We were driving down the main drag of Brandon, Man., when my wife pointed out a large plane in the sky, flying relatively low straight ahead of us.
I squinted into the sky, trying to identify this plane. It had four engines, that much was clear. It was propeller-driven, not jet-powered. That meant it could only be one of a few different designs, none of which are common anymore.
It could have been a Constellation, a 1950s plane that still sees some usage as a water bomber. The fuselage was too skinny to be a Hercules, the ubiquitous cargo aircraft used by air forces around the world, including ours. No, there was something odd about this plane.
Looking at it head-on, it looked like something I had seen in a movie… No, it couldn’t be.
Then the plane turned. We rushed to pull into the parking lot and jumped out to get a good look at this massive silver plane as it did a lazy circle over Brandon. That’s not an ordinary flight path, I thought. They were showing off, and there must be a reason.
As it made its circle, the very large tail fin, with its strake extending halfway up the fuselage, made a strong case for what could only be a legend, a B-17 Flying Fortress.
But how could this be? There are only around a half-dozen still flying today, after 13,731 were built.
I called the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum at the Brandon airport, and sure enough, they did have a B-17 there. It had just landed, and would be in town all week in the lead up to the upcoming air show that weekend.
My wife wasn’t too pleased when I abruptly abandoned our shopping expedition and dragged her and the kids off to the museum. She quickly turned around, however, when she first laid eyes on the “Sentimental Journey.”
The plane was a B-17G, the definitive version that was the backbone of the American bombing of Europe during the Second World War. This plane never saw service in Europe, rolling off the production line too late in the war. It did go to the Pacific theatre, however, and saw extensive use in photo reconnaissance and nuclear warhead testing post-war. It was eventually lovingly restored to a 1945-appearance by the Commemorative Air Force in the early 1980s, and now does the airshow circuit.
For a few hundred bucks, you can get a flight in it (oh, how I wish I had that cash in my pocket). While on the ground, you can pay a few bucks and climb through the plane from front to back. It was well worth it.
The kids were enthralled as I explained the different positions and roles of the 10-man flight crew on board. Katrina couldn’t believe that for a while, one out of 20 planes wouldn’t come back on each mission, and if they had to do 25 missions, most would likely get shot down before finishing their tours of duty. On some of the worst raids, a quarter of the bombers did not come back.
As I told my kids and wife, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this plane. It was over 70 years old. We likely would never see one again, let alone get a chance to touch a true piece of history.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like, flying in one of these beasts as flak exploded all around you, then fighters swarmed in for the attack to pick you off one at a time.
When we get home, I’m going to have to locate a copy of Memphis Belle, so the kids can see what those brave airmen really went through. Our lives seem pretty easy in comparison.