In which a tiny air force has an impact far greater than its numbers suggest.
- By Lance Thompson
- Air & Space magazine, March 1998
(Page 3 of 4)
Bob Lowenthal, 59, a 747-400 captain for Northwest, has just joined the tour. "Ever since I was a boy I've been reading about B-17s," he says. "When I first started flying with the airline, all the captains were World War II bomber pilots." One of the pilots Lowenthal is now learning from is Rob Collings, Bob Collings' 23-year-old son and an experienced warbird pilot. "When I first got here," remembers Lowenthal, "I thought, Who's this cocky kid showing me how to fly? Then I thought, back in 1943, that's exactly who would be sitting in the left seat--a 23-year-old hotshot."
Some 50 years ago, that's exactly what tour member Dick Dinning was. A tall, lean, soft-spoken veteran of the 351st Bomb Group, Dinning flew 33 missions as a B-17 pilot. He has a warm smile, a sympathetic ear, and the deep respect of everyone on the team. Even mechanic Strawn, whose merciless impressions of crew members spare almost no one, addresses the veteran pilot as "Mr. Dinning." Dinning flies chase in his single-engine Mooney 252, ferrying pilots and spare parts and using a Stormscope lightning detector to lead Nine-O-Nine and All American around rough weather.
When the three airplanes land at a stop, everybody pitches in, including the pilots. Folding tables have to be unloaded, along with chairs, crew luggage, tools, spare parts, canopy covers, souvenir T-shirts, coffee mugs, books, videos, photographs, patches, and inert .50-caliber ammunition (a big seller). Ladders have to be lowered, and signs displayed to guide visitors through the aircraft. Fuel and oil levels are checked, oil wiped off of engine cowlings and wings, and Plexiglas windshields cleaned with Lemon Pledge. Yet the first visitor steps aboard less than 15 minutes after the propellers stop turning. "These people have been waiting a long time," explains Haskell, waving his arm at the assembled crowd. "We have to move fast or we lose them."
With riders scheduled from first light to dusk and a constant stream of visitors, there are few idle moments. The team set a record of 21 local flights during a 1996 stop in Fort Collins, Colorado. "After a day like that, you shut down, get supper, go back to the hotel, and do a spin into the mattress," says Sheehan. "Then get up at six the next morning and do it all over again."
Team members usually salute the end of the day with a cold beer, then follow their own preferences. If there is mechanical work to do and the ramp is equipped with lights, Nightingale and Strawn go back to work after dinner. Phil Haskell spends evening hours on the phone, scheduling riders for the next day's flights. As for the others, "some go dancing, some to movies, some just crash," says Dee Brush.
Ask anyone on the team what makes the rigors of the road worthwhile and you'll get the same answer: the veterans. Michael Garemko of Hartford, Connecticut, a top turret gunner from the 100th Bomb Group, approaches the B-17 tentatively. "Just let me touch it," he whispers, running his fingers across the underside of the wing. Robert Bogue of Norwich, Connecticut, an ordnance handler for the 392nd Bomb Group, listens to the B-24's 1,200-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-1830-65 radials throttling up. "Oh, what a sound!" he exclaims. "You can't put a dime on me right now without hitting a goose pimple."
Some come to stare in silence, taking the trip back in time alone. Others come with comrades to reminisce. Often Nine-O-Nine and All American bring together men who haven't seen each other since the war, as well as strangers who discover they were in the same outfit and greet each other like long-lost friends. There are tears and smiles, and many, many photographs. From meticulously arranged scrapbooks, well-worn leather billfolds, and tissue-soft envelopes come surprisingly sharp black-and-white snapshots of young men in uniform, standing proudly in front of the mightiest warplanes of the day.
If there's a time and place veterans will talk about their experiences, it's in the presence of these airplanes. Bob Collings can't forget one tour stop when a young boy, his father, and grandfather, a wartime B-17 pilot, showed up for a visit. "The grandfather had suffered a stroke eight years before," remembers Collings. "He was still sharp and alert, but his speech was completely garbled." Yet when the veteran pilot got up to the cockpit and began to tell his son and grandson about his experiences, "all of a sudden he was very articulate, describing flak hitting the cockpit, the airplane on fire, bailing out with his crew," says Collings. "It was the first time his grandson had ever heard him speak clearly, and he told them the whole story."