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When they weren’t operating Norden bombsights (center), B-25 nose gunner/bombardiers enjoyed splendid views. (David Peters)

Take a Ride in a B-25

From engine fumes to exhilaration, here’s what to expect

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The day before my flight in Pacific Prowler, Scott Perdue took me on a quick tour of the bomber. After a while, he abandoned me beneath the shade of the B-25’s wing. As I sat there, a 30ish man carrying a kid walked across the nearly vacant apron toward the Prowler. I convinced myself that I wouldn’t show off or even get involved. He warily touched the barrel of the machine gun mounted in the nose, then moved in to inspect the left prop. The kid squirmed, and when the man let him down, he shot under the bomber and into the open bomb bay doors. The man rushed after him. And I followed them both.

“Check out the autographs,” I said. The man, stunned, took a quick glance at all the signatures in black Sharpie.

“They’re all World War II airmen,” I explained. “There are supposed to be a couple of Doolittle Raiders here, but I can’t find them.”

“Who were they?” asked the man.

“The Doolittle Raiders?” I said. “Four months after Pearl Harbor, Jimmy Doolittle loaded 16 of these bad boys on an aircraft carrier and bombed Tokyo. They took off from the deck of the Hornet—in this heavy-assed bomber.” The man nodded and pulled the kid from the bomb bay into the sunlight. “There’s a great book about it,” I added. “It’s called Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, by Ted Lawson. He was one of the Raiders.”

“I’ll pick it up,” he promised, tugging his son away. (Maybe I shouldn’t have said “assed” in front of his kid.)

“You know the Doolittle Raiders, right?” I said to an elderly couple, who were overjoyed by the sight of Pacific Prowler. Of course they did: He was a World War II vet, and she worked in an aircraft factory during the war.

A younger guy asked how the crew got on board, so I motioned for him to follow me under the belly to the forward hatch, and showed him the entrance.

By the time Perdue returned, I’d told people that the Prowler had survived the war because it was a late model (a B-25J) and a trainer (those two seats aft were where the students sat between lessons), and because it never flew overseas. I also mentioned that Tallmantz Aviation bought it in 1962, and modified it into a camera platform to film scenes for movies such as Catch-22 ; that it served as a VIP transport for the U.S. Air Force until 1958; and that it had been junked in San Antonio, Texas, where Terry found it in 2002 and rebuilt it with volunteer labor. In short, I regurgitated everything from the Pacific Prowler Web site, my former days as a model-building warbird geek, and from talking with Perdue.

Near the end of the flight, I crawled inside the greenhouse-like nose turret a second time. I swung the Browning .50-caliber machine gun from side to side and up and down, assured that it could spray a 180-degree arc of lead if we were bounced by enemy fighters attacking central Texas. Once I tired of playing war, I thought of how exhausting it would be to be cramped inside, trying to remain alert for hours on end, how steely-nerved a bombardier needed to be to peer into a Norden bombsight while Nazi gunners sprayed the airplane with a burst of flak, and how relaxing it was to forget all that and look through the plexiglass while Texas slipped past 1,000 feet below.

The Dutch photographer squeezed into the nose turret with me and fired off a few shots—with his cameras. After we returned to our seats, Terry and Perdue set up to land directly into what remained of the sun. I strapped in just as the speed decreased and we began dropping slowly. They gently worked the B-25 to the ground, and as the main gear touched down, the nose leaned over and the front gear settled in. With darkness closing in, we turned off the runway and followed a golf cart back to our spot on the ramp, where the pilots set the brakes and shut down the engines. After the props finished spinning, Thomas smiled and handed back the headset and said something that sounded like a warbling adult from a Peanuts cartoon. I stuffed the headset between insulation and a stringer, and she opened the crew hatch and crawled out, followed by the Dutch photographer. It seemed like he couldn’t get out fast enough.

Not me. I tried to memorize the location of the switches, wires, and instruments, and the texture of the handholds, footrests, and upholstery, clinging to my final moments inside a B-25.

Finished with the last checklist, Terry turned and pulled off his gloves. We made eye contact. He smiled faintly, and his lips moved. I shook my head and yelled “Huh?” His lips moved again. Still deaf, I took a stab at it.

“What a [expletive] ride!” I screamed.

Freelance writer Phil Scott’s latest project is developing his Web site: gratescott.us.

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