B-17 Flying Fortress: Up close and personal with a legend.

Nose art featuring Betty Grable’s famous pinup. Photo: Steve Davis

Recently I had a chance to get up close and personal with a World War II legend, the famous American B-17 Flying Fortress.

The B-17 was a heavy, multi-engined (4) bomber used in the Allied strategic bombing of German war industries. The Flying Fortress was heavily armed and had a crew of 10, pilot, co-pilot, navigator, radio operator, bombadier, and gunners.

There was a tail gunner at the rear, a ball turret under the plane, two waist gunners at the midsection, top turret, and forward guns. Even with this impressive armament losses were heavy. The problem in the beginning was lack of fighter support all the way to the targets in Germany. Because of fuel constraints the fighters had to turn back and return to base, then the German fighters attacked. The B-17 was known for its ability to absorb damage and yet still limp home to base. Eventually long range fighters were developed such as the P-51 Mustang and the P-47 Thunderbolt which could escort the bombers all the way to the target and back home. This reduced the Allied losses significantly.

The Commemorative Air Force, Arizona Wing based out of Mesa, Arizona visited Calgary as part of the Calgary Aviation Expo. This particular B-17 is restored and flight ready, in fact, it flew all the way up to Calgary from Arizona.

It is known as the “Sentimental Journey” and is adorned with one of the most famous pinup pictures of World War II as its nose art. Permission was granted by Betty Grable’s widower Harry James to use the poster art. It is beautiful to say the least. Crews painted these on their planes as good luck charms.

It’s hard to imagine, but most of the crews of these fearsome craft were in their late teens and early twenties. It was not unusual for the commander to be only 18 or 19 years of age. Sadly many of these young men never came back.

The most famous movies made about these planes and the young men who flew them are “Twelve O’Clock High” with Gregory Peck, and “Memphis Belle” with Matthew Modine. Real B-17s along with actual wartime footage was used in both these films.

Some of the young men who flew in these planes later became famous, James Stewart and  Clark Gable, the actors, Tom Landry, NFL player and coach of the Dallas Cowboys, Norman Lear, producer of All in the Family, and Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek.

It is wonderful to see these planes restored and used to tell the history of that era.

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