‘Flying Fortress’ to land at SMX

A shining example of aviation and military history is scheduled to land Monday at Santa Maria Public Airport, where visitors can get a glimpse inside an example of an aircraft that helped turn the tide of World War II.

The restored B-17 heavy bomber Aluminum Overcast will be available for on-the-ground tours Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons.  “Mission flights” aboard the four-engine plane also will be available, weather permitting.

The B-17’s visit to Santa Maria is part of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s 2011 “Salute to Veterans” tour that includes 20 stops in seven states.  Aluminum Overcast is one of only about 100 B-17s that still exist and one of only 15 still capable of flight, according to the EAA.

First delivered to the U.S. government in 1937, Boeing’s B-17s were pressed into service during World War II to strike targets deep inside Germany, but some also flew missions against the Japanese in the Pacific Theater.

Dubbed the “Flying Fortress” because of their defensive firepower, final versions of the big planes carried 13.50-caliber machine guns in addition to their bomb loads.  And they needed every bit of that firepower. Because of their long flight range, B-17s had to leave their fighter escorts behind as the smaller planes reached their fuel limits.  That left the bombers vulnerable to attack by the Third Reich’s Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs, and crews had to defend themselves against the onslaught of sometimes hundreds of Luftwaffe fighters.

Of the 12,731 B-17s produced, a total of 4,735 were lost in combat, according to the EAA.  But the planes’ ability to take a beating and still fly became legendary. B-17s returned to base with vertical and horizontal stabilizers shot away, major wing damage from flak and only one engine functioning.  One reportedly crash-landed in England with its tail nearly severed and no crew, which believed the craft was doomed and bailed out over France.

Aluminum Overcast was built in 1945 and delivered to the U.S. Army Air Corps too late to see active service.  It was purchased by an individual as war surplus for $750, used for mapping and spraying in various countries and finally purchased by a preservation group in 1978.  The plane was donated to EAA in 1981 on the provision it be maintained in air-worthy condition.  It was displayed at the EAA AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, Wis., for a decade, then began making national tours in 1994.

To see Aluminum Overcast

Ground tours 2 to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, on the tarmac outside the Radisson, Santa Maria Public Airport.

  • Cost $5 per person or $15 per family; free for active military personnel, veterans and children under 8, accompanied by paying adult.
  • “Mission flights” 10:15, 11:00 and 11:45 a.m., and 12:30 and 1:15 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday.
  • Flights $439 in advance, $465 on site; includes one-year membership in Experimental Aircraft Association; costs lower for current EAA members.

Posted:  Saturday, April 23, 2011 11:00 p.m. Santa Maria Times

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