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B-17 Polish and Shine How Many EAAers Does it Take?

By Bill Fischer, Executive Director, EAA Warbirds of America


The yearlong tour will continue into late fall, with the airplane back home for the full week of EAA’s annual AirVenture fly-in, July 26 to August 1 in

Chris Ott explains the ball turret controls to Bill Fischer.

Wiping bugs off the leading edges of my 172 is usually a pretty easy task. A little spray, a little elbow grease, and the old Cessna is shiny as new. I usually spend 30 to 45 minutes cleaning after each flight. The only reprieve is in the winter, when the bugs disappear completely from the scene in Wisconsin. Overall, it’s not a big deal to conduct the postflight cleanup.

Last month (March 2010) was a different story. Imagine having 50 people spending nearly four hours cleaning and polishing an aircraft with four radial engines and a wingspan over 103 feet, a length over 74 feet, and a height over 19 feet! That was the scene in EAA’s Kermit Weeks Hangar as staff and volunteers gathered to prepare Aluminum Overcast, EAA’s B-17 Flying Fortress, for the 2010 Salute to Veterans Tour.

It took plenty of cleaning solution, polish, rags, ladders, and good-old tender loving care to pull this off. (A dozen or so pizzas at the end of the evening didn’t hurt, either!) The crew was up to the task as volunteers, staffers, spouses, kids, and a scout troop joined in the action. EAA’s Director of Flight Operations Sean Elliot said, “It is awesome to see the support and enthusiasm from EAA volunteers and staffers who came out for the annual EAA B-17 Aluminum Overcast Polish and Shine Party. The airplane looks fantastic.

Since the 2009 fall tour concluded, the aircraft operations staff have been hard at work, keeping the B-17 in tip-top shape. One of the major improvements for this year is the restoration of the ball turret to operational condition. There are only a few ball turrets in the world that are currently operational. I must point out – the ball turret’s two Browning .50-caliber machine guns are not functional. (If I didn’t mention that, you know someone would be calling.)

To watch the ball turret restoration video, visit: http://www.eaa.org/video/eaa.html?videoId=71171263001

After all the cleaning and polishing were done, I had the opportunity to give the ball turret a try. It was a special moment for me, as my uncle served as a B-17 ball turret gunner with the 100th Bomb Group. As I tried to bend and squeeze my lanky frame into the turret, I could only wonder how Uncle Kurt got into it with all his flight gear on. I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. It was difficult to bend my left leg in the correct angle so I could slide down to the seat. Once I got in, it wasn’t so bad.

Uncle Kurt would have been wearing his wool shirt and trousers, possibly an electrically heated flight suit, and the outer layer having been either a sheepskin or an alpaca-lined flight jacket and trousers. Add to that a pair of sheepskin-lined boots, gloves, and flight helmet, and you get the picture – that’s a lot of bulk.

As I worked the turret controls, I realized just how tough it would have been to actually hit anything with the machine guns in the ball turret. If the B-17 was attacked from above, the gunner wouldn’t see the enemy aircraft until it was passing underneath. If the B-17 was attacked from below and the front, the ball turret could get off a few rounds at an effective range but couldn’t track fast enough to get a good passing shot. It seemed to me that the best opportunity for hitting an approaching enemy aircraft would be one coming up from below and behind the B-17. Needless to say, I now have a better appreciation of the ball turret gunners and their contributions to the war effort.

Aluminum Overcast is now in great shape, ready for another busy tour season. Hats off to all those dedicated folks who helped get the B-17 ready. If Aluminum Overcast comes to an airport near you, I highly recommend that you sign up and take the ride. It’s an amazing experience you’ll never forget. If you can’t ride, why not take the ground tour? Either way, you would be supporting an important piece of aviation history. For more information, visit: www.B17.org.

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