MARION — Veterans Airport of Southern Illinois and the Experimental Aircraft Association are offering a rare experience to residents of Southern Illinois — the opportunity to fly on the Flying Fortress of World War II, Aluminum Overcast, a B-17 Model G bomber.
Aluminum Overcast has stopped in Marion on its latest tour. Rides on the aircraft are available from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday, June 4. The 10 a.m. flight is sold out, and as of Monday afternoon, one seat was available on the 11 a.m. flight. Seats were still available on the noon and 1 p.m. flights. The plane has room for a total of 10 people, including crew. The cost of a flight is $435.
From 2 to 5 p.m., the plane will be available for ground tours. The cost of the ground tour is $10. Veterans and active duty service personnel may tour the plane free of charge, but must pay for flights. Proceeds are used to keep the plane airworthy and pay costs.
To book tickets, call EEA Membership Services at 1-800-359-6217. Reservations are not needed for ground tours.
Tom Ewing, one of the pilots of Aluminum Overcast, explained how rare the plane is.
“Only 10 are flying. It is far more rare than anything else you see. We are the caretakers of this piece of history,” Ewing said.
He explained that the plane’s crew are all volunteers with Experimental Aircraft Association who want to help keep the story of the “greatest generation” alive.
Ewing spent 35 years flying wide-body jets for UPS. He retired four years ago and began volunteering as a pilot for the B-17.
He explained that the B-17 and B-24 played a pivotal role in history during World War II.
“Few people know how close we came to living in a very different world,” Ewing said. “When we joined the war, Hitler had taken all of Europe except England, and Japan had taken all the Pacific. It could have easily turned out a different way if not for the very important piece of that effort by the B-17 and B-24.”
During World War II, 12,730 B-17s and 19,000 B-24s were built in just over three years. He said one of the most popular planes in commercial aviation is Boeing 737. Since the first one flew in 1967, only 10,375 737s have been built.
He added that everyone played a part in getting this job done to win the war. The planes were built by young women, many in their teens, or “Rosie the Riveters.” At home, everyone had to ration.
“The extra effort by the women cannot be overlooked,” Ewing said.
Ewing wears his aunt’s wings on his flight jacket. She was in the first class of Women Airforce Service Pilots.
Bob Amunrud of Marion, a Navy veteran of World War II, airport staff, and members of local media were given a preview Monday afternoon.
Before the flight, guests are given a safety briefing. It includes rules of the plane, instructions on fastening and adjusting seat belts and the location of airsick bags and ear protection. The crew included Ewing, pilot Rex Gray and Nick Hirsch.
As soon as the engines start, the reason for ear protection is apparent. The plane has no insulation, which makes it much louder than commercial airlines.
The plane has a gun turret, radio room, two waist gunners and a ball turret underneath the body. Crew members said the spots that suffered the most casualties were the two waist gunners in the middle of the plane. The ball turret was reinforced, so gunners in that position suffered the fewest casualties.
The plane flew from Marion to Carbondale and back to Veterans Airport.
This was not Amunrud’s first flight on a B-17.
“Don’t trust the gas gauge,” he said laughing. “They used to put a stick into the gas tanks — it has four — to check the levels.”
Although he spent most of World War II in high school, Amunrud went into the Navy in May 1945. The war was over in August and the surrender signed in September. He never saw combat and was stationed at the Naval Air Station in Memphis.
Amundrud is a pilot with 1,500 hours flying. He said this is one of the few ways you can not only see and touch history, but experience it.
“Someday this plane will be in a museum with velvet ropes around it. We fly it to keep their memories alive,” Ewing said, pointing to Hirsch.