If you’ve ever watched the movie “Memphis Belle,” you know what a Boeing B-17 Fortress looks like.
The plane became one of the most important bombers in history, and America’s main strategic weapon in Europe during WW II.
This long-range heavy bomber was suggested to the US Army Air Corps in the 1930s. The first prototype flew in 1935. Having the Fortresses gave the United States an “embryonic strategic bomber force” by the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Over 12, 000 of them were built. Most Fortresses were sent to Europe, flying from 25 airfields in England, where it turned out to be an amazingly tough and resilient plane.
After instructing advanced cadets at the Marfa Army Air Base in Texas for two years, my dad, Warren Neal, flew F and G models of the B-17s, logging 134 hours in them, from February to June, 1945–half at Williams Field, Chandler, Arizona, half at Yuma, Arizona. He was getting four-engine training in order to fly the B-29 Superfortress as soon as enough were manufactured.
Many of their instructors and some of the planes were back from combat in Europe. Dad flew “Hell’s Angels” on April 7. Returned to the US in February of 1944 for a War Bond tour, it was the first aircraft to complete 25 missions from England.
On August 3, 1993, my husband called from the Des Moines Airport control tower, where he was on duty. A B-17 would be at a fixed-base operator’s tarmac for three hours, if I wanted to see it. They weren’t giving tours. They were just on their way back to Arizona from the Oshkosh Air Show, but I decided to ask if I could go out and see it. They said yes and escorted me to the plane, where a couple of kids–who turned out to be on the crew–were sunning themselves on the planes wings.
They let me crawl all the way through it, from the door in the side towards the back, across the catwalk over the bomb bay to the front of the plane, down into the bombardier’s Plexiglas nose where the Norden Bomb Site was, then up to sit in the pilot’s set. It was larger inside than I’d expected from watching the film “Memphis Belle.”
It was while I was in the cockpit–looking out the pilot’s window at the gold-tipped propellers, the bomber sighing and creaking as a strong breeze buffeted it–that I began to grasp my dad in that other life long ago.
To get out of the plane, I could climb back through the plane and down the ladder, or I could exit the way the crew did, right below the cockpit–by swinging out. There’s no photographic evidence, but I did it!
I stayed around long enough to get to hear each engine sputter and cough to life, to see it lumber along the runway, then turn into a sleek silver bird making its way over Dallas County, then eventually home to Arizona.
This video of the Memphis Belle taking off is similar to the plane I watched at the Des Moines Airport.
Built in 1944, this B-17 Fortress was used in CIA operations and as a fire-tanker, it now belongs to the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, McMinnville, Oregon.
I’ll bet Dad never flew a B-17 like this.
A Higher Call by Adam Makos is the fascinating story of a badly damaged B-17 over Germany and its interaction with a German ace. It is being made into a movie. A Higher Call preview