Editor's Note: Suburbanite reporter Jim Mesko had an opportunity to fly in the B-17 bomber named "Nine-O-Nine" as it flew from an airfield in Tiffin to the Akron-Canton Airport for the Collings air show in August.
She was called the Flying Fortress, a four-engine heavy bomber that bristled with defensive machine guns, and led the American attack against Nazi Germany during World War II. Nearly 13,000 were manufactured, with close to 5,000 lost over Europe.
Today, only 10 remain in flying condition, including our ship, "Nine-O-Nine", from the Collings Foundation in Massachusetts. Our crew consisted of several MAPS members, a film crew from North Canton Hoover High School, and the actual flight crew from Collings.
After careful instruction from the flight engineer, we took our seats, scattered from the nose back to the waist of the B-17, as the plane rumbled down the the long runway in Tiffin on a beautiful sunny day, with just a touch of cloud cover. This was a far cry to the foggy and rainy weather U.S. flyers often experienced over England and Europe during the war.
As the wind whistled through the fuselage, we were told to make sure everything was tied down lest the wind sweep it off into space. At several thousand feet about the ground, it was actually quite comfortable, though noisy as the four Wright 1,200-horsepower engines make quite a racket. During the war, the B-17 often operated upward of 35,000 feet above the ground. To keep warm, the crews initially wore heavy fleece-lined flight suits but eventually were provided with heated flight suits. Still, it was cold, and they had to work at whatever their job was.
As we droned on I could not help but think of the young men who faced the attacking German fighters under such cold conditions. What it must have been like to take on the single seat Me-109 and FW-190 fighters, the twin engine JU-88 and Me -110, and later in the war the ME-262 jet fighter, not to mention anti-aircraft fire and the constant danger of collision. These were indeed brave young Americans who earned the name "The Greatest Generation" from Tom Brokaw. There were indeed heroes, the likes of which we will never see again.
Our flight lasted about two hours, much less than the average six-to-eight hour mission (or longer) that were typcial over Europe. Our flight was relatively smooth though nowhere near as smooth as most people experience on commercial flights. We were able to crawl around and even get into the nose, but keep in mind we were all wearing shorts or jeans, not heavy flight suits, so you can imagine how hard it was for those young men to move around with all that heavy gear on; not to mention how much the planes bounced around in the turbulent air, while being shot at. And they did it day after day until they completed 25 missions or were either shot down, wounded, or killed. They were indeed a rare bread of men.
As we approached Akron-Canton Airport we took our seats for the landing, which was much smoother than most commercial landings. As the plane shut down I looked around, thinking of all the young men who 70 years before me had taken this fantastic plane into the war torn skies over Europe to take on Adolph Hitler. It gave me a better appreciation of what those young men sacrificed for this country, and what we own them today.
As I slowly walked away from the resting B-17 I turned and took one last look at her. A silent "Thank You" crossed my lips for what those men had sacrificed so long ago so we could be free.