Taking flight on a B-17

I’ll soon soar into the wild blue yonder on a legendary ‘Flying Fortress,’ and so can you

With its sleek, silver lines and colorful nose art, the “Yankee Lady” is one of less than a dozen "Flying Fortresses" still flying today. This year’s fly-in into Manistee’s Blacker Airport marks the third time in recent years the historic aircraft has visited Manistee. (Jeanne Barber/News Advocate)

She sure was beautiful. She had all the right curves, in all the right places. She was unbelievably strong, too. Truth be told, she could easily play the parts of both Beauty, and the Beast.

As area residents encircled the “Yankee Lady” two years ago at Manistee’s Blacker Airport, it was to see why she and her few surviving sisters are as popular today as they were more than a half-century ago. With a wing span of 103 feet and measuring over 74 feet long, the “Yankee Lady” stood tall and proud, causing the several hundred people who attended the airport’s open house to push and shove so they could get in the right position, to get the best possible picture.

The pride of the “Yankee Air Museum,” which is located at Ypsilanti’s Willow Run Airport in southeast Michigan, the “Yankee Lady” and her crew were in Manistee to help celebrate Blacker Airport’s official opening of its new terminal building.

The weather was beautiful that day two years ago.

The new terminal building is beautiful.

And the “Yankee Lady,” well, she’s the very definition of “Beauty.”

And, like I said, a “Beast.”

Historians generally agree the B-17 — a.k.a. the “Flying Fortress” — played a critical role in helping to win World War II for the Allies. She took part in most of the major aerial campaigns, and her ability to take severe punishment and stay airborne, became legendary.

The “Memphis Belle” was a B-17. And so is the “Yankee Lady,” though the latter didn’t roll off the assembly line until the final two weeks of the war. So, the “Yankee Lady” never went to war. Instead, she later was assigned to fight wildfires in America’s dry west.

Still, one look at her magnificent features left no doubt about the spit and fire she would have delivered, had she been called on to do so. One look at her dozen strategically-located 50-caliber machine guns, and her daunting bomb bay doors, left no doubt about the havoc her thousands and thousands of sister aircraft, DID deliver to the enemy.

The legendary World War II U.S. bomber was recognized for its ability to take a punch, while delivering knock-out punch-after-knock-out punch, day-after-day, mainly in the European Theater of Operations. (Jeanne Barber/News Advocate)

As Crew Chief Norm Ellickson escorted my wife and me through the “Yankee Lady” that warm sunny day two years ago — me as a reporter and Jeanne as a photographer — I quickly came to appreciate just how special the crew of such aircraft were.

As I stumbled to and fro, as I ducked here and there, as I bent down to crawl through some areas on my hands and knees, I tried to imagine doing that while flying at 35,000 feet, and being shot at.

As I walked across an eight-inch wide steel-plank and rope bridge that took me over the open bomb bay doors, I imagined trying to do that while flying at 160 miles per hour, and again, while being shot at.

As I sat up in the pilot’s seat, which, for some reason, was two sizes smaller than my bottom, I imagined guiding the the beast through a hail of exploding ground flak, while fighting off enemy airplanes, all the time trying to guide the “Yankee Lady” to its assigned target.

This B-17 is assigned to the Ypsilanti-based "Yankee Air Museum" and makes a number of appearances throughout the spring and summer months all across the county. (Jeanne Barber/News Advocate)

Dozens and dozens of people lined up that day to have their pictures taken beneath the “Yankee Lady’s” distinctive “chin gun.” Dozens of others stood below the painting of the “Yankee Lady,” herself, to have their pictures taken.

When the “Yankee Lady” landed, the crowd applauded.

When she took off, they applauded.

When she flew directly overhead, they applauded even louder.

A few veterans from World War II who flew on other B-17s, stood in complete awe of the marvelous aircraft. A few flew in her that day, leaving them misty-eyed and near speechless.

There was little wasted space inside the “Yankee Lady.” Gadgets were bolted all over the place. What wasn’t hanging here, was hanging there. All in all, it was a maze just to walk from the back of the plane, to the front — especially across the tiny rope bridge over the bomb bay section of the plane.

Historians say there are just 10 such airplanes still flying today, from the thousands that were produced during World War II.

If today’s generation stares in awe at the mighty airplane, it’s easy to understand how and why the alumni who make up the “Greatest Generation” love her so much.

And now, one lucky person stands a chance to take a free ride on the “Yankee Lady” when she flies in for this year’s Manistee National Forest Festival. The News Advocate is currently running a contest that will, when done, send one person into the clouds with Mr. Ellickson and his crew.

“The bomber ride giveaway contest is going excellently, and has definitely captured the interest of local readers,” News Advocate Circulation Manager Aaron DeKuiper told me. “A good number of peple have already come into to drop off the daily entry forms, renew a subscription, or start a new subscription to get bonus entries into the drawing as well. It’s a great opportunity.”

A close-up of the colorful, patriotic nose art of the famed “Flying Fortress.” (Jeanne Barber/News Advocate)

If you have a question about the contest, which will end with a grand-prize drawing next Thursday, June 30, you can call Aaron at 398-3124. Or, see our ad in the News Advocate.

Oh yeah, one more thing. Flying terrifies me. I sweat, I shake and I close my eyes and clench my fists whenever the pilot revs the engines for take-off.

But come next week, I’ll do my best to overcome those absurd fears when I fly with Mr. Ellickson and his flight crew from Manistee back to their home base, when they leave Manistee.

When Mr. Ellickson asked me if I wanted to fly with him, I said, “I do!’ And why not, just look at the good fortune, great times and wonderful memories I’ve had since the last time I uttered those two words.

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Posted by David L. Barber

David L. Barber is the retired editor of the Manistee News Advocate. He contributes columns weekly for the News Advocate. You can contact him at dlbarber1006@gmail.com.

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