Warbird Articles

JUN 24 2011
Warbirds >> Boeing B-17G N5017N Aluminum Overcast - Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA)

Although this particular B-17 never saw combat service she has certainly experienced a wide and varied career. Built as 44-85740 and delivered to the US Army Air Corps in May 1945 it was by then too late to be flown to Europe and was almost immediately declared surplus. She gained her current civilian registration N5017N when, in 1946, she was acquired by Universal Aviation from a scrap metal dealer to be used as an aerial mapping platform.

She gained a strengthened floor in 1947 when Vero Beach Import and Export Company used her as a cattle hauler but this role was short lived and she was put back into use as a survey and photographic platform by Aero Service Corporation with which she served with for 12 years from 1949.

In 1962 she followed the route of many other B-17s when she was converted into a pest control sprayer and, later still, as a fire fighting aircraft. After two years in storage she was purchased by Bill Harrison in 1978, and it was at this point in time that she was renamed Aluminum Overcast in commemoration of the 601st Bomb Squadron, 398th Bomb Group B-17G 42-102516 which was shot down over France in 1944. Bill took the aircraft to airshows in the USA before donating her to the EAA in 1979, where she went on static display at their Wittman Airport, Oshkosh base.

A painstaking restoration from 1983 to 1993 saw the airframe put back into as near authentic condition as possible and she began the, now familiar, tours in 1994. For a price, anyone can fly on the aircraft and numerous veterans and aviation enthusiasts have taken up that opportunity over the years. For many people this is the only chance they'll get to be quite as up close and personal with an iconic aircraft such as this with the flights also helping to offset the costs of flying around the country and for maintenance and continued preservation of this aircraft for future years and generations.

Of course nothing would happen at each tour stop if it wasn't for the countless volunteers who donate their time, these ranging from the crew chief and ground crew to sales and co-ordination and everything in between. A complete cottage industry appears around the aircraft on the ramp and hangar space to serve the aircraft's support needs and the hundreds of visitors from the local community.

As usual the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum was the main partner for this year's visit and also joining them was the Colorado Aviation Business Association (CABA) which organized an industry dinner. Also on the agenda was a hangar dance on the Saturday evening, military re-enactors and vehicles, simulators for the kids to fly and a static display of other aircraft, comprising both modern and warbird types.

One of the modern aircraft was an F-16C from the Colorado Air National Guard which was flown in from the nearby Buckley AFB. After arriving early on the Saturday the F-16 was parked for visitors to take a close look at. On the Friday another F-16, on its return to Buckley, came to Centennial Airport and performed a low approach and go-around as a taster for the following day. Maybe it was the same pilot as Saturday just checking out the airfield?

These visits always provide a great opportunity for WWII veterans who flew in combat over Europe in the B-17 to get together and swap stories and get re-acquainted with their old mount. I had the pleasure of flying with E.E. "Mitch" Mischler on the Tuesday and the ear-to-ear grin as he flew with the wind in his hair really explained all you need to know about the joy that he was obviously experiencing.

I also had the privilege to speak to another WWII veteran, Joe Clarke, who served with the 34th Bombardment Group (Heavy) and was based out of RAF Mendlesham near Stowmarket in Suffolk. He arrived there on 1st July 1944 when the B-24 Liberator was being replaced with the B-17. The tour of duty at that time was by mission numbers flown and not the now familiar fixed period of time, and Joe was in the UK for seven months before he completed his assigned 25 missions. He started as a co-pilot and during his time in England was promoted to first pilot.

Mitch was based out of RAF Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk and was with 333 Squadron in the 94th Bombardment Group (Heavy). Arriving in October 1943 his first mission was on 29th November to Bremen. Mitch served as the left waist gunner and would have to stand for the entirety of each mission. "Everyone wanted to go to Berlin and we were finally ordered to go on 3rd March, but the weather was miserable so we were cancelled. The following day the weather was better, although we took off in fog, but we never made it to Berlin and dropped our bombs elsewhere. On the 8th the weather was finally clear and we made it all the way to Berlin and scored 70% hits on target. That was my last mission."

On that last mission 69 aircraft were lost from the group a very difficult figure to comprehend. At first the B-17s had the P-47 Thunderbolt to escort them but they could only accompany them across the English Channel before having to turn back due to their short endurance, and from there, in Mitch's words, "we were escorted by the Luftwaffe the rest of the way." Later on, when the P-51 Mustang arrived, they had the range to fly with the B-17s all the way to the targets and provided much needed cover and support.

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