B-17 Down: Not Many Left
When a link to that video of the Liberty Foundation's B-17 blazing away in a field near Aurora, Illinois arrived yesterday, I immediately suffered that sinking feeling that all of us have when seeing a crash that could involve loss of life. Happily, that wasn't the case. But my relief was short-lived when I realized this accident may revive a debate that waxes and wanes: Should we really be flying these historical treasures or should they hang in museums for posterity?
My answer is an unconditional yes, we should fly them. Or I should say the people who own them should fly them, if that's their wont. I didn't always feel that way. Up until a few years ago, like other people I've talked to, I was a waffler on the subject. Yes, it's good for people to see and hear these airplanes in action, but they really are irreplaceable treasures, especially the B-17, of which only about a dozen are in airworthy condition.
What changed my mind was watching the Collings Foundation's B-17 and B-24 arrive at Venice a few years ago on one of their yearly tours. They came as a two-flight and the effect that had on the bystanders clinging to the airport fence was electrifying. It was possible to look up and imagine what a 1000-bomber raid must have sounded like, a spectacle never to be repeated. When they taxied in, brakes squealing and engines farting, you could, without much effort, place yourself at one of the Eighth Air Force's East Anglian hardstands in 1943. You don't get the same thrill at the Air and Space Museum.
The tradeoff is the risk and it's not trivial. These airplanes were never intended to remain in service this long and when they were in service, they were attended by all the considerable care the U.S. military could muster. By mid-World War II, the parts supply chain alone was astonishing. But no more. The owners of these airplanes have to be resourceful, persistent and clever to keep them airworthy and the cost can be staggering. The payoff is that people can see and hear them fly and, in the case of the Collings airplanes, actually ride in them.
Unfortunately, we will lose one from time to time and that's the risk that the owners who fly them and the people who ride in them have to understand. No one should sugar coat this. Like everything else in aviation, it just goes with the territory. I don't buy the argument that the owners and associations who operate these airplanes somehow have a higher duty to posterity to preserve them and the rest of us have a vote in that. We don't.
I can only hope that the operators of these airplanes take the appropriate precautions, but that's up to them, not me. There are plenty of worthy examples safely tucked into museums and as long as there are, we're not in danger of losing the last extant airplane of any of these types. It's sad to lose one, that's for sure, but it would be far sadder still to never see one fly again.
P.M. Wednesday addition: UK reader Mark Jarrett kindly sent me these photos of Eighth Air Force base sites near his home in East Anglia.