B-17 bomber plane takes flight to ‘Salute to Veterans’

Veterans and aviation enthusiasts alike had the opportunity to fly in a rare, World War II-era fighter plane, Tuesday and Wednesday in Danville. This was one of nearly 70 stops in the annual “Salute to Veterans” summer tour, hosted by the Experimental Aviation Association, or EAA.

The classic B-17 bomber plane touched down at the Vermillion Regional Airport on Monday in preparation for its flight tours. This plane, acquired by the EAA in the 1970s, is one of 100 B-17 airplanes still in existence. It is one of only 15 that are still able to take flight today.

The Boeing B-17 is a World War II bomber that was used extensively by the United States Army Air Forces in its bombing campaign of Germany. During this period, B-17s were among the most modern aircraft the military had developed.

Veterans and members of the public are encouraged to take this opportunity and fly in the B-17 when it tours around the nation each summer.

“This is our way of saluting the veterans that were out fighting war during World War II, specifically because the B-17 is iconic in that war,” said George Daubner, B-17 Program manager.

Most veterans of World War II are reaching old age, said Glenn Hill, B-17 crew chief.

“The veterans are dying off very quickly – it won’t be long until there won’t be anyone left,” he said.

Hill, who has been with the B-17 program for five years, said it is not uncommon for a veteran to become quite emotional during a flight.

“People sit there and tears come to their eyes,” he said. “You can tell they have an emotional tie to the airplane.”

Pilot Dan Bowlin has been with the program since its start in 1994. A veteran of the Vietnam War himself, Bowlin said he has met thousands of veterans through the B-17 program and sees a similar reaction in each when they fly.

“They have a tear in their eye, thinking about friends who got killed,” he said. “They’d (fly) every day and come back to empty bunks. That’s incredible bravery to me.”

The B-17 was nicknamed the “Flying Fortress” by a World War II reporter for the plane’s defensive firepower. Even so, the bombing missions were extremely dangerous, as pilots navigated through enemy planes and exploded shells, which often caused engine failure. Crew chief Meredith Whillock described a soldier’s chance of survival as “sheer luck.”

“There was a very high percentage of shutdowns during the first part of the war,” he said.

Whillock said he has seen many veterans on flights go through a range of emotions, including guilt.

“‘Why did I come back when so many of my buddies didn’t?’” Whillock said was a common mentality survivors had.

The three men, along with one other pilot and two B-17 program staff members, volunteer their time to the tour for a few two-week periods during the summer. They fly every day and have met thousands of veterans, each with a unique story, they said.

The flights are about 25 minutes in length, and fly at an altitude of 1500-2000 feet. In battle, these planes would have flown at 25,000-30,000 feet. The B-17 owned by EAA did not see battle because it was produced too late in the war. Tickets range from $399-$465, but ground tours are also available for $5.