Veterans take flight on Sentimental Journey
BULLHEAD CITY — For two World War II veterans, the opportunity to take a flight in a B-17 bomber proved irresistible.
U.S. Navy veteran Donald Rice and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Bob Krause let their memories take flight Friday during a 20-minute ride on the B-17 Flying Fortress Sentimental Journey, provided by the Arizona Commemorative Air Force Museum.
Krause had never flown in a B-17 before, but went across Korea in a B-25, he said.
“It’s hard to remember, it was so long ago,” Krause, 90, said. “I thought this would be more smooth, but you’re in a bomber, not in a commercial plane — I’m glad I wasn’t in it during combat, I’d rather be on the ground where I could shoot back.”
Rice and Krause have been friends for about 10 years; both served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
“It was great,” Rice, 91, said. “I liked best that the landing was safe.”
Part of the museum’s Flying Legends of Victory Tour, the B-17 will be open for tours and flights at Laughlin/Bullhead International Airport through today. The public also is welcome to come out and take photos.
Sentimental Journey is one of only eight B-17s still flying. Nearly 13,000 were produced from 1936 to 1945 — 8,000 were lost in combat.
For the volunteer crewmembers of all the historic aircraft maintained and flown by Arizona Commemorative Air Force Museum, a large part of the mission is honoring those who served.
“I don’t want this to sound corny because it’s not meant to be, it is keeping alive the memory of those that have gone before and what they did for us,” said David Gilham, Sentimental Journey loadmaster. “That’s the most important thing and, quite honestly, that’s what drew me to it.”
The loadmaster’s job is primarily safety of the people who book a flight on the aircraft, Gilham said.
“We look after the six passengers in back not only to ensure they are safe but mostly that they have a really good time,” he said.
The organization’s mission is to preserve aircraft, particularly of the World War II era, to educate people by flying the aircraft and providing rides, and to honor the veterans who flew, built and maintained the aircraft through World War II.
B-17s dropped more bombs than any other U.S. aircraft in World War II — 640,000 tons of the total 1.5 million tons dropped in the entire war. The planes also were used as transport, anti-submarine warfare, drone controllers and on search and rescue missions.
“When you go into that airplane now, you’ve got a floorboard in it,” Gilham said. “They didn’t have a floorboard. They’ve got seats in there — at least three of those people didn’t have seats to take off and land in and if you look closely at that belly turret and the tail gunner space, they had to be small people to get in there. And that tail gunner was really out there by himself. These young men, 20 or 21 years old — I don’t care how brave you are, that’s got to be really frightening.”
Sentimental Journey was manufactured and delivered to the U.S. Army Air Forces for war service in 1944 where she flew missions in the Pacific Theater. After the war, the aircraft was flown for training, testing and at-sea rescue missions but eventually was sold for surplus and used as a fire bomber. In 1978, Sentimental Journey was purchased by a CAF member and donated to the newly formed Arizona CAF unit, where the aircraft was restored and is operated by all-volunteer Arizona CAF membership crews.
“Don’t expect a commercial airline, there’s no cabin crew bringing coffee and tea around,” Gilham said. “There are so many things that you’ve got to be careful you don’t bash your head on in there. It’s safe, but it’s a hell of an experience.”
Sentimental Journey’s morning flight resulted in a small oil leak, immediately attended to by Pete Bolke, Sentimental Journey mechanic. Bolke has been working on aircraft for 35 years.
“It’s a challenge,” said Pete Bolke, Sentimental Journey mechanic. “I was a career army guy and I shot down airplanes for a living. The multiple hours, hundreds and thousands of hours our mechanics put in — we’re maintaining seven operational airplanes right now and so we have seven airplanes with potential problems.”
Bolke said he had a suspicion of what caused the leak, but that he’d have to tear things down to find out.
“It’s not an easy repair,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t love it.”