The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner is having teething troubles: overheating batteries, leaking oil, cracked window, grounded by all the airlines. Boeing says all new planes have them, which is true. When I learned to fly Boeing’s great B-17 Flying Fortress in 1944, it was the latest G model, teething troubles over. And yet, the one I flew across the Atlantic, had a new “formation stick,” kind of like hopped-up power steering. The first and only time I switched it on, it flipped the plane on its side. I switched it off.
` “Don’t touch the damn thing!” said an instructor—after I already had. Nobody used it, and anyway, B-17s, sensitive and responsive, flew formation beautifully without it. I learned to love every inch, from the bucket seat, comfortable for 10-hour missions, to the thunder when I advanced the throttles on takeoff using the middle grips that controlled all four engines at once, to the contented purr of its engines when perfectly synchronized.
After Victory in Europe Day, I was assigned to the “White Project,” flying troops from Italy to Morocco, first stage of their eventual redeployment to the Pacific. B-17s are inefficient troop transports, but with the Pacific war still on and thousands sitting around, slews of idle pilots, and millions of gallons of 100-octane gasolIne, it made perfect sense. We took off from an airstrip at Pomigliano near Naples, passed by Mt. Vesuvius, over the sparkling Bay of Naples, caught sight of the southern tip of Sardinia, angled southwest, crossed the Mediterranean, kept the coast of Africa in view until Gibraltar, hung a left, landed in Rabat, debarked the troops, flew back the next day. Two or three trips a week until one day, I picked up a mid-flight radio message that Japan had surrendered. I immediately told the troops sprawled out in the waist, and they broke out bottles. When we landed, they had to be shoveled out of the plane.
After that, nothing for obsolete bomber pilots to do except fly a minimum four hours a month to maintain flying status. We'd sign out a B-17 like you sign out a basketball in high school, fly to Rome, Pisa. Cairo, Marseille.
Twenty years later, when my photog brother, Alfred, had an advertising job shooting a Boeing 707, he asked me to model the pilot. “Thought you’d like to sit in a Boeing cockpit again.”
Amazingly, it had much the same look and feel of my old war bird! And why not? If it ain’t broke...
Today, more than sixty-five years later, I feel Boeing’s pain. But the folks who made the B17 Flying Fortress, with a great tradition behind them, will soon have the 787 Dreamliner purring. Book me a flight!