Rutland-Southern Vermont Regional Airport has a special guest for the next three days: A B-17G Flying Fortress bomber aircraft designed in the 1930s, built in 1945 and restored to its original glory, and it’s taking on passengers for a once-in-a-lifetime flight this weekend.
“We feel it’s important to keep this alive,” said B-17 pilot Rex Gray. “All of those guys are in their mid-90s now, and after they’re gone there’s no one to keep their story alive.”
The plane, “Aluminum Overcast,” is a giant, silver, four-engine B-17G-VE bomber. It measures 74 feet, 4-inches long, weighs in at 65,500 pounds and is built to transport and deliver to target 17,600 pounds of bombs.
“This model had more guns than any of the others,” said Gray, who used to fly Boeing 737 jets before he joined volunteers at the Experimental Aircraft Association. “It had 13 50-caliber machine guns ... and the average age of the crew (at the time) was 18.”
Major differences between the antique aircraft and a modern jet airliner include the radial engines of the bomber as opposed to the turbine jet engines of the 737, and on the ground, the bomber requires more foot work than a nose-wheel airplane, steering with a small wheel at the back underside of the aircraft.
“How many years it has left, I don’t know,” Gray said. “One day they’re going to look at it and say, ‘Wow. That thing is way too valuable to be flying,” and I suspect it will end up in a museum, and people won’t even be able to touch it, let alone fly it.”
The model still bears the colors of the 398th Bomb Group of World War II that took part in hundreds of missions over Nazi-occupied Europe. Aluminum Overcast also commemorates another B-17G shot down on its 34th mission over Le Manoir, France, on Aug. 13, 1944.
She may have thin walls, but she has a mighty voice: The four Wright Cyclone R-1820 engines boast 1,200 horsepower each and shake the plane as it lifts off the tarmac. Even in a cloudless September sky, the massive craft dances with every breeze.
As the B-17 rose higher, its engines cast a familiar shadow on the ground below, transporting passengers back in time.
Wooden ammunition boxes inside now hold air sickness bags, but passengers brave enough to venture through the plane as it sails over the mountains will find the original radio room and bombardier positions still intact, and even have the opportunity to sit in the nose of the plane where the bombardier sat.
The tail section is closed off. It originally housed a tail gunner. For tourism purposes, Spartan seats have been installed in the center of the plane next to .50-caliber machine guns pointed out the window through a plexiglass shield.
The plane still has military seat belts and power outlets that the crew used. There is no insulation in the plane and crewmembers would endure temperatures far below zero at 30,000 feet, so they had electrical plug-in suits to keep them warm.
When the war ended, the plane was sold for $750, intended for salvage, stripped of its armaments, and was used for land surveying and agricultural spraying for fire ant control. But investors, part of a group called “B-17s Around the World,” acquired it in 1978, and the EAA took over its restoration when it was donated to them in 1983.
Though originally flown out of England by the 8th Air Force and out of Italy by the 15th Air Force, the EAA has been sharing the restored Aluminum Overcast since 1994.
“There were more air losses by the 8th Air Force than all of the Marines in the Pacific during World War II,” Gray said. “In the beginning of the war, there was no mission limit because it was unlikely they would see more than eight missions before something bad happened.”
Of the more than 12,000 B-17Gs that were built, a third were used for training, a dozen are still flight-worthy and only three or four are still in the air.
Since beginning its restoration, the Norden bombsight and the navigator’s position have each been restored, and the EAA intends to continue replacing worn parts to keep the plane in the air as long as possible.
Gray said the next parts they’ll need are the brakes, but they’re looking forward to taking local people up in Aluminum Overcast throughout the weekend before flying out to Keene, New Hampshire, as part of their annual tour around the United States.