So you’ve always wanted to fly in a Word War II B-17 bomber, eh? If you weren’t at Lewis University Airport over the recent Labor Day holiday, you missed your chance: there were five flights flights a day over that three-day weekend, all hosted by the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Warbird Squadron 4. A vintage Flying Fortress was there to take you on your dream flight if you had the approximately $400-$475 per person in spare change to pay for the flight. The excursions were being offered as a way to raise money in order to help the EAA preserve this particular Boeing B-17 heavy bomber and others like it. The background on this can be found in our earlier article here.
If you’ve never been to Lewis University Airport in Romeoville, it’s a handy little thing accessed from Renwick Road about a mile or so west of IL 53/Historic Route 66. Lewis has had an airport there for decades, given that the school focused on aviation science and technology since its earliest days as a secondary school for boys. Its aviation department today is famous across the country and still going strong, unlike the one that closed within the last year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And there’s nothing like watching an air show at a airport that size.
Colleague Joe Kubal has always had a yen to fly in a B-17, and this year he got his chance at Lewis. Here’s Joe’s description of his flight day at Lewis Airport:
Well, I got one of my wishes. For my birthday, my mother paid for my flight on a B-17 bomber and on Friday, August 31st, my dream was fulfilled. I pulled up two hours early for the flight as I am almost always early to appointments. Not much happening at the airport at that time, but there standing prominently on the tarmac was the old WWII-era aircraft. One of the volunteers allowed me up close to photograph “her” and I took shots from all angles. The volunteer (I think his name was Dave) represented the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) Warbird Squadron 4. It was he who took the close-up of me standing next to the heavy bomber.
Soon, there were several people milling about. They were all there early and they were all eager to board to plane and take her on a “mission.” The EAA guys got there about a half hour prior to the flight and we all queued up to register. About 15 minutes later, we were given our pre-flight briefing. For example, we were instructed not to hold onto cables along the inside of the craft, as these (obviously) controlled the wing flaps and tail rudder.
Another 15 minutes and the “crew” of 13 – 10 passengers and three flight crew members – boarded the craft. I had to duck as I climbed in so that I wouldn’t hit my head, and I was seated in a sling chair next to one of the .50 caliber machine guns. This WAS exciting! I had never been in a propeller-powered plane this large, and the noise was almost overwhelming as the engines were revved. We soon left the ground smoothly, and we were airborne.
We received the “thumbs up” from one of the crew, which was the signal that we could move about and explore. It wasn’t easy standing up, and I wasn’t ready for the experience that came next: we had to walk, climb, and literally, crawl in spots as we ventured about the plane. Since I was in the aft portion, I moved forward to where the radio operator usually sat. He had a cushioned seat. What was incredible was that the upper hatch was open and you could look out of the top of the plane unimpeded by glass. I was looking out at the nearby scenery and my hat was whipped off as my head now was situated outside of the old bomber.
Moving forward again, I had to balance along a small catwalk located in the bomb compartment and squeeze my portly frame between two upright supports. One slip, and you could fall on the bomb-bay doors themselves. Yikes!
In front of the payload area, I could see the pilots at the controls. However, the most interesting encounter was getting on my hands and knees and navigating to the forward gun turret by squeezing through a small shaft. Once in the turret, the room opened up – it could hold three individuals – and all of the passengers squirmed to get their chances to get to this coveted position on board.
The view was spectacular as we flew over nearby cornfields. I’d just finished my turn up front and was nearing my assigned seat when a crew member motioned us all to sit down and buckle up. The flight was over, and time had passed all too quickly. A smooth, uneventful landing followed, and we all disembarked the plane with some fantastic memories.
The experience was not complete without a visit to the EAA gift shop, where I purchased the requisite T-shirt to commemorate my flight. Scratch another thing off my bucket list!