B-17 brings history alive at airport

Posted 6/16/10

The B-17 bomber served as a centerpiece as one of Centennial Airport’s ramps took on a museum-like atmosphere thanks to the displays and aircraft …

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B-17 brings history alive at airport


The B-17 bomber served as a centerpiece as one of Centennial Airport’s ramps took on a museum-like atmosphere thanks to the displays and aircraft dating back to World War II.

The occasion was the visit of Aluminum Overcast, a B-17 bomber owned and maintained by the Experimental Aircraft Association based in Oshkosh, Wis. This year, the B-17 is making stops around the United States on the Salute to Veterans Tour. The visit to Centennial Airport, June 8-13, was a joint effort of the EEA and the Wings over the Rockies Air Museum located in what used to be one of the hangers at Lowry Air Force Base.

The plane made a series of short flights out and, when not in the air, spectators could check out the inside of the aircraft as it sat on the ramp at Centennial.

Besides the B-17, there were a trio of World War II era planes on display plus a display of Jeeps, weapons and a radio van, staffed by volunteers wearing uniforms, complete with unit patches, from the 1940s. Visitors could buy keepsakes from the event, including custom-made “dog tags.”

One visitor to the plane was World War II veteran F. H. “Casey” Clark.

Clark sat in his wheelchair and looked into the belly gun turret that was his crew assignment.

“I was picked to be in the belly turret because I was small and could fit into the cramped space,” the Highlands Ranch resident said. “But I was lucky because, after I completed crew training, I was assigned to a group that flew from city to city here in the U.S. promoting recruiting and purchase of savings bonds.”

The B-17 experience was much different for 25-combat mission veteran E.E. “Mitch” Mischler, who volunteered to staff a position and to answer questions about the B-17 and that area of aviation history.

“I got my draft notice and went down and enlisted as a volunteer for the Army Air Corps,” the Centennial resident said. “The sent us to basic training in Florida but we were there only a short time because the Air Corps needed crews so we were pulled out and sent to school.”

He went to Lowry Air Force Base to learn to maintain the 50-caliber machine gun, sent to Arizona to learn to shoot the weapon and, after crew training, he was sent to England in October 1943. A month later, he flew the first of his combat missions.

“Most missions were eight hours or more,” he said. “Other gunners had seats but the other waist gunner and I stood up the entire flight.”

The bombers took off, got into formation, climbed to about 25,000, feet where the cold was intense and the temperature often reached 40 below zero.

Mischler said the Air Corps sought to help by designing and issuing padded suits patterned after electric blankets in that they were heated by electricity running through wires woven to the fabric. He said crew members also wore fur-lined boots, hats and gloves against cold and had to keep an eye on the equipment so it wouldn’t freeze.

The cold also made it impractical to take water along because it would freeze solid at altitude.

He said they didn’t move around much because, in addition to the cold weather gear, crew members wore heavy metal vests designed to protect them from shrapnel, a life vest and a parachute harness.

The crew also wore oxygen masks throughout most of the flight, he added.

The B-17 bombers flew out of bases in England to conduct daylight bombing raids on enemy targets such as air fields, factories and supply depots.

The German sought to defend against the bombing raids with fighters and anti-aircraft. Up until 1944, the bombers got fighter escorts early in the missions but faced the enemy aircraft alone when low fuel forced allied fighters to return to their home bases.

The toll on the B-17s was heavy even though the aircraft was known for its ability to absorb heady damage and still return safely to its home base.

Still, of the more than 12,000 flown in combat, more than 4,000 were shot down and quite a few more were so badly damages they would be stripped of usable parts and scrapped.

The conditions improved early in 1944 when the P-51 fighters began to arrive because those planes could escort and help defend the bombers for the entire mission.

Mischner remembers the arrival of the P-51s.

“They sure made things better for the bombers,” he said. “On one of my final missions, I remember we had P-51 escorts as we flew deep into Germany and back and never saw one fighter the entire mission.”

The Centennial man opted not to get out when the war was over, stayed in what became the Air Force and retired in 1972 with 30 years service. He now stays active with traveling and volunteering as a member of 8th Air Force Historical Society, Colorado Chapter and and other World War II veterans organizations.


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