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B-17 Restoration Jogs Memories Of WWII Veterans

Bill Peterson, 506th Fighter Group, looks out from the window of a B-17 over Orlando.
Bill Peterson, 506th Fighter Group, looks out from the window of a B-17 over Orlando.

Standing inside a B-17G  – dubbed the Aluminum Overcast – is World War II veteran Mel Jenner. He's giving spectators a tour of the army-green interior of the bomber. Jenner flew in these bombers over Europe, deep into enemy territory with no fighter escort. That’s why the plane is equipped with 13 .50-caliber machine guns.

The B-17 was primarily used by the U.S. for strategic bombing runs on German military targets. Jenner was a waist-gunner, manning the firearms that defended the side of the plane. Below us is the hatch to the ball-turret – a spherical gun mount that looked way too small to fit someone in it.

The plane is touring around the country and inviting veterans and non-veterans alike to tour – and fly – the B-17. "It’s like a cement truck without power steering. It’s very heavy on the flight controls because there’s no assist like the modern airplanes have," says volunteer pilot Ken Morris.

Not very reassuring to nervous flyers. But that’s the point of this tour, says Lorraine Morris. "Hopefully when you are flying you can think about the kids – they were kids – think about what they were going through. Think about getting shot at up there and being at 30,000 feet, freezing cold, and you can’t talk because your mask is full of ice. What they had to go through is incredible."

Flying in History
This particular B-17 was built in May of 1945. It’s been completely restored by the Experimental Aircraft Association – a group devoted to preserving historical planes and promoting the passion of flying.

We spent twenty minutes flying over Orlando. The B-17 vets spent the time running around from position to position, reminiscing with each other and telling us stories about the war.

On the ground – Jenner – still decked out in his old flight suit – is staring back at the plane, teary-eyed. "It was just wonderful," he says looking back at the plane. "Well, it was. I’ll probably never get another chance. I’m 92. But it was good."

That’s another import part of the preservation of this airplane, says Lorraine Morris. "I think the ability to keep things moving is what keeps the memories alive and keeps people remembering history. If we didn’t have it, they may not have their memory jogged to remember what it was like. It might be too easy to forget history without the things like this around," she says.

The B-17 heads to St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport this weekend.

Brendan Byrne is Central Florida Public Media's Assistant News Director, managing the day-to-day operations of the newsroom, editing daily news stories, and managing the organization's internship program. Byrne also hosts Central Florida Public Media's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration, and the weekly news roundup podcast "The Wrap."