Ken Morris piloted a B-17 into Washington County Airport from Cincinnati, Ohio, Thursday, so his wife, Lorraine, took the controls for a 20-minute media jaunt to promote the plane’s local presence.
The Morrises were born long after the B-17s and their crews helped win World War II for the Allies, but the distaff side of this aviating couple pays tribute to Women Airforce Service Pilots, the first women who flew American military aircraft, by wearing WASP wings on her uniform that bears the insignia of the Experimental Aircraft Association.
“I’m not pretending I am one,” Lorraine Morris said of the WASPs. “But it’s in honor of them.”
The women flew planes, not in combat, but from the factories where they were built to military bases. Thirty-eight women pilots died in service to the United States.
Just the day before, the Associated Press reported Elaine Harmon became the first WASP to be laid to rest with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. It took a lobbying campaign by her family and an act of Congress for Harmon to be retroactively designated, like other WASPs, as military veterans with eligibility for an Arlington burial. Harmon died last year at 95.
Unlike men, women had to have 1,200 piloting hours before being accepted to fly during World War II, Lorraine Morris said.
Check out a 360 degree video of a touring B-17, one of only 11 airworthy B-17s left – and one of four that tours – as it flies over Washington County.
The Morrises volunteer as pilots of the B-17, one of 11 deemed airworthy. As members of the media learned, it’s a bumpy ride, and a noisy, rattling one. In a plane where the 10-member crew wore fleece suits to keep from freezing to death at 30,000 feet, or who plugged special garments into the plane’s electrical system to warm themselves, heat, not cold, was what sapped the strength on a steamy Thursday afternoon at an altitude of just 1,000 feet.
Unlike modern aircraft, the B-17 is not pressurized. Skirting a ramp around a large, bright yellow oxygen tank in the fuselage, one can see the green fields below because, instead of a gasket, there is a gap between the skin of the aptly-named “Aluminum Overcast” and the tank. The plane’s name comes from a number of B-17s flying in formation and blocking sunlight.
“It’s very heavy,” Ken Morris said of piloting the plane that was featured in the 1960s television show “Twelve O’Clock High.”
“But it’s a very honest airplane. It’s very like driving a cement truck without power steering.”
There were no World War II B-17 veterans at the airport Thursday, but Harry Roupe, interviewed at age 94 in 2014 for an Observer-Reporter story, downsized from his family’s residence to a personal care home in Bentleyville where there wasn’t as much space for personal belongings. But one of the things he brought with him was a replica of the B-17 on which he was a turret gunner, firing a .50-caliber machine gun and surviving 25 missions. He described his experience when Americans were bombing the Cologne, Germany, rail hub in World War II. The Nazis were retaliating with anti-aircraft fire both from the ground and from Stuka fighter planes, piercing the B-17’s aluminum skin with hundreds of holes.
“You can see the shells bursting,” he recalled. “They would try to get at your altitude and shoot at you. The fire was bright, but the sky was black. We were really shot up. We were hit all over. It is amazing that nobody was wounded. We came back on automatic pilot.”
Roupe died in 2015.
Members of Pittsburgh Chapter 45 of the Experimental Aircraft Association, based at Rostraver Airport, also were on hand for the media flight Thursday.
“There’s only a single sheet of aluminum between you and the bullets that are literally flying into the airplane,” said Jack Dernorsek, a Bridgeville native who now lives in North Versailles.
Chris Henry, a former resident of Upper St. Clair who is programs manager for the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wis., noted the B-17 holds great significance for the loved ones and descendants of World War II veterans, which a suburban Pittsburgh resident confirmed.
Joan Wylie of Mt. Lebanon recalled her late husband, William, enlisted just after graduating from Mt. Lebanon High School in 1943 and was a top turret gunner and flight engineer closing in on 24 daylight bombing missions over Germany.
“They were bombing Dusseldorf,” Mrs. Wylie said in a phone interview Friday. “They were hit by flack, and the plane caught fire. The captain insisted on dropping their bombs before they got out of the plane. Bill was an 18-year-old kid, and that made a big impression.”
Wylie tried to parachute out of the hatch, but it was stuck, “so all these guys lined up behind him. They all pushed and they all fell out. He said it seemed like forever to get down to the ground.” Several others went down with the plane.
Wylie and his surviving crew members were taken as prisoners of war until Gen. George Patton liberated their camp, and much later, the Wylies visited a museum in Tucson, Ariz., and toured a B-17.
“I was able to go inside and see what it was like. It had very cramped conditions. I have a real connection to the B-17,” she said.
At the Washington County Airport through Sunday, weather permitting, the B-17 will make trips of approximately 45 minutes between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., at a cost of between $435 and $475. Ground tours are scheduled for 2 to 5 p.m. Veterans and members of the active military will be admitted to ground tours at no charge. The cost to see the plane on the ground is $10 for individuals. Families including children up to age 17 will be charged $20, and children ages 8 and younger accompanied by an adult are admitted at no additional charge.