It didn't drop a bomb in World War II, but this Boeing B-17, known as the "Flying Fortress," is on tour to honor WWII veterans.

Share story

Engines on the B-17 bomber roared to life. Wind gusted through open cracks around the gun turrets of the World War II plane as it took off from Boeing Field.

Stacks of vintage black radios vibrated against the green aluminum walls. From the bombardier station in the plane’s glass nose, Seattle’s streets and landmarks appeared like a map as the plane skimmed along at 150 mph.

Seattle is the 15th of about 60 stops that the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) is making to showcase the B-17 on its Salute to the Veterans tour. The tour is more about honoring war veterans and sharing history than maintaining a hobby, say the pilots and engineers who work on the historic aircraft.

“We wouldn’t give up the time we give just for aviation,” said pilot George Daubner.

He said his father, who was a fighter-plane crew chief in WWII, was a reason he decided to fly the bomber on tour.

The plane helps veterans recall memories they’ve never shared, said mechanic Nick Hirsch, of Iowa. He said that on tours like this he has met a “Rosie the Riveter” and a 100-year-old former B-17 test pilot who once worked as the personal pilot of Bill Boeing, founder of the aerospace giant.

“The average WWII veteran is well into his 80s. It’s important to honor these men and women before they pass from the scene,” said Dick Knapinski, EAA spokesman.

The B-17 was nicknamed the “Flying Fortress” for its 13 machine guns and the 8,000 pounds of bombs it could carry.

“When you realize you’re protected by a very thin skin of aluminum, you realize you’re not really in a fortress,” said WWII navigator Bob Culp, who flew about 30 missions in the European war theater.

Boeing factories produced almost 13,000 bombers; about 5,000 were lost in combat. There are about 12 that are still flyable, Knapinski said.

“We liked to think that it was the war, that it finished the war. We like to take credit for that,” Culp said of the historic planes.

The plane on tour, called the Aluminum Overcast, is in better condition than those most veterans remember. “We had oil leakage. When the engines started up, they smoked. It really wasn’t a pleasant thing to ride in,” Culp said.

The plane isn’t pressurized, so the crew wore oxygen masks and heated suits. Oxygen tanks used for higher flights once filled what is now empty space on the Aluminum Overcast and made it difficult to move around, he said.

Today, visitors still must turn and shuffle when they want to walk across the cramped bomb-bay catwalk. Aluminum Overcast never dropped a bomb. The war ended, and it was auctioned for $750 as military surplus.

It was used as a firefighting and mapping aircraft before a group of investors purchased it in the 1970s to try to restore it.

In the early 1980s, they donated it to the EAA with the agreement that it would keep the plane flying. A military paint job, including red wingtips and a logo of a blond woman in a red swimsuit, were a part of the restoration that took about 10 years.

“It really did become a labor of love for those involved,” Knapinski said.

Celeste Flint: 206-464-3192 or cflint@seattletimes.com