Probably the biggest difference between modern air travel and flying in a WWII bomber, as I see it, is safety restrictions. Flying on a commercial airliner these days is a lot like being in kindergarten. No matter what you try to do on such a flight, a nice, condescending young woman will probably tell you to quit doing it and go sit back down. For your own safety.
When Chris Dyer and I got in a B-24 named ‘Witchcraft’ in Temple to fly to Austin last week, we received a safety briefing from a crew member. The gist of it was, “Try not to fall out of the plane.”
Oh, there were rules, sure. We had to sit on a bench and attach lap belts during taxi and takeoff, but once the wheels left the runway we were free to get up and explore. And there was hardly anyplace in the plane we couldn’t go.
The guy who gave us the briefing said, “If you want to go up front, go through the bomb bay. Don’t step on the bomb bay doors.” Here he made a little face that I think meant ‘I shouldn’t have to tell you that.’ He went on, “If you want to go into the nose, where the nose gunner and bombardier’s seats are, you crawl under where the pilot and copilot sit, and squeeze by the nose gear. There’s a small pair of doors in the floor there, painted red. That’s a hatch for the crew to bail out, and you just push on those doors and you fall through. So crawl around those doors.” No kidding.
Chris and I were lucky enough to be invited on this little flight by Bob Terrell, who arranged for another friend to fly in the B-24 as a sort of nostalgia thing. Bill Brolier was a B-24 pilot during WWII, and flew 33 missions out of Hestel, England. He had some pretty exciting trips back then, and he was keen to get a chance to take another hop in an old Liberator, with no one shooting at him for once. Before the flight someone asked him if he was going to see about taking the controls for a bit, but he just laughed. You’d never guess Bill’s age, and I expect he could still fly, if he wanted to. And I’d be happy to ride with him.
The bench where Chris and I rode during takeoff was just behind the bomb bay, where the belly turret sits in the floor, and just back of that were the two waist gunner stations, one on each side. The .50 machine guns had been removed, and the waist doors were open, leaving holes on each side of the fuselage about three by three feet. They were plenty big to fall out of, had we been so inclined, but they gave us a great view.
Once we took off I unstrapped and went forward, through the bomb bay, to the front of the plane. There is a catwalk at floor level up the middle of the bomb bay, with the huge doors on either side of it forming the floor. The catwalk is about 10 inches wide, so it’s a good idea to watch where you step, lest you end up outside, where the only rule that matters is gravity. At the front of the bomb bay is an open door leading to the navigator’s area, the floor of which is about chest high. Bill sat in that area, along with his daughter, Diana, and Don Daniel, who was also along for the ride. An open door from that area led directly to the pilot and copilot’s seats. I didn’t go up there, because although the briefer didn’t mention it, I figured it was probably a bad idea to give the pilot a Wet Willie during the flight.
I ducked down and crawled in the belly of the plane, underneath where they were all sitting, to the nose, being about as careful as I’ve ever been in my life to avoid the two red doors by the nose gear. That gravity thing again.
The nose gun had also been removed, but I sat on the nose gunner’s seat and made rat-tat-tat noises like I was shooting, because my Brady editor, James Stewart, would’ve been disappointed if I hadn’t. The nose gunner sits pretty much over nothing but plexiglass, right out under the tip of the plane, so it feels pretty exposed. Because it is.
Just over the nose gunner’s head is the bombardier’s seat, a piece of plywood bolted down. Parts of the bombsight were still there, so I pretended to drop bombs on Hutto. The only bombs aboard were dummies, but if I’d actually dropped one and it hit someone, it would have ruined their day.
Sitting in the bombardier’s seat, I looked out to starboard, past engines three and four, and saw a Messerschmidt Me-262 bearing down on us with, no doubt, nefarious intent.
But I’m out of space here, so you’ll have to wait till next week to find out if we got shot down. Or if I fell through the escape hatch . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist who torpedoed the Bismarck in 1941. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org