Veterans soar in B-17

By Mike Hodgson / Associate Editor / Santa Maria Times

Parked on the tarmac at the Santa Maria Public Airport, its polished skin glinting in the sun, the Aluminum Overcast presented what is arguably one of the most iconic images of World War II.

“Isn’t that a beautiful airplane?” Ralph H. Nutter of Santa Barbara said of the B-17 as it taxied up. “I think it was the most beautiful airplane of World War II.”  Nutter has good reason to feel that way. A retired Superior Court judge, Nutter was a navigator aboard the Royal Flush, a B-17 that flew 26 bombing missions over Germany.  He was one of two B-17 veterans on hand Monday for the arrival of the Aluminum Overcast at the airport, where it will be available for public tours this afternoon and Wednesday afternoon.  Nutter, 90, and fellow veteran Wilbur Richardson, 88, of Chino joined a preview flight Monday afternoon.

“Mission flights” are also available this morning and Wednesday morning, weather permitting, from the Experimental Aircraft Association of Oshkosh, Wis., which owns and tours the plane.

Although the B-17 was one of the two biggest U.S. bombers in the European Theater, it’s smaller than one might expect.  Inside, there’s barely enough room for two people to pass, and reaching the bombardier’s seat means crawling on hands and knees through a low, narrow passageway.

When the four nine-cylinder Wright Cyclone engines rumbled to life, the airframe vibrated and the sound resonated through the fuselage.  Then there was a strong surge of acceleration as the 1,200-horse power radial engines pulled the aircraft down the runway for a loop around Santa Maria.

“It was all scary,” Richardson said of his missions as the ball turret gunner. “Taking off was the scariest, because if you lost an engine with a full load at 60 mph, the odds of surviving weren’t good. You’d lose half the crew.”  But once the Aluminum Overcast lifted off, the smile on Richardson’s face was nearly as wide as the plane’s 103-foot wingspan.

The flight offered a glimpse of what it might have been like for young American servicemen to fly into battle against German fighters while trying to deliver 6,000 pounds of bombs.

Nutter was typical of those young men. He was attending Harvard Law School when he heard the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.  “I put my books in the wastebasket, and at 8 a.m. the next morning, I enlisted in the Air Corps,” said Nutter, wearing the same worn leather flight jacket he was issued that day.

Assigned to the 305th Bomb Group, Nutter was the head navigator aboard the first B-17 to bomb Germany, piloted by then-Maj. Curtis LeMay.  “In that first raid, we only had about 35 planes, and we were met by several hundred German fighters,” recalled Nutter, who later wrote a book about his experiences.  Nutter flew a total of 26 missions, firing the twin .50-caliber machine guns — sometimes both at once — on either side of his B-17’s cheeks.  After Germany’s defeat, Nutter few 10 more missions in B-29s in the Pacific Theater.

Richardson, dressed in his World War II uniform, said he flew 30 missions in 279 days, including two on D-Day, with the 94th Bomb Group.  On his longest mission — 11 hours and 95 minutes — he and his fellow gunners battled German fighters for nearly four hours.  Richardson shot down two planes that day, a Messerschmitt 109 and a Focke-Wulf 190.  “I came back with 24 shells left in my turret,” he said. “I started with 1,175.”

The flight Monday brought back a lot of memories for Richardson and Nutter, who credited the B-17 for him surviving the war.  “This is the toughest combat airplane in World War II,” Nutter said, gazing up at the nose where he manned his machine guns. “If it wasn’t for the character of this airplane, I wouldn’t be here today.”

To see the B-17 Aluminum Overcast

  • Ground tours 2 to 5 p.m. today 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 and 11:45 a.m. and 12:30 and 1:15 p.m. today and Wednesday at $465 per person.

Posted: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 12:05 am

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