The 750-horsepower Pratt and Whitney Hornet engines turned over four propellers sending a beautiful yet chaotic melody of mechanical jazz to those encased in the belly of the flying time capsule that is the Liberty Foundation’s B-17 Memphis Belle at the DeKalb-Peachtree Airport Thursday.
Spurning out from those four engines, positioned on wings form the famous silhouette of the most iconic flying machine from World War II, was a vibration that simultaneously nauseated a photographer, delighted veterans and rocked me into a euphoric and nostalgic place I will never forget.
As the noise, music, shaking and rocking peaked, the B-17 Flying Fortress rolled slowly, then ever more quickly down the runway before slipping into an overcast, chilly sky over the city of Atlanta for its media flight in preparation for a weekend full of action as a living museum for the public.
As the plane lifted into the air, I was overcome with the thrill of being able to do something that not only had few have ever done, but something which simultaneously stirred emotions of sadness, skepticism and a wonder of awe. The last of those emotions was the most powerful for me, because my grandfather was one of those few people who have been aboard a B-17, of which only 11 of the 12,732 produced between 1935 and May 1945 still flies today, and he couldn’t hide his own pride in telling his young grandson about his time aloft in one.
Sitting at several air shows with my grandfather Joseph “Walter” Snyder, he would always proudly tell me about the one time he got to fly in a B-17. And for him, it was a very good memory. Unlike so many of the other passengers of the Flying Fortress during World War II, no one was shooting back, and it wasn’t carrying the destruction of some of the 640,036 tons of bombs that flew from the bellies of the aircraft during daylight raids over Europe. Because he served as personal clerk as a sergeant with the 808 Air Engineering Squadron, he mostly typed reports. He still had the fascination for aircraft that was carried on through my father and me, which led to me eagerly asking for the assignment to board Thursday’s flight.
The B-17 flight lived up to everything I had been thinking of and hearing about for the last 25 years before my grandfather’s passing. The Flying Fortress vibrated tirelessly; it had a loud yet easy sound, but it was a smooth flight and was both as tough as a tank and stayed aloft with minimal effort.
During the ascent there were some jerks, bumps and dips. But after that, staring out the open belly gun windows, up through the open roof in the navigator’s room or down from the bombardiers station was just – for me at least – fantastic.
My excitement also stemmed from always wanting to hear about history, through my maternal grandfather Snyder or my paternal grandfather Salvatore “Sam” Fazio, who served as an infantryman in the Pacific theater during World War II, or wherever I could get it from.
I was always told of that history but never got to see what they saw or be around them when they relived it. Thursday I got to do just that.
The liberty foundation brought in three World War II veterans, all in their 90’s – one a glider pilot, one a supply sergeant in England and another a gunnery trainer on the B-17 named Rudy Phillips.
I was fortunate enough to sit just across from Phillips on a jump seat next to the belly guns which he told me he used to take apart and reassemble blind folded. While he can’t do that today, his memories were just as sharp as the young soldier who taught others how to use the .50 caliber machine guns and the chin, top, ball and tail turret guns.
As the plane took the skies, Phillips still had a smile on his face, then he took his place by the guns he grew so familiar with in the 1940’s. Being able to talk with the people who were there, in any event in history, and hear it through their words and see it through their eyes was just as big a thrill as being able to stare down on the every-day lives of those in the city below me.
After the flight, Phillips answered questions from several inquirers about how it felt to be back up in the famous Flying Fortress, and he took it in stride because to him it’s not history. For those who lived through it, like 99-year old Herman Bodenheimer, it’s a case of “been there, done that.”
But I had not been there, or done that.
I’ve now been where the greatest generation has been, not via a movie or virtually on a website or over twitter, but in real, visual, oratory and touchable life. It’s something that was available, for a fee of $450, in Atlanta Saturday and Sunday thanks to the Liberty Foundation, but to me it felt priceless.