PEORIA — He flew helicopters in the U.S. Army but says flying a B-17G is unlike anything he has ever experienced.
The heavy bomber, an iconic symbol of World War II, is flying a dump truck with four flat tires, quipped Shawn Knickerbocker. one of the two pilots of the "Aluminum Overcast," one of the last B-17s still flying.
"It's an honor and privilege to be at the controls of this plane for what it did during the war," he said. "I've given rides to 747 captains and they just couldn't believe it. It is unbelievable design."
There were 12,731 built, and there are only about 14 flying in the United States, he said.
Peorians will have a chance to see one of those, the Aluminum Overcast, up close. The public will have a chance to fly a mission in the B-17 for $475 per person. Seats are still open for the flights, which are Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Flights will be from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. From 2 to 5 p.m., people can take a tour of the plane on the ground. Tickets for the ground tour are $10 apiece. Families are $20. Active duty military and veterans are free. The admission fee goes toward the upkeep of the plane, which is owned by the Experimental Aircraft Association.
Tim Bourgoine, one of the men tasked with keeping the plane airworthy, said one of the biggest challenges is finding parts for the Aluminum Overcast.
Another challenge is working on the radial engines, which were common then but not so common now. It's not hard, as the basic principles are the same, but there are some quirks.
Several members of the media took to the skies for a quick 25-minute flight over Downtown Peoria in the B-17. For such a large plane, there's not a lot of space onboard. It's very utilitarian. Two .50-caliber machine guns stuck out from the waist of the plane. There was a small catwalk, less than a foot in width, over the bomb bay, which had several mock-ups of ordnance. One could stand next to the pilot and look out at the four radial engines, which shake the air frame with their power. But the show stopper was being able to climb down under the flight deck to where the bombardier would have sat.
From there, one has nearly a 180-degree view of the sky, ground and air in front, up or down. The view's magnificent and belies the horrific danger the 11-man aircrews in the European Theater faced on a daily basis. German fighters, antiaircraft fire and sometimes just pilot error caused the deaths of thousands of men.
That wasn't lost on Knickerbocker, who noted they were just "boys. 18 to 20-year-olds who were sent off to war."
And it is for that reason, he said, that keeping the plane flying and bringing people out to see it matters. He and all the others with the EAA are volunteers. They do this because they care about the heritage of the plane as well as what it means to see veterans of that war experience the B-17 again.
For more information on scheduling a flight, go to www.B17.org.
Andy Kravetz can be reached at 686-3283 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @andykravetz.