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Thirty minutes over Lancaster

Escape writer joins Flying Fortress crew

Posted: April 4, 2008 5:03 p.m.
Updated: June 5, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Lt. Col. Robert H. Springer and Staff Sgt. Adolph ("Adie") M. Fix, both veterans of combat missions in B-17s over Europe during World War II, share a few memories after they watched "Aluminum Overcast" take off and land at Fox Airfield in Lancaster.

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Aviation history buffs and World War II veterans alike had another opportunity to flash back to 1945 this week by walking through and/or taking a flight in a restored B-17G "Flying Fortress" bomber.

Flights took off Tuesday and Wednesday mornings and early afternoons from Gen. William J. Fox Airfield in Lancaster, and the plane, the "Aluminum Overcast," was parked on the tarmac and open for tours.

"Aluminum Overcast" is in the midst of a national tour dubbed "Salute to Veterans" organized by the Experimental Aircraft Association, the which owns and operates the gleaming aircraft.

Flights were $385 for EAA members, $425 for non-members (which includes a membership), a bit pricey thanks to the cost of aviation fuel, but not that expensive if a flight like this fulfills a lifelong dream, or puts one in touch with long-lost memories.

Between and after flights, ground tours were $5 per person, $15 per family (up to 17 adults and kids). Children younger than 8 were free with a paying adult. Tours were free for all veterans and active members of the military.

The B-17 played a significant role in the Allied victory over Axis forces during WWII, and became an icon of the era. The saga of the plane and its valiant crews gained further recognition among civilians via the gripping, realistic 1949 film "12 O'Clock High" starring Dean Jagger as an older man flashing back on his wartime service commanding an American airbase in Britain, with Gregory Peck playing the younger man. Peck was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award, and Jagger won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1950.

My father, William A. Peeples II, served in the U.S. Navy from 1939-1946, on everything from sub-chasers to battleships. But I was not my father's nautical son; I had a love affair with flight since second grade, reading about the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. I didn't build model ships. I built planes, especially ones from World War II I'd read about in books like the "Great American Fighter Pilots of World War II" anthology by Robert D. Loomis (Random House, 1961). Fighters like the P-51D Mustang, the P-47 Thunderbolt, the F4U Corsair, the P-38 Lightning, the Japanese Zero, and the German ME 262, the first jet-powered fighter, were among my model fleet. The two bombers I built were the B-17 and the B-29, which saw service during the Korean war. Beyond the 262, I had no interest in later military jets.

In the early '60s, when I was around 11, my sailor-turned-newspaper journalist dad sat me down with him one Saturday afternoon to watch a movie on TV he knew I'd enjoy, and was old enough to appreciate.
Watching Peck and Jagger in "12 O'Clock High" with my dad offering occasional comments for context was a priceless experience.

A few years later, the movie morphed into an award-winning television series. From 1964-1967, "12 O'Clock High" with Robert Lansing then Paul Burke starring as the airbase commanders was a weekly TV ritual my dad and I shared.

Now, some 45 years later, I viewed the chance to fly in a B-17 as one of those bucket list things I want to do before checking out, so when the EAA offered the opportunity to fly in "Aluminum Overcast," and write about the experience, it was an offer I couldn't refuse.

Throttling up all four engines at the beginning of the runway, the sound was near-deafening, but a complete all-American nostalgia trip, like hearing the rumble of a Harley-Davidson or the roar of a 427 Chevy.

Brakes off and powering forward, I felt far less G-force than taking off in a commercial jetliner, and the B-17's massive wing surface lifted us off the ground very quickly. Of course, we weren't carrying a payload of bombs, either. After takeoff, the half-dozen "crewmembers" aboard for our flight were allowed to unbuckle seatbelts and move throughout the plane - including behind the pilots in the cockpit, in the nose, through the bomb bay, and in the waist of the fuselage.

My favorite spots were right behind the pliots, where the cheek gunners man their guns, and in the Plexiglas nose, where the bombardier and nose gunner are stationed. The turrets on top of the fuselage, on the belly, and in the tail were not accessible to passengers.

An open hatch on top of the fuselage allowed us to stick our heads up into the wind; our airspeed was around 180 mph. I carefully removed my cap and secured my camera before putting my face through the hatch. In a split second, my eyeglasses, which I'd forgotten to take off because I'm so used to wearing them, were also in the wind. D'oh! Someone on the ground 1,300 feet below is probably wearing them now.

Being half-blind didn't stop me from bolting from position to position during the all-too-brief flight, firing my camera at just about everything. By the time we had to buckle up for landing, I had nearly 200 images, most of them good, and a few downright awesome.

Even better, after the flight, I had the opportunity to talk with a pair of B-17 veterans.

Lt. Col. Robert H. Springer, USAF Ret., and now 84, flew 35 combat missions as a B-17 pilot with the 8th Air Force's 34th Bomb Group, 93rd Bomb Wing, 3rd Air Division, based at Mendlesham Aerodrome in Suffolk, East Anglia, England. He was just 21 when he flew his 35th mission in March 1945.

Staff Sgt. Adie Fix, who flew 29 combat missions as a B-17 waist gunner between October 1943 and March 1945, a member of the 8th Air Force, 3rd Air Division, 447th Bomb Group, 9th Bomb wing, also based in England.

