398th Bomb Group

Flying The B-17 Fortress: A Spiritual Experience

Bob Ullman
St. Louis, Missouri

Do you remember your first ride in an airplane? For me, it was during gunnery training at Las Vegas, Nevada, about September 1, 1944, in a war-weary B-17, piloted by an older war-weary Army Air Corps captain who allowed us to “fly” the plane, right seat.

When my turn came he said “turn right” and of course knowing nothing about airplanes, I turned the wheel right and when we reached about 45%, he pushed hard left rudder, which caused the plane to slide off to the right, scaring the heck out of me.

He said, “That’s enough for you.” So ended my great career. I was destined to never take the controls again!

Fifty-one years after that glorious experience, the opportunity to fly the B-17 came along again. I heard an announcement on the car radio that a B-17 would be in St. Louis on August 22-23. Rides and an opportunity to fly the plane would be available for $475.

My immediate mental response was, “That’s too much money,” but within seconds, this little voice said “Bob, you dummy, you’ve passed up this opportunity twice already and you may never get the chance again. You’ve got the money and even if you don’t want to spend the cash, put it on a credit card and pay it off $10.00 a month.”

When I got home I called the airport and got on the manifest for the following Tuesday.

To my unexpected elation, when I arrived there I saw the “Aluminum Overcast”, the B-17 dedicated to the 398th Bomb Group.

To detail my experience would take a whole book! However, needless to say, after flying the B-17 from the LEFT seat for about 10 minutes around West St. Louis County, I was on Cloud 9.

I had wanted to fly over my house and church, as my pastor had announced my intention to fly the B-17 again after 51 years and maybe someone would see the plane over the church (Near I-55 and the Meramec River).

My adrenaline was really pumping, so much that when I took the seat, somehow I became disoriented and missed my designated target by probably 20 miles.  While flying north over I-55 looking for the church, the copilot said time to head back, so I thought I’d at least try the maneuver I had in mind. I made a “Pylon” left turn about 45? angle hard left rudder keeping the wing tip on a reference point, slight pull on the column. WHAT A THRILL!!! Especially for a guy who has never controlled an aircraft except for the previously mentioned Las Vegas experience and one time flying a Cessna 187(?) S&L (that’s Straight & Level) from St. Louis to Alton, Illinois, in 1962. On the video my daughter took of me exiting the plane, I am visibly “drunk” from the experience and a fellow passenger can be heard in the background saying “What a Ride!”

Yes, I’m still flying that airplane, and probably will be for a long time.

My special thanks to the 32nd Chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association for sponsoring the trip, and to the volunteers who staffed the event. I cannot say enough for the pilots, Connie and Ed Bolen, and Sam Bass, who were especially nice to me, before, during, and after the flights. (I later learned they are from Georgia, so they’re probably just nice people!) These people volunteer their time to make these trips possible, and while it might look like all fun and games, it’s a difficult job in my estimation. So THANKS, Connie, Ed, and Sam!

For anyone who doesn’t believe in the spiritual, how else could I have had this experience?

Printed in Flak News Volume 11, Number 3, Page(s) 9, July 1996

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