A few weeks ago my wife told me I needed to get out and do something. “Okay,” I said. “What do you have in mind?” She showed me an advertisement for the Commorative Air Force, a group that restores, preserves and flies vintage WWII aircraft. There was to be an opportunity to book a ride on either a B-24 or B-29 bomber in early October.
I have always loved airplanes from the WWII era. My favorite is the P-51 Mustang. It was one bad ass little fighter that protected the big bombers late in the war. They were the only fighter with the range to make the long flights deep into Germany. My biggest thrill was to actually walk up and touch one at the Paine Field Museum of Flight in Seattle, WA while working for Boeing.
Now, my wife was offering me a chance to actually take a ride in one of the bombers. I chose the B-24 named “Diamond Lil”. I filled out the forms and gave them my credit card number to pay for the flight, and waited. I couldn’t imagine what it was going to be like flying in one of the 18,000 B-24’s built during WWII. This old girl was 83 years old. I thought about how well she had been maintained and started looking into her history.
Diamond Lil was one of the first B-24’s built by Consolidated Aircraft in San Diego, CA. She was intended to be shipped to the UK but was damaged during a test flight and never saw combat. Instead, Consolidated used her to test modifications and upgrades as the war went on and new planes were built. Her name is in honor of the 98th Bomb Group which served on Europe during the war. After the war, Continential Can Corporation converted her to an executive transport plane.
She was purchased by the CAF in 1969, and in 2006 underwent a significant restoration back to a B-24A configuration. Her bomb bay doors were removed and replaced with a stronger keel beam, her avionics were upgraded, her wing tanks resealed (she can carry 12,000 gallons of fuel), and engines overhauled. Since she is the last one still flying, it is difficult to find spare parts and many have to be recreated by hand. The most difficult parts to find are for her four radial engines.
On the day of the flight, I had butterflys all morning. What would this be like? Would something break and cause CAF to cancel the flight? Would the weather be good? All sorts of “what-if’s” were flying through my head. I was doing, what we call in our house, the pee-pee dance of anticipation waiting to go to the airport. We had to be there an hour early to check in – we got there twenty minutes before that even.
The day was beautiful, bright, not a cloud in the sky. Although it was warm on the ground, I figured at altitude it might be cold so I took a jacket, just in case. We checked in and then browsed around the other airplanes on display in the hanger, as well as some of the displays. We grabbed a bite to eat and just watched as other planes were coming and going throughout the day. People could book rides on several smaller aircraft as well as the two big bombers.
Diamond Lil finally made her landing from the flight before mine and came to a rest on the tarmac near the hanger. The crew and passengers got out and milled around for a while, taking pictures, chatting and admiring her, before the crew got her ready for my flight.
We were called to a pre-flight briefing in a small room in the hanger. The man giving the briefing went over safety rules, told us what would happen in flight, and assigned us specific seats on the aircraft. Once we were airborne, we would be allowed to move about and visit all of the various positions set up for viewing. Then, it was time to take the walk and board our flight.
We had to walk a couple of hundred yards to the plane. As the group walked out onto the field, friends, family, and wives waved their good byes as we followed our guide. My wife blew me a few kisses. I grinned, smiled and waved back to her. It felt like a Walter Mitty moment.
The inside of the aircraft was sparse as one would expect a military plane to be. Having worked in the aircraft industry for over 20 years, I looked at the construction, going over every frame, rivet, strong point, piece of cable and plumbing – old school for sure. Everything was made from formed sheet metal as compared to being machined out of aluminum billet today. How did they manage to build 18,000 of these planes in four years? Many hands and Rosey the Riveter.
The noise was deafening, but they did provide ear plugs. As the engines reved up and we started to move, the old girl seemed to groan and creek with her age. The waist gunner position was an open window where a crewmember watched the engines, flaps, and landing gear to make sure things were working properly. Through that opening I could see the sheet metal skin on the vertical stabilizer was dented in many places, looked like it had been patched a few times, and certainly showed its age.
As we started our take-off roll, the plane shuddered and then settled into a steady hum, trying to get airborne one more time. I felt her break ground and the wind start to push her around. It wasn’t unexpected, and she handled it well, gaining altitude as we turned to head south of the field for a 30 minute flight.
