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The B-17 Trip


 

"WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS"

Bernie Parsons

(For those who do not know, Bernie Parsons was the founder of Aerodata)


B-17 Flying Fortress '909'

The Collings Foundation B-17 Flying Fortress “909”

When in January 2001 it was confirmed that I had Motor Neurone Disease (also known as ALS or Lou Gherigs in the U.S.A.) my wife and I decided to take a long awaited trip to America. No time could afford to be wasted due to the progress of the disease and by early March we were on our way to tour the airfields and some of the sights of Arizona, Nevada and California.

I have been a keen Aircraft Enthusiast for most of my life and now run my own business, known as “Aerodata”, supplying aviation databases to other enthusiasts and historians. My fascination with aircraft has led us to meet many wonderful and interesting people, one of whom is Paul Vasconi who is involved with the Collings Foundation in the U.S.A. He was one of our very early customers and rapidly became a good friend via the Internet. On hearing of our planned trip to the States he insisted that we extended our trip to spend some time with him in Florida.

Myself & Paul Turnbull

Myself (left) and Paul Turnbull

 

It was during this stay that we were first introduced to the Collings Foundation B-17 Flying Fortress Second World War Bomber “909”. I was very impressed by the detailed restoration of the interior which, coupled with the plane being regularly flown, helped revive a feeling for what it must have been like to fly in combat in a WWII bomber over half a century ago. Unfortunately we were unable to fly in her on that occasion but Paul promised to try and arrange a flight during the next Florida tour if I was well enough to make the trip.

The challenge was on!

Due to our business commitments we were unable to return to the States before January of this year. This time we decided to call upon the assistance of Paul Turnbull, another good friend of ours, to come along to give us a hand as the walking frame and wheelchair were now essential parts of the extra baggage.

Many thanks to the staff of US Airlines and the airport staff at Manchester, Philadelphia and Miami who were all extremely helpful, especially with managing the transfer between wheelchair and aircraft seat with very little space for manoeuvring in.

Our first morning in Florida was made more eventful by my falling over during our first stop at a rest area near West Palm Beach which resulted in an unplanned for trip in an ambulance to the local hospital’s accident and emergency department. Once again thanks are due to everyone who was so helpful!

Three hours later, sporting six stitches over a superb black eye, two cracked ribs and a badly bruised hand, we resumed our journey. Determined not to let it spoil our trip, we managed to see the C-123 Provider at Titusville, which Paul Vasconi and a team of dedicated helpers are working on to restore to flying condition. We also fitted in an excellent pre-arranged visit to Pensacola National Museum of Aviation where we taken round by Jeff Bass, who painted the outstanding portrait of George Bush Senior that was on display in the foyer.

Pre-start procedures

 

Paul Turnbull (far left) watching Paul Vasconi helping with the pre-start procedures

 

The highlight of our trip came a few days later at Zephyrhills where I was very carefully hauled and shoved through the rear door of “909” closely followed by Paul Turnbull and several members of the local skydiving club. Also onboard was Randy, an engineer who works for the Collings Foundation and who volunteered to help me during the flight and check that the skydivers didn’t decide to give either Paul or myself a surprise tandem skydive!

One by one the props turned and the engines roared into life amidst clouds of smoke which would have been familiar to all those who knew the B-17 Flying Fortress during its service career. As she taxied out the aircraft came alive with the sounds and smells of a WWII bomber. Even the banter of the skydivers was reminiscent of the camaraderie of a combat aircraft. With her light cargo of people rather than bombs she accelerated smartly along the runway and was soon roaring rapidly into the air.

Helped from the B-17

Being helped out of the B-17

The drone from the four big piston engines was tremendous, amplified as it was by the bare, uninsulated fuselage. It was fascinating to watch the control cables moving the elevators and rudder and to feel the rush of air as the bomb bay doors opened to disgorge the skydivers at 7000 feet. Having done a few parachute jumps myself , I could appreciate some of their feelings as they stepped off the narrow walk way over the bomb bay and into the onrushing slipstream. I was very moved when they made me an honorary member of their “Muff Brothers” Skydiving Club.

After dropping the human “bombs”, Paul and Randy helped me to a standing position so that I could look along the line of both waist gun sights between the spinning props and tail plane to see the spectacular view of Florida’s many lakes, stretching from coast to coast.

We then began a slow, circling descent culminating in the smoothest of three point landings during which he Collings Foundation’s other four engine WWII bomber, the B-24 Liberator, could be seen soaring majestically overhead. Another rapid but gently manhandled operation by the Collings team safely returned me to my wheelchair whilst the next group of passengers were “hot-loaded” onto the “909”.

Myself & Randy, the flight engineer

Myself and Randy, the flight engineer

It was an uplifting and memorable end to our all too brief stay in America. My heart felt thanks to both Pauls and the Collings team who did so much to make the flight possible.

Regards to all

 

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