News 8’s Kent Pierce had the opportunity to fly in the vintage aircraft several times over the last 15 years, accompanied by historians and men who served their country in these planes in WWII.
When WWII veteran, Joe Melita of Redding, climbs into the B-17, it’s like he’s stepping back in time. In 1944, he was a radio operator in the U.S. military on a plane just like this.
Joe explains his job as the man responsible for keeping “in touch with the base. If anything’s coming through from the home base, they would notify me, and it was all done with secret code.”
“Of the planes that we’re seeing here today, there’s only a handful left flying, and to have all three together in one spot is even more unusual,” explained Tim Brady of 3 Wing Flight Services.
The Collings Foundation owns the B-17 along with a B-25 of ‘Doolittle’s Raiders’ fame, and a B-24 Liberator. They fly around the country teaching people some history and letting vets relive their youth.
“As soon as you board ship, you just get this smell of the aircraft; you’re back where it was,” explained Ed Mastrone of Bridgeport Veterans Affairs.
Ed flew rescue missions in B-17s in WWII. For him, the memories came flooding back. He remembers the cold of flying missions in an unheated plane. Joe says he remembers the sound of gunfire and the dangerous flak in the air as he flew missions over occupied France.
The hope is that the younger generation who sees these planes will remember the sacrifices willingly made by a generation now almost as rare as these planes.
World War II veteran, Chuck Theriault, tells his grandson that the top turret gun was his post for the 30 missions he flew in a B-17 bomber over Germany in World War II. Chuck’s job was to defend the ‘Flying Fortress’ from German fighters.
“I would shoot them and I knew I had hit them because I would see pieces fly off,” Chuck told his grandson.
Jerry O’Neil, the organizer of the Collings Foundation historical events said, “It’s a whole sensory thing if you hop in there. It was their battlefield. This was where they fought.”
Chuck may have needed some help getting in the plane on this visit with his grandson, but once they took off, he went back to being the 18-year-old from Wolcott who enlisted right after the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
News 8’s Kent Pierce said of the experience, “Just flying in one of these WWII bombers is amazing enough, but to do so with a guy like Chuck who can tell you first-hand what it’s like to clamber around in this confined space while other planes are shooting at you: that the temperature would drop to sixty below zero in flight and you always had to be tethered to your oxygen supply…well that brings a whole new perspective to the experience. And it’s a perspective we’re quickly losing.”
“In 20 years we’re not going to have any veterans left from WWII,” said O’Neil.
That is why it’s so important to give those veterans one more chance to fly. For Chuck, this was the easiest mission he ever flew.
Imagine it’s 1944 and you’re on a bombing run over Germany. That’s exactly what this B-17 was built for. It’s named after a famous plane that flew 140 missions in World War Two – plane number 231909.
“They started racking up the missions and they put the nose art on the side of the aircraft – a little leprechaun thumbing his nose at the Germans, and they just started calling it the old nine oh nine,” Ryan Keough, flight coordinator for ‘Wings of Freedom‘ told News 8.
It’s hard to imagine from what we know of air travel today, but they were flying in these things with no pressurization, no oxygen and no heat.
You just bundled up in your flight suit like Don Murray used to do when he flew B-25s over the Pacific in World War Two. He’s 91 now and took a trip in the old 909.
Murray told News 8 that this flight was more fun than any in the past because no one was shooting at him.
The Wings of Freedom tour includes another bomber, a B-24 liberator known as “Witchcraft”.
“It flew primarily the heavy bomber missions over Germany. 8th Air Force, you everybody talks about the mighty eighth air force,” said Keough.
And everybody remembers the fabled P-51 Mustang, the fighter the Tuskegee Airmen flew. A closer look at the propeller – ‘Made in East Hartford, Connecticut.’
When these planes come to Connecticut, so many of the visitors are the ones who once made parts for them.
“And even more so today you have their family members coming out as they find things in their attic and say my God, my dad used to work for Sikorsky, can you tell me a little bit more about this photo, maybe something so I can have some relevance to what he did during the war,” said Keough.
October 2nd, 2019’s crash was not the first for the B-17 bomber. The aircraft known as 9-0-9 has crashed before: Click here for the full story.