Once airborne, the crewmember gave us the “unbuckle” sign, indicating we could get up and move around. The crew had a set routine and directed each of us, one at a time, to visit each position on the aircraft – the waist gunner’s post, the tail gunner’s post, the bomb bays, the navigator’s seat, and the flight deck. The crewman at the waist gunner’s position, unfolded a .50 caliber machine gun (inert) and had each of us come to that spot and try to hold it as if in combat. I got a big surprise when it was my turn.
I hadn’t thought about it, but the slipstream of the wind along the fuselage grabbed the gun and wanted to pin it against the tail end of the opening. The strength it took to manuver the gun to point it forward was amazing. I really had to plant my feet and bully it where I wanted to point it. I don’t see how any gunner hit an enemy airplane flying over 250 miles an hour past his gun. The fear of combat, the strength it took to man-handle a live weapon to shoot at an enemy who was shooting at you, and the prospects of being hit were beyond my comprehension. It had to be terrifying.
I recalled reading that the 8th Army Air Force had the highest number of losses of any American unit in the war. The normal crew, from what I have read was ten men. That meant if ten planes out of a flight were shot down, one hundred men were lost. On many missions, the losses ran to 30 and 40 aircraft – sometimes more. I asked one of the crewmen from our flight what was the standard configuration for a crew. He said some were as few as six and as high as ten, depending on the configuration of the aircraft. If they wanted a bigger bomb load, they used fewer crew. Sobering thoughts indeed.
I went to the tailgunners post to lay on a hard metal “bed” behind another .50 caliber machine gun. It was a good view point, but my thoughts turned again to the real people who manned this position on combat aircraft. There wasn’t much room to swing the gun from side to side, so I’m guessing, a tailgunner didn’t have much to shoot at unless an enemy was coming directly at him. Changing ammo belts was another problem that came to mind. There just wan’t room (in my opinion) to do it gracefully. But, I’m guessing in combat, you don’t give a shit about being graceful.
The bomb bay doors are sealed up, but there are still racks on each side of the bay with several inert 250 pound bombs displayed. From what I could figure from the configuration of the racks, each plane could carry about 2000 pounds of bombs. The bombs now provide some balance to the aircraft while on the ground. We were told not to board all at once, lest she would sit back on her tail from being out of balance.
After an all too short thirty minutes, we got the “buckle up” sign and began our turn back to the airport. By now, I’m sitting outside the flight deck under the carry through section of the wings. That is the place where the wings join together at the middle of the fuselage. Looking up at that area, I could see a small wet area – they didn’t get all of the leaks fixed. The area had been patched many times and there was still some sealant showing around newer patches. Above that area, was a mass of hydraulic pipes, cabeling, and other tubing that controlled various functions of the aircraft. Ya, she looks 83 years old alright.
To my right and below the flight deck, I could see the nose landing gear. One of the crewmembers crawled down a small aisleway to lay on the floor and watch it as we made our approach. I’m guessing there is no “gear down and locked” light on the flight control panel?
Touch down was what I expected of an old war bird – rough and hard. There was a big thump that drove us into our seats, and then the squeal of tires on the runway. We came to a stop and then taxied back to the hanger area to disembark. We were given time to walk around the plane, take pictures and talk to the crew before going back to our waiting families.
I had many thoughts about that ride. Men came to mind whom I had worked with that flew these planes for real – in real combat. At the time, I didn’t have the sense to really talk to them about their experiences, to ask them questions. But, like most veterans, they rarely talked about the war to anyone.
It is a shame that they don’t talk about what they saw and did for the simple fact of never forgetting their stories. I can understand why they don’t talk and don’t hold that against any veteran. As I look back on my life and think about the men I’ve known who were part of WWII, one simple fact stands out for all of them. They went to war, did their job, came home, and went on with life, keeping their secrets to themselves. So many family members, people I’ve worked with, rubbed shoulders with or knew as an acquaintence, were veterans with amazing stories that never got told. I morn for all of that lost history.
Taking that flight on Diamond Lil gave me a knew perspective on what our fathers, uncles, friends and neighbors did during WWII. Their sacrafices and devotion to duty should never be forgotten. Not for that war or any war.
God bless our veterans, and God bless America.