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Inside the B-17 bomber, one slow foot after the other
Pilot Tony Manzo makes preparations for a flight Thursday around Briscoe Field near Lawrenceville in the B-17 “Aluminum Overcast.” - photo by Tom Reed

Watch amateur video of B-17s from World War II.

Editor's note: Reporter Jeff Gill took a spin in a vintage B-17 bomber Thursday and wrote this first-person account of the experience.

There's nothing quite like an old war bird, especially one with such historic significance as the B-17 bomber.

The U.S. Army Air Forces used the "Flying Fortress" in daylight bombing raids against military and industrial targets in Germany during World War II. A primary weapon of the Allies, the long-range bomber could take a beating and keep on flying.

Before last week, I had only seen such planes grounded or in static display, maybe walking through an aircraft's belly and flipping at some controls.

Fun as that is, nothing quite beats taking off into the blue yonder and imagining what life must have been like for those brave American warriors as they crossed high over enemy lines.

I got that chance as the Experimental Aircraft Association brought the B-17G "Aluminum Overcast" to Gwinnett County Airport-Briscoe Field in Lawrenceville on Thursday for an exhibition that ends Monday.

The 34,000-pound, four-engine plane stood there on the tarmac, a museum unto itself. Restored to World War II likeness, the bomber appeared ready for action, with its Browning machine guns jutting from different positions.

The wind was up, at times quite brisk, sparking concerned looks from the pilots, Tony Manzo, a Gainesville resident, and Bob Davis of Wisconsin.

We might not fly today, they said.

OK, safety first, but what a disappointment that would be. Get this close, only to be turned away by stiff breezes. The trip became more promising when officials decided that, because of limited seating, the B-17 would embark on two flights.

After signing our releases and hearing a few preflight instructions from crew chief Rick Reynolds, Times' photographer (and EAA member) Tom Reed and I climbed on board and took our seats.

I had some trouble buckling my war-era lap belt, getting some help from the passenger next to me, Fred Huppertz of Snellville.

In the few minutes before the pilots started the engines, I surveyed my surroundings. Not as big as I had imagined, for some reason, but the plane had a sturdy interior.

A machine gun was aimed through a plexiglass window (an open one during war times, Huppertz told me) just a few feet away and, to my left, stationed behind Tom was the closed-off compartment where the tail gunner would have been.

To my right and on the floor was the hatch that covered the tight space where the ball turret gunner would have sat crouched with a machine gun.

I struck up a conversation with Huppertz just as the plane began to taxi down the runway.

Turns out he's a 26-year Air Force veteran who flew the iconic (and pressurized, unlike the B-17) B-52 bomber. He served in Vietnam in 1965-66.

"This is pretty primitive. The technology is ancient," Huppertz said of the B-17. "But it was one of the weapons that won the war for us, so you can't knock it."

Soon, we passed a windsock on the runway. Would it be up or down for the old bird?

We began the ascent and a quick prayer raced through my head. One more mission, baby.

Reynolds gave us the thumbs-up sign, our cue to release the seat belt and tour the plane as we pleased.

"It's pretty turbulent. Be careful," Huppertz said to me, his words faint in the roar of the engines.

Good advice as I stepped from my seat with one hand trying to steady my video camera - not an easy task - and one hand to make sure I didn't become a casualty.

Slowly at first, I ventured through the 74-foot, bumpy plane, also trying to record footage of earth below from the windows.

I reached a small room where the radio operator would have worked, and I sat for a while. I waited as another media passenger crossed the catwalk in the room ahead that would have housed the plane's bombs.

Finally, I reached the cockpit, but my real destination was the glass-enclosed room on the plane's nose that housed the bombadier and chin turret gunner.

"It's easy to get hypnotized in there," Reynolds had cautioned us in making sure we don't linger there, but take quick turns looking around and climbing out of the tight space.

There was an awesome view in the nose and I could have hung around a bit, but before long, Reynolds motioned me out and instructed me back to my seat.

Time to land and I was just getting my air legs. Survived also without any motion sickness, which I'm not prone to get but which was mentioned as a possible consequence in the preflight session.

I braced myself for the landing, which was smooth. Kudos to Manzo and Davis, both retired commercial pilots.

After we climbed out of the B-17, I met up with another of the passengers, Chuck Larcom, 87, of Roswell, who flew the B-24 bomber during World War II and the B-17 after it. The last time he had been inside a B-17 was 1946.

"I forget how small they were," he said, grinning. "I tried to get into the nose section, but I couldn't get all bent over."

As an aircraft, the B-17 is a relic, all but gone now.

More than 12,000 were produced (the one we flew, at the end of the war), with only a dozen in flight today worldwide. Just a handful of others are on display.

The "Aluminum Overcast" was sold for scrap at $750 only to be rescued, later reused by a mapping company and eventually restored.

Today, local EAA chapters sponsor the B-17's tour around the country. At $5 per adult or $15 per family, visitors could walk around the plane. Prices range from $359 to $425 for a flight.

The event draws quite a crowd, said Joel Levine, spokesman for Chapter 690 in Lawrenceville.

"When the veterans come out, you see some of them with tears in their eyes," he said. "It's an opportunity to reconnect. They walk through there and it's a unique experience."

Standing outside the B-17 after it made its second flight, I watched as Loganville's Kenneth Powell stepped from the plane.

Caught in the exhilaration of the flight, it's easy to forget the heroes.

Powell was a Flying Fortress co-pilot on July 16, 1944, when his plane was shot down over Munich, Germany. Some 5,000 B-17 crews suffered a similar fate.

"Everybody in the plane got out OK," said Powell, 89. "We all got together on the ground and everybody was alive, but a couple of them were shot."

The Germans captured the crew and assigned them to Stalag 1 as POWs for the next 10 months.

"I was liberated the day after Hitler committed suicide," Powell said.

He flew in the B-17 last year for the first time since the war.

"It was just like going over Munich again, except for the flak," he said. "I didn't notice any flak today. And (the pilots) sure made a good landing."