The Wild Blue Yonder
B-17 over Ann Arbor
A child of the fifties, I grew up on World War II movies like Twelve O'Clock High and Thirty Seconds over Tokyo. Before I wanted to be John Lennon and Keith Richards, I wanted to be Gregory Peck or Spencer Tracy. And I always wondered what it would be like to soar into the wild blue yonder in a B-17.
Now, at Willow Run Airport, I'm about to find out. Even stepping into the back of the silver, seventy-four-foot-long B-17 heavy bomber and climbing past the mounted machine guns over the narrow gangway above the open bomb bay, through the cockpit, and then crawling up into the nose is a thrill.
Then the plane's four huge engines start one by one and the sound inside grows to a sustained roar. As the B-17 taxis down the runway, the past becomes overwhelmingly present. And when the Yankee Lady takes off into the clear afternoon sky, the trip rises to a whole new level of excitement--half a mile up, to be exact--where the view from the plane's transparent nose goes on forever.
We bank left and head west over M-14. First Domino's Farms slides by on our left, and then downtown Ann Arbor comes into full view, the afternoon sun glinting off the Dahlmann Campus Inn and Tower Plaza. As we cruise up the Huron at a leisurely 160 miles per hour, I can see the canoes and sailboats on Barton Pond with amazing clarity.
To give someone else a turn at this spectacular view, I climb back past volunteer pilot Paul Scholl and co-pilot Grant Schwartz and across the gangway above the now-closed bomb bay door. In the plane's waist I meet my host, Dennis Norton, a founding member of the Yankee Air Museum.
The museum began in 1981 with the goal of not just restoring the great warplanes of the past but flying them. They bought the B-17 in 1986 for $250,000 from a company in Arizona that used it to
fight forest fires and apply pesticides, and then spent nine painstaking years restoring it, with all the work done by volunteers and paid for with donations.
We're over Dexter now, and from the waist gunner's window I can see blue tarps on roofs damaged by the March tornado. We bank left over the A&W, head south down Parker Rd., and then bank left again on Scio Church back toward Ann Arbor. With the sun above and behind us, we can see the plane's shadow racing across the farm fields below us.
Norton invited me and ten others up in order to spread the word about the Yankee Air Museum. In 2004, its hangar at Willow Run burned to the ground. Members were able to get the planes out in time, but they lost the rest of the museum's contents, worth over $1 million. They reopened the museum this year in a newly restored building but are still looking to build their own hangar for the planes and a permanent exhibition hall for an estimated cost of $7 million. They aim to raise the money from donations--and from folks who pay $450 each for the thrill of flying in a piece of history.
And the B-17 is truly historic. Along with the B-24, built at Willow Run, the bomber played a crucial role in winning the war in Europe. With a crew of ten, mostly kids fresh out of high school, B-17s in flights of hundreds would sweep from bases in England deep into Germany. In the beginning, losses were staggering: up to a quarter of the planes sent out on those missions never returned, shot down by flak or fighters. But the B-17's legendary durability, plus the thirteen 50-caliber machine guns that gave it the nickname "Flying Fortress," earned it the affection and respect of its crews.
The Yankee Lady is a B-17G, the version that formed the heart of the bomber's production run. Of 8,680 made, only nine are still flying. Crew chief Norm Ellickson says even with volunteer labor, it costs about $2,500 an hour to put her in the air. The plane currently logs 150 flight hours annually from May through September, most of them at air shows across the country. But she'll be back August 4 and 5 for the Thunder Over Michigan airshow at Willow Run, where she'll be joined by the museum's own B-25 bomber and C-47 transport, plus Mustang and Thunderbolt fighters and Fifi, the only B-29 "Super Fortress" still flying.
Now we're back over Ann Arbor, with Pioneer High School and the Big House to our left and all of southern Michigan down to Ohio spread out on our right. We bank again gently and descend slowly toward Willow Run. My fellow passengers have been moving around in the plane during the flight, and an older guy in great shape sits down across from me. I recognize his face from a display in Pioneer High School: he's Jack Lousma, former Space Shuttle Columbia commander and Skylab astronaut. And he looks as completely mind-blown as everybody else.
When we touch down and taxi back to the hangar, none of us wants to leave. We linger while the next group climbs aboard, then watch as the Yankee Lady takes off once again, climbing high into the sun.
[Originally published in August, 2012.]