would depend on what the category was,” said Russell, who was on 30 missions. “If you had a specialist, one or two, you might have 10 or 11 on there if you’re leading the group. Usually, to begin with, we trained with 10 men — there were six gunners and four officers, the pilot, co-pilot, navigator and bombardier.”
He said that they would take the ball turret off the bottom of their B-24s.
“They found out that the Germans didn’t ever attack from up underneath — if they did (attack), it was head-on or back-on,” Russell said. “But (the turret created) a lot of drag, and also it weighed about 1,500 pounds — maybe 2,000 pounds — that turret. But mostly, it was aerodynamically, it slowed you down.”
Blackshear noted the size of the planes he crewed were a little larger than what awaited attendees with the B-17.
“The B-24, they said it was the box in which they shipped the B-17,” Blackshear said. “It was a big box.”
Russell said B-17 flyers he knew had more of a barnyard reference.
He said, “The B-17 fellas called us the flying pregnant cow.”