The High and the Writey: Young Heroes, Yesterday and Today

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A conversation next to a B-17 can reach across generations.

I asked Steve, a local teenaged ramp rat, to go with me to the airport to look at two World War II bombers that were visiting for the weekend. I am a student of—and at my age, damn near a remnant of—that period of flying.

Today’s display models visiting Lexington, Kentucky were a B-24 and a B-17. Exquisitely restored right down to their machine guns, these aircraft gave the ramp some much-needed class. Warbirds are a big deal at our airport, where it’s much more typical to see a Cessna doing touch-and-goes on a nice afternoon. Tangible reminders of air combat are almost never on our field.

We bought our tickets and sauntered out to the ramp where this seasoned pilot did something he hadn’t done very much of during the past decade or so: I walked around a big airplane. 

See, in the world of airlines where I spent my professional life, the captain rarely does a walkaround or preflight. That is flight engineer or copilot territory. For the type rating and subsequent recurrent training sessions, captains like me had to display knowledge of and the ability to do a walkaround, but to see a captain out on the ramp for a preflight is rare.

On this bright, sunny day, with Steve in tow, I started around the B-17. I noticed that the public, while seeming to like the aircraft, didn’t seem to get much out of simply being around it. I think this is because people nowadays look upon warbirds like the B-17 as some sort of idealized toy. They have no idea what the people who flew them went through. 

I stopped under the right outboard engine and pointed to the turbocharger that was attached to the bottom. It was gray and innocuous—not something that the public would notice—and I wanted Steve to see it. “This device made high-altitude bombing possible,” I explained.

My statement prompted Steve to give a “humor the old pilot” shrug, so I resisted the urge to tell him about constant-speed props, fuel vents, hydraulics, the Norden bombsight, ADF loop antennas, Rosemount probes and the vital importance of Jimmy Doolittle establishing 100 octane fuel as the military standard before the war.

The public perception of flying today is that it is a way to get to Seattle in a hurry and on the cheap. Over the past few years when I’m riding in the back with passengers, I’ve noticed that one of the first things most window-seat travelers do is close the shade so they can’t see outside. 

It seems that flying at eight-tenths the speed of sound seven miles up is a cause for boredom instead of wonder. Flying to most people is now a commodity, like chicken strips or low-fat sour cream. The magic is gone for them because they have forgotten just how miraculous it is.

Most people today think of World War II-era aircraft as clean, shiny appliances that represent a time they barely comprehend. They see the machines, but they do not smell the cordite, the blood or the fear the crews experienced.

My companion Steve is a victim of this video game mentality about the war as well, and he began to fidget as he thought of the hundreds of other, more fun things he could be doing right now instead of following a geezer around some airplane.

“Steve,” I said, “look around you—what do you see?”

“A bunch of old-looking geeks wearing polyester ball caps,” he said.

“You’re right. Most of these old-looking guys are probably here because either they flew aircraft in the war or knew people who did. It was over 70 years ago, so these guys are pretty ancient. But do you know what I see?”

“That girl over there wearing that tank top?”

“What I was going to say is, what I see when I see these old men limping around this bomber is how they see themselves, even to this day: a bunch of brave teenagers who are about to save a planet from the worst of fates—a totalitarian nightmare. If Hitler and Tojo had won the war, we’d still be feeling its effects, or would not be alive at all.”

“The old guys that you are looking at left their homes when they were very young. They did not sign up for the promise of a college education, to learn a trade, or to receive a welcome-home parade. They signed up for ‘duration plus six months,’ meaning they were in the war until they were dead or we had won.”

“After undergoing harsh aerial training that killed way too many of them, they flew these unpressurized bombers over enemy targets bristling with guns and fighters.”

“Most of these teenage bomber commanders had less than 300 hours total flight time when they were put in charge of their planes and crews. Their instrument time was limited to whatever training they had gotten in the States and a few scant practice sessions after deployment.”

“With less instrument time than the average Cessna 172 instrument pilot school graduate, they were flying four-engine bombers in formation through the clouds and very nasty weather, often at night.”

“More than 55,000 of these teenagers never came back. Every loss of a B-17 meant that 10 crewmembers were gone as well. If they survived parachuting over Europe, they faced starvation and worse in a prison camp. If they bailed out over Japan or anywhere in the Pacific theater, they faced torture, death and possibly becoming a meal for sharks.”

Steve just looked at me. “I haven’t seen you so worked up over a subject since they stopped loading the M&Ms you like in the FBO candy machine,” he said.

I could tell that he still hadn’t made the connection between the bombers, the old guys and himself. “Steve, most of these guys were the age you are right now when they went to war. The odds of them completing all the missions unhurt or uncaptured were completely against them.”

“They knew every morning when they rolled out of their bunks in the predawn to eat breakfast and go bomb Europe or Japan that, statistically, they had no chance of going home alive.”

“When the lucky ones got home from the war, there was no professional flying for them to do. The airlines hired a few veterans, but there was no flying gig for the tens of thousands of other qualified pilots returning home. General Aviation as we know it today was just getting started. These returning pilots quietly hung up their goggles, got jobs in factories or on farms, and raised their families.

“Now the few that are left are out here on the ramp, looking at these bombers in a way that you or I never will.”

“When I look at a B-24, I might notice that the navigator’s station has a temp probe sticking out of the window. A veteran remembers what it was like to sit in that metal box in the freezing cold, hearing shrapnel from flak tearing his aircraft apart.”

“People today look upon these aircraft as quaint reminders of when a B-17 was considered a heavy strategic bomber; these guys remember washing the blood off the floors after a mission or watching another bomber crew—friends of theirs—spin in over Belgium with no chutes sighted.”

Steve nodded and wandered off to talk to the tank top girl. I was left to talk to myself for a while. Luckily, in today’s world of cell phone solo-talkers, nobody thought it strange that I was standing out in the sun, mumbling to myself on the ramp while speaking to no one:

It is the survivors who always get the last word on a subject. These old guys wandering the ramp can speak of the war of their youth and describe a little bit about what it was like back then, but the 55,000-plus guys who are buried in veteran cemeteries and small plots in Europe and the Pacific are permanently stuck in time as teenagers, full of potential that was never used. How many pilots that could have cured cancer or averted the Vietnam War died in the skies, never getting to lead their lives?

Steve came back after I’d been standing by myself for a while. He had a shy grin on his face. “What happened, Steve? Did you get a date with her or something?”

“No,” he said. “She told me she was here with her great-grandpa. I got to talk with him for a few minutes and he said that when he was my age, he’d just met a girl at his training base in the U.S. when his unit was called up and sent to fly B-29s over Japan. They’d promised to stay in touch, but he’d lost track of her and never saw her again.”

“I got to thinking—what if I had to go fight in North Korea or somewhere just after I met a girl I was meant to be with, and then never saw her again because I died or was hurt? Things are not really any different today, are they?”

I think he was starting to get the picture.