"Traveling Back in Time aboard 909"
|I’ll never forget the call I received on Saturday, April 19, 2003, from Mr. T.G. Vallas, who is a member of our Rogues Gallery and F-4E Phantom pilot. He asked me if my son Andrew and I would be interested in going for a ride in a Boeing B-17? My answer was a resounding “yes”! This ride wasn’t going to be aboard any “ordinary” B-17, but “Nine-O-Nine”, the lead B-17G featured in my painting “Full House – Aces High”. It is not often that one gets the opportunity to fly in a World War II aircraft that is featured in your painting, so I was very excited at the opportunity. “Nine-O-Nine” is owned and operated by the Collings Foundation, located in Stowe, Massachusetts, and features all the markings when the plane had completed 140 missions with the 323rd Bomb Squadron, 91st Bomb Group. We met Mr. Vallas at the Olympic Resort Hotel, and after lunch, headed over to the Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, California. We met Jay Walker, veteran WW II B-17 pilot, and pilot of the Collings Foundation’s “Nine-O-Nine” for seven years. We then met Mr. Rob Collings, current chief pilot for the Collings Foundation, and I had the privilege of presenting to him Presidential Proof 6/10 of “Full House – Aces High”. After the presentation, we got a special guided tour of the Collings Foundation B-24 known as “The Dragon and His Tail”, which is currently the only B-24 flying in the world. We toured the cockpit, and then the bombardier section of the aircraft. After touring the B-24, we had time to walk around both planes, take plenty of pictures, look at the memorabilia offered for sale by the Collings Foundation, and wait for our ride aboard “Nine-O-Nine”, which was scheduled for 6:15 p.m.|
|At 5:45 p.m., the B-24 “The Dragon and His Tail” boarded its passengers and crew, and prepared for take-off. After the B-24 took-off, the nine passengers scheduled to fly aboard “Nine-O-Nine” gathered at the tail of the B-17 to go over the details of the flight and safety rules with the crew chief. Due to FAA safety rules, everyone had to be seated with seat belts on during take-off and landing, so Andrew and I were seated in the radio operator section of the plane, which is located between the bomb bay and the ball turret. Above us was an open-air hatch, so we got to hear the sound of each engine as it started up, as well as the smell of the exhaust. We were cleared to taxi and began to roll towards the end of the runway, and I couldn’t help but notice all the creaking sounds as we slowly rolled down the taxiway. It was a memorable experience, and I told Andrew to try and picture himself back in WW II. Once we reached the end of the taxiway, Mr. Collings applied the brakes and then applied full power to the engines for final check before take-off. The plane shook and the sound was deafening. It was great! We then rolled on to the runway and began our take-off roll. A few minutes after take-off, we were given the thumbs-up sign by the crew chief, which meant we were free to move around in the aircraft except for the tail gunner section and ball turret. We were also told not to bother the pilot and co-pilot during the flight. We stood up and looked out the open-air hatch towards the back of the plane. It was a windy, spectacular view as the plane turned and headed south down the California coast. A Beech Mintor had taken off after us and was now flying in formation off our port side. Andrew and I moved back past the ball turret to where the two waist gunner’s windows were located. We had the Beech Mintor and the coast of Del Mar on one side, and the Pacific Ocean on the other.|
|Andrew enjoyed “firing” the waist gunner machine guns, and then we headed forward through the bomb bay to the bombardier nose section of the plane. The view from the nose of a B-17 is nothing less than spectacular. Looking out the side windows, those big piston engines and turning propellers are right in front of you. When you stand and look out the small bubble window on the top of the nose, you can see the pilot and co-pilot face to face. Andrew again enjoyed “firing” the two machine guns found in the nose section of the plane, and then we took turns sitting in the bombardier seat, enjoying the view out front. I understand now why Jack Mangold, a 91st BG bombardier and signer of the “Full House – Aces High” lithographs, enjoyed the view from the bombardier seat. I had to remind myself to put down the camera and take a moment to try and soak it all in. We had made a 180-degree turn near Point Loma and were now heading north along the coastline. A brief stop at the top turret location came next, which is a very tight fit right behind the cockpit, and this provided another great view of the plane. Then it was back to the radio room to prepare for landing. We fastened our seat belts and the landing was very smooth, after which we taxied back to the area near the tower. With the engines still running, we got out of the plane and headed for the tower, while the next group of passengers boarded the plane. We watched “Nine-O-Nine” taxi down to the end of the runway, and then watched it take off into the setting sun. It was a day my son and I will never forget, and what a special adventure we got to do together.|
|A very special thank you to Mr. T.G. Vallas, Mr. Jay Walker, Mr. Rob Collings, and the Collings Foundation for making this memorable trip possible. After spending hours listening to the stories told to me by the distinguished B-17 veterans who signed the “Full House – Aces High” lithographs, I could barely comprehend what they went through on their missions over Europe. After riding in “Nine-O-Nine”, I can comprehend it a little bit more, but at the same time I ask myself, “How did they do it, flying in tight formations, machine guns blasting, flak bursts all around, enemy fighters coming at them from all directions, while battling the cold?” The freedom we enjoy in America today came at a heavy price. They truly are distinguished veterans.|