Duck and twist is a necessary contortion to make it through the rear hatch of a B-17 bomber. From there it’s a hunched-over shuffle past the belts loaded with 400 rounds of fifty-caliber bullets (actually display blanks) at the waist gunners’ positions. A couple steps beyond the radio desk, the obstacle course gets really dicey: a catwalk narrows to a foot-wide, suck-your-gut-in squeeze between the left and right bomb rails. A misstep could drop you through the B-17’s bay doors–just as the bombs did in World War II. But pilot Ray Hunter assures me they haven’t lost anyone yet.
Hunter, seventy-nine, retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1988 as a colonel. It was an elevated rank, just one step away from general, but it meant he’d had to give up flying. “I missed the camaraderie of being on an aircrew,” he says. “That’s what drove me to get involved with the Yankee Air Museum. I thought, ‘I can help these guys, and in return maybe they’ll let me fly their airplanes.'”
Hunter started volunteering in 1986, and by 1992 he was piloting the “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the museum’s C-47 (the military version of the DC-3). He’s been captaining the pride of the fleet, the B-17 “Yankee Lady,” since 2013.
On this flight Hunter has handed over the “left seat” captain duties to former Delta Airlines pilot John Rule. From the copilot’s seat Hunter–getting in the spirit with his brown leather bomber jacket–runs down the preflight checklist. “Fuel oil hydraulic quantity … seventeen hundred gallons of gas. Position lights on. Starting engines … boost pump on. Three … turn three. OK … turn two. One, two, three, four.” The four supercharged engines start up. All sounds great, and then above the drone is heard a momentary thud.
Rule seems a bit anxious. “Ray, did you just hear something?” Hunter is completely calm. He’s flown enough older planes to know that an engine backfiring is nothing to be alarmed about. Besides, he’s been around much louder explosions.
Hunter joined the Air Force in 1954, just after the Korean War. In 1969, he volunteered for service in Vietnam. “It was not a political decision,” he says. “It’s a decision that, as a military person, you support your fellow airmen, your fellow soldiers, your fellow Marines. You are part of a team, and you need to do your part.”
He’s soft-spoken, but his memories are sharply edged. “By the time I got to Bien Hoa [air base] in May of 1970 it was pretty quiet. The only thing we were really worried about were rocket attacks. Over the course of a year more than 200 fell on the base.” Hunter piloted rescue helicopters–“HH-43s. They were old but quite effective. They recorded more combat saves in Vietnam than any other Air Force helicopter.”
One “save” came when a young South Vietnamese soldier stepped on a mine left behind by the French occupation. Hunter knew that there were likely to be other mines in the field, so he couldn’t safely set the chopper down. Hovering at twenty-five feet, he sent two pararescuemen down to hoist the wounded soldier up to the cabin. He made a full recovery from his shrapnel wounds.
The Yankee Lady is one of only ten airworthy B-17s left in the world, out of a production run of 12,731. With its multiple defensive machine guns it was known as the “Flying Fortress.” The Yankee Air Museum purchased the plane in 1986 for $250,000 and immediately began an extensive restoration.
“We took the wings off–the vertical stabilizer had to come off and be totally rebuilt,” recalls Hunter, who also chairs the YAM’s board of directors. “I had parts in our basement that I was cleaning up and putting together.” Hunter adds with a smile that “Stephanie didn’t like that a bit!” (Married for thirty-eight years, Ray and Stephanie Hunter live in the Dicken School neighborhood, where Stephanie, a retired teacher, is co-steward of Dicken Woods; Ray has two sons from a previous marriage.) The work took nine years, but when it was done, Hunter says, the Yankee Lady was “by far the very best [surviving] B-17, and I’ve seen them all.”
The first dozen B-17s were just being tested when Hunter was born in Vintondale, Pennsylvania, in 1937. Hunter’s father, a lifelong coal miner, wanted more for his son: “My dad told me you’ve got to get an education, and you don’t want to be a coal miner. That stuck with me.” (He would eventually earn a B.A. in psychology from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s in education from Eastern Illinois University.)
Hunter’s way out was to join the Air Force at age seventeen; his flight out to New York in a DC-3 marked his first time in an airplane. Ten years later, he was piloting C-47s himself.
Heading southwest from Willow Run, Rule and Hunter steady the Yankee Lady at 1,500 feet. I slip through another narrow passageway below the cockpit to the bombardier’s seat in the nose of the plane. The large domed window provides the necessary view for positioning the bombsight–but during the war it could also display, without warning, a swarm of Luftwaffe fighters aiming to shoot down the plane. As we emerge from a cloud bank I feel none of the anxiety of long-ago bombardiers; what unfolds is a breathtaking panorama of Lenawee County farmland. Hunter and Rule complete a circuit and glide the Yankee Lady to a smooth, steady touchdown.
Even when he’s not flying, the Yankee Air Museum keeps Hunter busy. In 2004, it suffered a devastating fire. “The only things that we had left were the C-47, the B-25, and the B-17,” he recalls. “We had no museum to show the public.”
In 2010, the museum reopened on the east side of the airport. But the closing of GM’s Willow Run Powertrain plant that December inspired a new goal: to save the building, once the Ford Motor Company’s B-24 factory, from being completely demolished. In just over a year, more than $7 million was raised–just enough to purchase nineteen acres and the tail end of the bomber plant as the museum’s future home.
Hurdles remain, but Hunter is very optimistic for the future of the National Museum of Aviation and Technology at Historic Willow Run. Perhaps his most elusive goal is acquiring one of the four remaining Ford-built B-24s, but Hunter remains undaunted. “It’s a labor of love for me!”