Sunday, March 9, 2008


Dave’s Great Adventure, Book Three
Chapter 1, Verse 8
March 9, 2008

Over 12,000 B-17s were built before and during World War II and this aircraft was instrumental in the American war efforts in Europe. It flew higher and farther than most other aircraft of its type and flew strategic missions to places that were heavily protected and very dangerous for the Allied air crews, like oil refineries, munitions factories and railroad facilities. For most of the war it also flew farther than its fighter escorts could, and so was heavily armed with a dozen or more fifty-caliber machine guns so its crew could defend themselves against the enemy fighters sent against them. For this reason it was called the Flying Fortress.

But the B-17 wasn’t invincible. Over 4000 of them were lost in combat with the loss of over 45,000 crewmen. They were flown in huge flights of up to a few hundred planes, towards target areas known to be defended by antiaircraft artillery and fighters, and these large gatherings of aircraft, sometimes called “aluminum overcast” (as one surviving B-17 is called), were easy targets. Missions over defended areas of Europe frequently resulted in losses of ten to fifteen percent or more of the bombers.

Though the loss rates were often very high, the B-17 gained an almost mythic reputation as a survivor, a plane that could take horrendous damage but still manage to get home safely. There are many, many stories of badly damaged B-17s, some missing the entire nose, some missing parts of wings or tails, or with large holes in the sides of the fuselage, coming in for landings back at their bases in England or Italy. One plane was so badly damaged that the other airmen in the formation declared that they had seen it destroyed, only to see it show up, late and heavily damaged, at its home base in England. One of this plane’s crewmen said, “The plane can be cut and slashed almost to pieces by enemy fire and bring its crew home.”

I had signed up for a flight on “Nine-O-Nine,” a restored B-17 named for a famous B-17 which had gone through 140 missions without being damaged or aborting its mission. It was flying out of Alliance Airport in Ft. Worth, as part of the Wings of Freedom tour of three historic World War II aircraft, also including a B-24 and a B-25. These planes are survivors too, this B-17 being only one of about fourteen of the original 12,700 B-17s manufactured that still are in flyable condition. I was going to be flying on a plane that is older than I am. A mobile, flyable piece of history.

While we were at the airport, watching the planes come in for their landings, we stood near a woman about our age, who was watching intently. We talked to her and asked if she, too, was taking a flight. She wasn’t but was very interested in the B-24 “Liberator” bomber that was coming in. Her dad had been a bombardier on a B-24 during World War II and had died in a crash in New Guinea before she was born. Recently the military found the wreckage of the aircraft and recovered a couple hands full of human remains, all that was left of the crew, but they were brought back and the family was finally able to bury their lost airman. She wanted to board the B-24 and sit in the bombardier seat. She said she’d probably bawl the whole time.

To fly on the B-17, I had to sign a waiver. The waiver signed away my rights (or Kathy’s, actually) to sue in case the plane didn’t have a happy landing after taking off. The waiver form said that the plane had a “provisional” certification from the FAA, which means, I suppose, that it’s known to take off and land safely most of the time but doesn’t meet current safety standards. I signed it, as did the few other “passengers” that were going along. We climbed into the plane, quite literally because there were neither steps nor gangway. We grabbed a handhold over the rear hatch and lifted ourselves through the opening. The plane obviously wasn’t made for passengers or comfort, so it’s neither heated (which is why they invented "bomber jackets") nor pressurized. Plus, there are no seats except those for the pilots and a couple of the original crew, like the radioman and the bombardier. We sat on the floor in various places around the plane as we took off, strapped to the sidewalls of the bare aluminum fuselage with antique military seat belts. They told us that once we were airborne we could unbuckle and roam around the plane, but that we shouldn’t lean on the hatch we had entered through, as it was made for easy exiting and could give way under pressure. No one went near it during the flight!

I had ear plugs for the flight, as four 1200 horsepower air cooled engines make a lot of racket. And I had multiple layers of clothing, because the ground temperature was in the 40s when we took off, and it was even cooler up in the air (and the bomber has an open hatch on top through which you can stick your head into the 160+mph slipstream if you want, which of course also lets in a very cool blast of air). But what I needed, I found out, was a “hard hat.” Climbing through the hatches and clambering among the bomb bays and passages, I kept banging my head on metal edges. No serious damage was done, but it hurt. It was quite the adventure to be crawling through this ancient aircraft, sitting in the bombardier’s seat, manning the waist guns or even looking out the top gun turret, as it flew over north Texas. Too soon we were given the signal to re-buckle in our takeoff positions and prepare for landing.

Tom Landry is an icon in Texas. While I was living in Texas during my med school years and beyond, he coached the Dallas Cowboys, back in the glory years when the media declared them to be “America’s Team.” At least once, during every broadcast game some announcer would introduce him as “the only coach the Cowboys have ever had.” He coached the team during some great years but was unceremoniously fired when Jerry Jones bought the team many years ago. Well, Tom Landry died of leukemia about eight years ago, and each year there is a leukemia benefit in Dallas in his name. And Tom Landry flew B-17s during WW II, though that wasn’t ever mentioned by the sportscasters. He flew thirty missions in these planes and survived a crash landing in Czechoslovakia during the war. Additionally, his older brother Robert also flew B-17s and was killed in a crash.

Meanwhile, my bone marrow has been doing its best to survive the first round of chemotherapy, after having been intentionally but heavily damaged. I told you that I’d be getting daily doses of Neupogen, which I’ve been giving to myself after the nurse “certified” me in giving myself subcutaneous injections. After three days of Neupogen my white count had risen from a total of 2,400 with only about 360 neutrophils and 700 lymphocytes, to a total count of 16,900 with 12,900 (!) neutrophils and 1,100 lymphocytes. So the Neupogen worked very well, as it should at $400 a shot (made by Amgen, if you want to know). It raised my “good guys” significantly with only a very small rise in the number of lymphocytes. If my marrow survives, I survive. I saw my doc here in Denton on Friday and he pronounced me well enough to begin Round Two. And so we will. My appointment is a little before Nine-O-Nine on Monday morning and off we’ll go.

B-17 pictures below: