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Tue, Aug 02, 2005

Learning About The Flying Fortress

Stepping Through The Past

By Rob Finfrock

This year, Oshkosh is host to five B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft -- ThunderBird, Fuddy Duddy, Sentimental Journey, Liberty Belle, and the wounded-but-proud Aluminum Overcast. Discovering this was very exciting for me, as the Flying Fortress has always held a special place in my heart-- my Grandpa Darmody was a navigator on a B-17 during World War II.

He served with the Eighth Air Force, and saw combat over Germany beginning in late 1944. After V-E Day he flew on planes carrying refugees liberated from Czechoslovakia. He was scheduled to be transferred to Japan, until Hiroshima happened. Instead, he came back home, married my grandmother, and they had two daughters. I'm named after him.

I knew I had to take this opportunity to discover something new, something different, about the aircraft that had safely carried my grandfather home from battle. I wanted to experience, somehow, a little of what he had gone through.

Ralph Royce, of the Lone Star Flight Museum in Galveston (TX,) very graciously agreed to teach me a little about the Flying Fortress. Royce is the captain of the museum's Boeing-Vega B-17G (S/N 44-85718) that is on display this week at AirVenture. Although this particular aircraft entered service after the war, today she displays the markings of ThunderBird, an airplane originally with the 303rd Bomb Group based in Molesworth, England.

"See that table? That's where your grandfather sat," Royce said once we were inside the airplane, as he pointed to the navigator station in the nose of the aircraft, port side, behind the chin turret assembly.

Everywhere I look metal bulkheads protrude, cables and piping run along the walls. An imposing machine gun juts out from the window immediately to my right. "Your grandfather may very well have had to fire a gun like this to provide support for the chin gunner," Royce explains. "Like the others, he was probably nineteen or twenty, 150 lbs or so, and they could all move around here easier than we can now. Watch your head; that steel ring doesn't bend."

Next we explore the cockpit of ThunderBird, a hearty stretch from the main deck and over the access way to the nose. The panel looms before me, and although I recognize most of the instruments and controls, it still manages to be imposing in its completely down-to-business appearance.

"It's a basic Boeing airplane," says Royce from behind me. "It's like flying a 50,000-pound Piper Cub, except you got four of everything. It'll float, just like a Piper Cub'll float. Turns just a little like a Piper Cub turns."

After a few minutes of trying to imagine myself at the controls of this behemoth in flight -- and failing -- I climb back down to the main deck and, on Royce's instructions, proceed down the catwalk through the center of the extremely narrow bomb bay. Looking through the open doors to the ground below, I experience a moment of vertigo -- and I'm only a few feet off the ground.

Once again, I try to imagine standing in this exact spot, except now the aircraft is at 22,000 ft and if I look down, I'll see hostile German territory far below. I involuntarily shudder. Did my grandfather ever have to traverse a bomb bay like this, freezing air whipping through the open doors, while being fired upon from all sides? 

"It's a very small bomb bay when you think about it," says Royce. "Remember that the plane was designed in 1932, it was designed to carry 4,000 pounds of bombs. That's all."

"This radio room, we've really changed," continues Royce once we step into the next compartment, still cramped although much more open than the bomb bay.  "Here behind you, were just avionics -- just big black boxes. And all along the wall were big, twelve-inch oxygen bottles." And I had just been thinking that it's a tight fit now…

Next Royce shows me the ball turret, a hulking round sphere in the middle of the floor. I can just see inside through the window at the top, to the tiny seat inside flanked by the machine gun controls. Royce explains that the guy manning the turret could only be 5'6" or so, 130 lbs, or else he wouldn't fit. "But remember, these were 19 year-old kids, bulletproof and flexible."

Soon we are at the back cabin of ThunderBird, past the staggered side machine guns, and then out the door. Royce and I then walked to a smaller door at the rear, the access to the tail gunner's position. There's only enough room to poke my head through the opening, and take a very quick look at the gunner's station.

"There's no room back there, he has nothing to sit on-he'd lean on the chest plate there," Royce explains.

And with that, the tour is over. Royce allows me to rap my fingers against ThunderBird's dope-and-fabric elevator surface, and takes the time to explain the workings of the engine turbochargers. I touch my fingers to a drop of oil on the cowling's underside ("All round engines leak. If they don't, then they're out of oil.") and I stick my head up into the landing gear well so Royce can point out the exhaust bypass piping. Every new lesson learned brings me a little closer to knowing about Robert Darmody.

I never knew my grandfather. He died in 1958, south of Las Vegas, when an Air Force F100 slammed into the DC-7 that he was riding back from California. My mother was nine when it happened. When I discovered the joy of flying three years ago, she was not surprised at all. "Your grandfather would be so proud of you," she told me.

With Ralph Royce's help, I learned a little more about the world that Robert Darmody lived in for that brief time, and something about the events that shaped the person he became before his untimely death. Although I was before, now I'm even more honored to bear his name.

FMI: www.lsfm.org

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