Behold the B-17 Flying Fortress

By on November 7, 2018

Back in 1944, Capt. Woodruff Benson was a navigator on a B-17 bomber while serving in the Pacific during World War II.

Nearly 75 years later, Benson–better known as Woodie–had the chance to fly onboard a restored B-17 Flying Fortress, Aluminum Overcast recently at Lancaster Airport.

For Benson, now 93, it was a thrill. As he waited outside the magnificent aircraft before it took off for a 10-minute flight over Lancaster, he recalled the days when he served as a navigator on a B-17.

Capt.Woodruff Benson was a navigator on a B-17 bomber while serving in the Pacific during World War II.

“This time I am not sitting in the cockpit like I used to do,” said the World War II veteran who now lives in Media near Philadelphia. The flight was piloted by Tom Ewing, who was looking forward to meeting Benson. Ewing’s uncle had been a pilot in the 57th Troop Carrier Squadron, the same squadron that Bensen had served. Benson, a native of Philadelphia, was born in 1920, and from January 1942 through December 1946, he served in the U.S Army Air Corps, 5th Air Force, 54th Troop Carrier Wing, 375th Troop Carrier Group, and 57th Troop Carrier Squadron, at the rank of Captain.

In his nearly five years of service, Benson was stationed in South Pacific, in exotic locales that included Christmas Island, Canton Island, Fiji Islands, New Guinea, Schouten Islands, and Halmeheras, as well as Australia and the Philippines.

“While overseas I flew 1,400 hours with a little more than half combat hours. Those hours included 1,000 in the C-47s, 300 in the C-46 and 100 in a B-17,” recalled Benson, noting that he was awarded the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, eight battle stars on his Asiatic Pacific ribbon, American Theater, WWII Victory Medal, Air Force Longevity Ribbon, Philippine Liberation Medal and a Good Conduct Medal when he was a cadet.

He remembered the days back in 1944 when his squadron first got a B-17. The aircraft would be used on missions where they could not have fighter cover, but could expect Japanese attacks. The pilots and crew chiefs had very little training time before they started using it.

“We would carry gunners and the navigator assignment was in the nose shooting a 50 caliber machine gun. Some of our most interesting missions were in the B-17. One of our early missions was to drop supplies out of the bomb bays to troops near Hollandia,” recalled Benson, adding that missions to New Britain were among the most challenging for the navigator.

Flights onboard the B-17 Flying Fortress were offered to the public during a tour stop at Lancaster Airport by the Experimental Aircraft Association on the weekend of Oct. 12-14.

More than seven decades later in Lancaster, Benson was the first to board the restored B-17. It was loud, but he didn’t seem to mind. Everyone used earplugs to reduce the noise. The B-17 Flying Fortress, Aluminum Overcast was restored by the Experimental Aircraft Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to sharing The Spirit of Aviation with the public. The association points out that the B-17 is one of the most iconic images of World War II, and its restoration serves as a tribute to the “greatest generation” of men and women who served in World War II.

Flights onboard the B-17 Flying Fortress were offered to the public during a tour stop by the Experimental Aircraft Association on the weekend of Oct. 12-14. Although Benson navigated flights in the Pacific, the B-17 Flying Fortress was a World War II bomber used primarily in Europe. With their long range capability, they were known for flying into battle with no fighter escort, relying on their own defensive capabilities to ensure a successful mission. After the war, most B-17s were cut up for scrap, used for Air Force research or sold in the surplus market. Today, there are fewer than 15 B-17s that are still airworthy.

It was fascinating to explore the vintage aircraft, including the nose, bomb bay, navigation and radio, cockpit, and waist sections. There were even containers for passengers who became airsick, although no one seemed to need them.

It was look to the past when B-17s were once among the most modern aircraft in the U.S. inventory. Later, the advent of the jet age and advances in technology made the Flying Fortress obsolete soon after World War II ended.

The predecessor of the B-17 was developed In 1934, when the Boeing Aircraft Company of Seattle, Washington, began construction of a four-engine heavy bomber. Known as Boeing model 299, it first took flight on July 28, 1935. The government ordered production of 13 of these aircraft, now designated the Y1B-17. Delivery of these first production models was between January 11 and August 4, 1937.

The B-17 received the name Flying Fortress from a Seattle reporter who commented on its defensive firepower. The B-17 underwent a number of improvements over its 10-year production span. During World War II, the B-17 was refined and improved as battle experience showed the Boeing designers where improvements could be made. Between 1935 and May 1945, 12,732 B-17s were produced. Of these aircraft, 4,735 were lost during combat missions. The B-17 restored by Experimental Aircraft Association was first purchased in 1946 for just $750. It was another 34 years when it was purchased by a group of investors in 1978 who wished to preserve the heritage of the magnificent B-17. The group, “B-17s Around the World,” was headed by Dr. Bill Harrison. In 1983, the bomber was donated to the EAA, and was extensively restored and preserved.

The restoration has taken more than 10 years and thousands of hours by dedicated staff and volunteers at EAA’s headquarters in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Flights such as the tour at Lancaster Airport help to pay for the continued preservation and maintenance of the aircraft.
“I never imagined that I would get to fly on one of these again. It’s been a long, long time,” said Benson. “So few of them are left. So few of us are still alive.”

Laura Knowles is a freelance feature writer and regular contributor to the Record Express. She can be reached at lknowles21@gmail.com. 

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