Here’s how to make World War II come alive in your mind: ride in a Flying Fortress like I did.
My World War II series Promise For Tomorrow features three navigators who fly in B-17s, the Flying Fortress. You may have seen them in movies like Memphis Belle, where the men speak to each other in normal voices. They wear heavy clothing, and never appear cold. They’re usually not wearing face masks.
All very unrealistic, I found out.
Aluminum Overcast, a B-17 which was built too late to see war duty, annually comes to an air show near me. One year I took the interior tour. To move around in a B-17, you must be agile and trim.
The tour starts by entering through the forward escape hatch via a ladder. After a quick look in the nose where the navigator and bombardier work, you must twist around, hunched over, to crawl up to the flight deck.
The hole in the flight deck brings you between and slightly behind the pilots. I’m surprised I never read of any airmen falling into the hole during their combat missions.
To go back to the radio room, you must traverse a catwalk over the bomb bay. It’s not very wide. Aluminum Overcast has a rope “guard rail” which isn’t going to be much help if you slip off the catwalk. Better to hang on to the aircraft frames.
The tour was interesting, but I wanted to do more. I wanted to fly. When I took my flight, I was the only woman with a dozen men, including two B-17 veterans.
The biggest impression on me was the noise. Those four engines make conversing impossible without headphones. I could not hear someone standing right in front of me.
Besides the engine noise, the hydraulics emit considerable squealing and groaning while the plane taxis. I doubt that was reassuring to an airman nervous about making his first flight over enemy territory.
When the bombers fly above ten thousand feet, the airmen had to breathe through oxygen masks. We didn’t go that high, fortunately. The planes had small heaters in the cockpit, but the gunners had to endure below freezing temperatures. In the older planes, they had open windows. Frostbite was prevalent. I flew in summer, and the plane was hot. A welcome breeze came through a small window opening in the nose and the overhead window in the radio compartment.
Since my characters are navigators, the nose interested me the most. Getting into it through the crawl space was challenging. I didn’t duck low enough at the nose entrance and smacked my head hard. Surprisingly, no blood! I spent as much time as I was allowed in the nose, trying to imagine fighting a war from there.
During take-off I sat at the radio operator’s desk. For landing, I had to go back to the waist compartment. No flight attendants make sure you are in your seat during letdown. I wasn’t, and would have fallen if the men hadn’t grabbed me.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. I went home and made changes in all my manuscripts. Would I do it again? I’d love to!
Terri Wangard’s first Girl Scout badge was the Writer. These days she is writing historical fiction and won the 2013 Writers on the Storm contest and 2013 First Impressions, as well as being a 2012 Genesis finalist. Holder of a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in library science, she lives in Wisconsin. Classic Boating magazine, a family business since 1984, keeps her occupied as an associate editor. Visit her website at www.terriwangard.com and check out her book Friends and Enemies.