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Returning to the wild blue yonder

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Former pilots and crew members gathered in front of a restored B-17 during a recent reunion of the 95th Heavy Bombardment Group in Cleveland, Ohio.
Submitted photo Former pilots and crew members gathered in front of a restored B-17 during a recent reunion of the 95th Heavy Bombardment Group in Cleveland, Ohio.

At the end of August and extending into September, the U.S. Army Air Forces 8th Air Force 95th Heavy Bombardment Group personnel remnants and their descendents assembled in Cleveland, Ohio, for the annual reunion.

I had not been in Cleveland for quite a number of years. In fact, when I was last there, they were still having trouble with the river catching fire.

Now, there are no rivers ablaze, and the city really looks great. Our hotel in the city center, while old, was a great place to be. It has a large high-ceiling arcade with a restaurant specializing in all sorts of decadent chocolate concoctions. I really was concerned when I thought I was going to stall out before I reached the bottom of the hot fudge sundae dish. I did not stall.

All of the reunions have been important; however, this was one of the more important ones for two reasons. It would be possible to again fly in the 95th’s chariot of fire, the B-17 Flying Fortress, and the debut of the 95th’s history, “The Wild Blue Yonder and Beyond”, authored by Rob Morris and Ian Hawkins.

For the past three years, my son, Gary, and his wife, Gwen, have accompanied me on the reunions. I figured all of us should enjoy a B-17 ride.

Before hand, I wondered if I was flexible enough to fit the old body into the rather cramped quarters of the B-17. Well, I need not to have been concerned. The crew and the younger passengers pulled, bent, pushed and manipulated me through the rear entry door.

They continued the effort around the top of the ball turret, through the narrow confines of the bomb bay and on to the flight deck.

The staff had decided, since I was a pilot, I needed to be on the flight deck. There I was. I did not break a sweat, but I cannot say, with assurance, the same for my helpers.

With everyone buckled in, it was engine start time. Today, this is a bit of disappointment for me.

In the old days, the engine starter did not directly start the engine as it does in a passenger car. Back then, the starter motor drove a small flywheel and accelerated it to a rather high speed. One of the skills the pilot had to learn is, when the screech of the flywheel reached a certain frequency and pitch, you engage the starter. You can hear it in some of the old wartime movies.

Today, it is the same as your automobile. You flip the switch, and the engine immediately begins to turn. From that point on, it is back to the old times.

A nine-cylinder radial engine starts with some reluctance. While the engine is cranking, it appears that the cylinders take a vote as to which one is going to fire first. While taking the vote, clouds of white smoke bellow out the exhaust stack. The vote counted, the winner issues a muffled “poof,” and the rest join the chorus.

A lot of people think the phrase “shake, rattle and roll” originated with the advent of rock music.

The radial engine had that a long time before. However, warmed up and rolling down the runway that characteristic disappears and a steady working sound is all you hear.

Once airborne, it seemed like old times with one exception. I was not shot at.

After landing, Gary and Gwen had wide smiles for quite some time. I probably had the same.

Next year it is off to Orlando — I do not know whether they will have B-17 rides. If they do, guess what?

John Walter, a former bomber pilot in World War II and a retired engineer at Cummins Inc. is one of The Republic’s community columnists.

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