Bob Ross clapped once as the B-17 Aluminum Overcast roared to life and lifted from the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport runway Thursday afternoon.
Before the crew chief gave Ross and other riders the signal they were free to unbuckle, Ross was already standing and moving about the four-engine plane. His wrinkled face creased as he smiled and rested his hands on one of the .50-caliber machine guns pointing out the waist of the plane.
Ross was among several World War II veterans who got to take quick, free rides on the B-17 or the C-45 CAF Expeditor named Bucket of Bolts ahead of Heavy Bombers Weekend. For many of them, it was their first time on a war plane in years.
For Ross, it was his first time on a B-17.
Despite his age, Ross quickly made his way from the back of the plane to the front. He crawled below the pilots into the plane’s nose, where he could get a good look at the world passing below.
During World War II, Ross, who lives in Brodhead, was flight engineer on a two-engine B-25 bomber. He flew every day for a year and a half while stationed in China, India and North Africa. The 91-year-old didn’t get his pilot’s license until after the war, he said.
The one thing he noticed about the B-17?
“Just as noisy as the B-25.”
During the war, there was a civil rivalry between B-17 and B-24 crews, veteran B-24 pilot Robert Buetow explained.
The B-17 was the first major bomber on the block, so it gets all the credit. But the B-24 featured a Davis wing that made it fly faster and farther and able to carry more bombs, Buetow said.
Buetow spent Thursday’s flight sitting in the back of the plane, but he still had fun, he said.
“I enjoyed it. I would’ve like to have been sitting up in the copilot seat with the guy, but of course that’s impossible,” Buetow said.
“I wouldn’t be any damn help anyway. I don’t know that plane,” he joked.
Like Ross, 91-year-old Don Uhen wasted no time moving about the plane during the short flight. He had been a B-17 pilot, graduating from flight school less than a week before the end of hostilities in Europe.
“So my mother’s prayers were answered,” he said.
He went to B-29 school after that, but then the United States dropped the atomic bombs in Japan, and “everything was over with,” he said.
Uhen crawled beneath the plane into the nose and snapped photos with his cell phone. He didn’t manage to get back to his seat before the plane landed.
He hadn’t been in a B-17 since 2000, when his kids arranged a ride for his 75th birthday.
“It kind of brings back some memories when … you go down the runway,” Uhen said. “It was a lot more exciting when I was doing it rather than taking a ride, but it was an exciting day.”