Tuesday, October 21, 2008

B-17 flight offers journey back in time

Historic Flying Fortress tours country to promote aviation, war history

Hunter Gates peered out a window of the World War II bomber as it lumbered down the runway, his left hand propped on a cane and his memories passing like the landscape outside.

"I'm just hoping I get to land in this one," the 86-year-old said with grin.

The last time Gates flew in a B-17 Flying Fortress like this - Feb. 14, 1945 - it was shot out of the sky over Germany.

Gates was one of several World War II veterans who got a ride Monday in one of only about a dozen B-17s still airworthy. The plane is in Jackson this week as part of the Experimental Aircraft Association's Salute to Veterans tour.

This plane, a sleek silver bomber named the "Aluminum Overcast," tours the country each year. The public is invited to take a ground tour or buy a ride at Hawkins Field in Jackson today and Wednesday.

The association uses the plane to promote interest in aviation and war history and to honor men like Gates. "This airplane - the 17 - is a piece of history," said Larry Gray, a flight engineer for the group. "It almost won the war by itself, it really did."

The plane's next stops are in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

After four roaring radial engines lifted the bomber off the pavement at Hawkins Field in Jackson, Gates put down his cane. He slowly made his way to the front of the plane and climbed into a small opening just behind the cockpit.

There, in the "chin turret," the glass nose of the plane offered a panoramic view of clear blue skies and the city below. It was in this spot on a similar B-17 that Gates manned a machine gun during World War II and toggled the bombs that were dropped over Europe.

Gates, of Jackson, left his studies at the University of Mississippi to enlist in the military after the war broke out, and was on his 10th mission when his plane was hit by German anti-aircraft fire.

Eight of the 10 men aboard made it out before the plane exploded; the other two died.

"They were waiting for me when I hit the ground," Gates recalled of enemy soldiers. "I was right in front of the Siegfried line. There were thousands of German troops."

Gates was a prisoner of war for two months until Germany surrendered.

Bill Ruddock, an 85-year pilot who flew 46 missions in a B-17 and more than 100 in a B-29 over Korea, was more fortunate when he was shot down over Yugoslavia. Sympathetic locals hid him and his men in hay carts and helped them get back to friendly territory.

"It was a good airplane. It was tough," Ruddock said after Monday's flight. "You don't know how many guns were shooting at us."

1 comment:

tammi said...

Wow. What a GREAT story. I hope a lot of folks get to take advantage of this opportunity.

ESPECIALLY if there is a chance you get to fly with someone who had been there and done that.....


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