The two veterans, meeting for the first time, compared notes about their planes' markings as your reporter shut up and listened in. "The block K yellow-tail was our insignia," said Fix, now 85, and also from Lancaster. "Our fins were solid red, but one of our bomb groups had the tops of the wings painted red, and another group had the bottoms of the wings red," Springer said. "Our wing markings were the red stripes, and then each group had different trail markings."

Fix said most of his missions were over Germany. "You had Berlin which was the capitol. Merseberg was oil refineries. Schweinfurt was ball-bearing works. In Ludwickshafen was a big chemical company. Auchen and Cologne were their coal areas. Those were basically our main targets."

"When we first started with this, we had P-47 Thunderbolts, 'The Jug,' for escorts, but they were also using those as fighter-bombers, and then we got the P-51s (Mustangs). We ended up twice getting shot down, first by flak from anti-aircraft guns. We were lucky enough to make it back to Belgium both of those times."

The second time, Fix said, "We were on our way to Weimar, and all of a sudden the co-pilot, who was in the tail managing the formation, announced over the intercom, 'We got bandits in the area, and there's one comin' up behind us, blinkin' at us!" It was a German jet, the Messerschmidt 262. They were brand-new. And just about that time, whoom! whoom! whoom! we got hit by the German shells.

"They shot the No. 4 (far right) engine out," Fix continued. "We had a shell land in the oil tank. It never blew. And the co-pilot was standing up on the wing looking at that hole there - if that thing would have blown, we wouldn't be here today. But they almost disintegrated the tail, and cut up all the cables in the waist -- that's how accurate these guys were. I was the only one who got any damage - I ended up with some chemical burns in my eyes and a little flak in the back of my legs."

Fix recalled his plane was at about 28,000 feet when attacked. "We lost oxygen and we had to get down to 12,000. We had two very good pilots, and they made a small spiral down, and then the copilot spotted a cloud bank so we headed for that, and ended up making it to Belgium and landing in Brussels.

"That was one reason the B-17 got so much notoriety - because it's built like a tank," he said. "You could knock half this airplane apart and it would still bring you home."

The Brussels locals broke out the eclairs and cognac to celebrate the crew's safe return from behind enemy lines, Fix said. "Everybody got half-plastered, of course - we had a good night."

Fix paused to reflect a moment. "I'm a little shaky right now, just standing here looking at this (plane), 'cause it brings back a lot of memories," he said. "Last year I took a (B-17) flight, and was so excited when I came back, I couldn't wait to get home. I called my pilot, who lives in Florida. He and my copilot live close to each other. The radio operator lives in Prescott, Ariz., and I live here. We're the only four left out of our whole crew. We were on the phone for hours talking about all this stuff. I always thought we were a charmed crew."

Springer's crew was definitely charmed. "I never had a man injured, never lost an engine," he said, chuckling. "How do I figure? Luck. Pure ass luck. Plus we had outstanding maintenance."

But beating the odds wasn't because Springer's crew saw no action. "Oh, no. I counted after one mission about 150 holes in the aircraft from shrapnel, mainly in the tail area, but none of it hit anything vital, or any of the crew."

Springer said the German fighters dogging his flights included Focke-Wulf 190s and later in the war, the ME 262 jets. His group's fighter protection came from P-47s and P-51s, but America fielded no jets during WWII.

Springer's reaction upon seeing his first German jet? "Look at that sumbitch go!" he laughed. "But none of them hit us. They never had too many of them up at one time because they didn't have that many, their fuel was somewhat limited, and for every 262 I saw, there would be a gaggle of P-51s trying to catch it. In certain maneuvers, a P-51 could catch a 262, but if a 262 was going flat out, they couldn't catch it."

Springer has vivid recollections of his missions. He documented each one with maps and photos, and has volumes of these in his home, as well as all of his rank and campaign insignia, models of B-17s, and photos of B-17s and B-29s (which he flew in a special missions outfit later during the Korean war) adorn the walls.

"I can remember seeing about 40 B-17s lineup for takeoff at one time out of our airfield in England," Springer said. "And you'd have up 40 other airfields doing the same damn thing. Then it would generally take us about an hour and a half after takeoff to get formed up and actually leave the British coast for the mission."

On the 35 missions Springer piloted, all but one of the targets were in Germany. "There was one in France, a fort near Meitz, I think in advance of the Third Army going in there," he said. "And we went in to try to knock out the fort."

Springer said the 8th Air Force survivors are scattered around the country now. I used to go the reunions of the bomb group, but I don't do that anymore. In fact, they're phasing the reunions out because ... we're losing people, numbers-wise."

On the drive back to Santa Clarita, reflecting on the day, what impressed me most was how these two guys bonded immediately upon meeting, sharing experiences from more than 60 years ago as if they'd happened yesterday. Like my dad was, Fix and Springer are just regular guys who had a job to do, and by doing so, without expecting fame, glory or fortune, they helped preserve democracy and the American way of life. For that monumental accomplishment, we must all be eternally grateful to them, and to all members of what Tom Brokaw dubbed "The Greatest Generation."

If you missed this year's visit, the EAA is planning to take "Aluminum Overcast" on tour again next year. It's never too early make reservations; call 1-(920) 371-2246.

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