The four propellers on the B-17G Flying Fortress sound like every old car from the 1960s and 1970s that I have ever rode in, only louder.
I’m seated near the rear of the aircraft, and the smell of exhaust fills the air in the body of the plane. The other passengers and I have been warned not to touch the control cables over our heads, or the red handles that will open the exit door and turn us into skydivers. It is a hot, sunny day; everyone inside is sweating.
None of my fellow passengers are talking – we’re wearing earplugs and you can’t hear much over the droning of the engines, anyway.
Then the propellers begin to spin faster, the plane gathers speed over the runway of DeKalb Taylor Municipal Airport – and we are airborne. John Roberts, the Commemorative Air Force volunteer who is loadmaster for the flight, looks at me and smiles, as if to say “Pretty amazing, huh?”
Indeed, it is. The cabin cools as air rushes through the body of the airplane – there are areas, including around the ball turret in the belly and the bomb bay, where you can see the ground below.
We are free to wander about the cabin, put our hands on the .50-caliber machine guns mounted in almost every window, and explore a piece of history as American airmen would have experienced it in World War II.
This plane, which came off the assembly line in Long Beach, Calif., in November 1944, is a flying museum exhibit. It’s like if that German U-boat at the Museum of Science and Industry could actually take you underwater.
The plane was used in the Pacific theater in World War II, but never saw combat. Later, the U.S. Army used it for mapping missions, as an air-sea rescue plane, and in an atmospheric nuclear test before it was converted for civilian use in fighting forest fires. It was donated to the Commemorative Air Force in 1978, and its members spent years restoring the plane, which they dubbed “Sentimental Journey.”
As I walk through the body of the plane from near the tail to the plexiglass-encased nose, where DeKalb Police Chief Eugene Lowery is seated in the bombardier’s chair, I try to imagine what it must have been like to be on one of the 10-man crews that flew on these planes through skies filled with anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighters.
All the old black-and-white footage from World War II, or the Hollywood movies I’ve seen, all the books I have read about the war – including my favorite book, the fictional “Catch-22” – nothing puts into perspective what bomber crews actually did 70 years ago the way flying in this airplane does.
The co-pilot: Fred DeWitt knows this.
DeWitt, an American Airlines pilot who lives in Sycamore with his wife, Lisa, and their three children, has been volunteering with the Commemorative Air Force’s Arizona Wing since he was a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., in the 1980s. On weekends he and a friend would visit the wing’s hangar at Falcon Field in Mesa.
“I just started hanging out with these guys and doing whatever they needed,” DeWitt said.
DeWitt is the co-pilot on the plane this week. He’ll be flying it through Sunday, and next month will be in Canada at airfields in Winnipeg, Brandon, Yorktown and Prince George.
It’s the second time the B-17G Flying Fortress has been in DeKalb since Sept. 11, 2001, and it’s always a thrill to have the vintage airplane close to home, DeWitt said.
“We’re here for the veterans,” DeWitt said. “We’re here for the people to show them what it was like.”
DeWitt’s son, 14-year-old Freddy DeWitt, has gotten involved, too. He’s a second-year cadet with the Commemorative Air Force. After the plane lands, Freddy gets to work using a rag to wipe up the oil that leaks by design from the plane’s engines.
“They say if it’s not leaking oil, there’s something wrong,” Freddy, who will be a freshman this fall at Sycamore High School, says.
Last year, Freddy went with the air force on a tour of cities along the west coast, from San Diego north to Oregon.
“They came to DeKalb when I was 7 or so and it just really stuck with me,” Freddy said. “I was selling T-shirts and wiping oil off of airplanes. So I signed up as a cadet when I was old enough.”
Not surprisingly, Freddy says he wants to be a pilot when he grows up.
You can ride: If you want to see the Sentimental Journey and haven’t already, it will be at DeKalb Taylor Municipal Airport through Sunday.
Just looking at the airplane outside the hangar at 3232 Pleasant St. is free. Take all the pictures you like.
A tour of the plane’s interior is $5 for adults, $3 for children and free for those younger than 5. The plane will be on display from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. this weekend.
A flight isn’t cheap – it’s $425. But it’s an experience you won’t soon forget. Call 602-448-9415 for more information.
If you want to learn more about the plane, there are informational books for sale. Or try to find Del Sullivan with the Commemorative Air Force – he’ll likely have a shirt on with his name embroidered on it. Sullivan has a near encyclopedic knowledge about the airplane and what it was like flying in it in the 1940s.
Hub on the Bears: The new Shaw Media NFL football site, HubArkush.com, made its debut this week, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, what are you waiting for?
Hub Arkush, known for his work as a broadcaster with the Chicago Bears Radio Network and later on WSCR-AM 670 The Score, and as former publisher of Pro Football Weekly, is now leading coverage of the Bears along with columnist Tom Musick and reporter Kevin Fishbain.
If you’re going to be in a fantasy league this year, check out the site for reports and projections on top players at every position. If you just want to know what the Bears’ prospects are for the season ahead, check out the comprehensive listing of training camp previews.
Soon we’ll also be rolling out a U Pick ‘Em pro football contest, and there’s much more Bears and NFL content to explore on the site.
Watch the pages of the Daily Chronicle this season, too, for expanded coverage of the Bears from training camp in Bourbonnais until they win Super Bowl XLVIII in New York in February.
Hey, in July, all things are possible.
• Eric Olson is the editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.