Cliff Hunt can look out the front window of his house and see the touring World War II Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber sitting on the tarmac at the city municipal airport.
He has no inclination to go and take a tour or pay money for a flight.
After all, Hunt has intimate knowledge of the bomber, having survived 35 bombing missions between England and Germany as a United States Army Air Forces B-17 top turret gunner. The now 94-year-old World War II veteran served between 1943 and 1945.
“It was our baby,” Hunt recalled of his B-17 bomber. “We shined it with our elbows.”
On a walk Thursday morning, Hunt spotted the visiting bomber, “Aluminum Overcast” that is owned and operated by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Rather than nostalgic, Hunt said he saw the “solitary aircraft” and “it looked kind of sad to me.”
The EAA’s visit in Prescott started on Thursday and will continue through Sunday. The organization is offering tours and limited flights on the rare bomber as part of national tour that salutes veterans and offers chances for younger generations to learn about this aircraft that is touted as one of the greatest military airplanes ever built.
In its World War II heyday, the non-pressurized B-17s that flew at altitudes of up to 30,000 feet flew in formations of several hundred to a thousand bombers at a time. As a top turret gunner, Hunt said he had the best view because he could view around the entire aircraft. He and his fellow crewmen were required to wear electric-heated leather jackets to ward off frostbite and infantry helmets to avoid flying shrapnel.
More than 12,000 of these bombers were built during the 1940s; some 4,000 were lost during the war, mostly in high-danger bombing missions over Europe. This particular bomber was built in 1944 and delivered to the United States at the end of the war.
“For 20 years, EAA’s national B-17 tour has been America’s most popular way to learn about this unique aircraft in an up close way,” said EAA Chief Executive Officer Jack Pelton in an event news release. “EAA is dedicated to preserving “The Spirit of Aviation” through these B-17 tours. It is more than the flight of a historic aircraft ¬– it is an emotional connection to the men and women who were part of the greatest generation and the sacrifices they made to benefit us in subsequent generations.”
Hunt logged thousands of harrowing miles and hours on that aircraft in enemy territory; on one mission, the bomber was attacked by a German rocket fighter jet and on another he was forced to pilot the aircraft for about five minutes over Germany.
Hunt’s memories of those days remain keen, so he said he has no desire to revisit the historic aircraft, He is, though, glad that this bomber has been retained so that younger generations can tour the aircraft, possibly take a ride, and hear its history.
“I don’t need to,” Hunt said.
Embry Riddle Aeronautical University Chancellor Frank Ayers Jr., a former U.S. Air Force B-52 instructor pilot, one of Boeing’s later military aircraft models, said he will not miss an opportunity to pay homage to an aircraft that played a major role in his own family’s history. Ayers’ father, Frank, was a World War II flight engineer/gunner who flew B-17s on 32 different missions.
“Those were pretty scary operations,” Ayers recalled of his father’s wartime service. “The courage of those people, like my Dad, was pretty unbelievable. Not just the flying was dangerous, but on top of that they were being attacked by other aircraft.”
Ayers’ father manned two 50-caliber machine guns seeking to bomb the enemy out of the sky.
From his own research, Ayers said the B-17 had a reputation as a “glamorous” yet rugged airplane with a reputation for being able to return its crews to safety.
EAA Vice-President Sean Elliott said this is an “amazing airplane to fly,” yet represents so much more.
“It’s a piece of living history that allows us to honor our veterans and talk about their sacrifices. It’s a true privilege to be able to do that throughout the country,” Elliott said in the event release.
“As busy as I am, I plan to go and see the B-17,” he said.