Take a Ride in a B-25
From engine fumes to exhilaration, here’s what to expect.
- By Phil Scott
- Air & Space magazine, May 2011
Pilot Jim Terry, a retired U.S. Air Force major encased in fire-resistant green Nomex from fingertips to ankles, disappeared through Pacific Prowler’s forward crew hatch. I scrambled in after him.
“Don’t touch anything painted red,” said Terry from the cockpit of the restored North American B-25, which had flown into Alliance Airport in Fort Worth, Texas, for a weekend airshow last October. “Use only the yellow handles.” He pointed to the seat that would be mine on the flight, during which we would shoot air-to-air photographs of two other vintage aircraft. My seat was mounted high against the upper bomb bay, and it wasn’t easy getting to it in the dark and using only the yellow handles. Terry was already buckled up when I started strapping in, my feet dangling two feet above what passes for the floor in a World War II bomber.
Co-pilot Scott Perdue, also wearing a green jumpsuit, climbed through the hatch and issued the same instruction to the guy behind him, a plump Dutch photographer who popped through breathless and confused by the rapid-fire lecture on primary colors. I tapped the yellow handles in sequence for him. He sat down and struggled to untangle the webbed seatbelt, so I leaned over and unhooked his metal footrest (touching its forbidden red fastener—but for the cause!), then my footrest, then loosened and fastened his seatbelt around his waist.
Up front, Perdue threw a leg across the engine controls and slid into his seat, and Terry’s girlfriend, Kandi Thomas, lifted herself in and closed the hatch, sealing in Pacific Prowler’s special fragrance: 67 years’ worth of engine exhaust clinging to the original olive-green insulation, with subtle undertones of wiring, worn upholstery, and oil-soaked dirt.
The only light inside the sweltering B-25 fuselage streamed through the cockpit’s deceptively small windshield, the tiny observation porthole above my head, and the thin crawl space between the bomber’s ceiling and the bomb bay’s roof. In the rear of Pacific Prowler, seven friends of Terry’s crowded in where waist and tail gunners once crouched, excitedly strapping in for takeoff.
Within two minutes of boarding, Terry fired up the left Curtiss-Wright smoke-spewing radial, which shook the elderly aluminum structure and howled loud enough to numb my eardrums. The right propeller revolved and the engine caught, doubling the noise and vibration. Sweating streams, I watched oily smoke swirl throughout the fuselage.
Both Terry and Perdue worked the throttles to soothe the engines, which also cut the noise to Who-concert volume. Over the intercom, they chatted about the left engine running a little rough, but it soon evened out. The B-25 was short one headset (it had flown off a photographer’s head during another photo shoot the afternoon before); by boarding last, Thomas had missed out. As Pacific Prowler rocked down the taxiway, I insisted she take mine. My madness carried method beyond chivalry: The original crews stuffed cotton in their ears or went without, and I wanted to subject myself—briefly—to what they endured mission after endless mission. Compared with long-term exposure, what damage could it inflict on me? (Besides, I’d been to five Who concerts.)
Turning down the runway’s business end, Terry and Perdue breezed through the instrument check, then slowly shoved the throttles to redline and stepped off the brakes. We bounded down the runway toward the afternoon sun, the first time light touched my face.
The pilots held the bomber’s nose high while it chewed up what felt like too much runway. Around the time I started thinking that if the pilots were wearing Nomex, maybe I should be too, Pacific Prowler parted with the ground. During the climbout, I got up and moved about the cabin. I lifted the metal step with a foot and hooked it back against the wall, let myself slide down the seat, and landed with my feet planted on each side of the hatch. Then I fell to my knees and crawled toward a narrow tunnel that runs under the cockpit and leads to the nose turret. The tunnel was filled with a blinding, ethereal light.
Pacific Prowler is based at the Vintage Flying Museum at Meacham International Airport in Fort Worth, where Jim Terry leases hangar space for the bomber and a Douglas C-47. Both aircraft are part of a 501(c)(3) organization that he runs salary-free. As a nonprofit, the organization is forbidden from charging passengers, though it is allowed to offer “free” rides in exchange for “donations.” Donations for the organization’s “history flights” run $400; each flight lasts an hour, with 35 minutes devoted to a safety briefing, firing up the engines, and taxiing to the runway, and 25 minutes of actual flying time. Any funds generated by Pacific Prowler and the C-47 are pumped back into maintaining the vintage aircraft.