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DOTHAN, Ala. — Art Osepchook tears up when he thinks about flying on a B-17 for the first time in nearly 70 years.
The last time Osepchook, 88, flew on a B-17, his plane was hit by bombs from another plane on a bombing run over Nazi Germany. Osepchook, a ball turret gunner, and another member of the 10-man crew managed to bail out of the plane, but were captured and spent 14 months in a POW camp.
"It was a miracle," he said. "I was blessed. I feel sad about the ones that didn't make it."
The Experimental Aircraft Association recently brought the plane to Dothan recently as part of a nationwide tour.
Despite the memories of dangers and privations he faced in wartime — or maybe because of them -Osepchook was happy to have the opportunity to see and take a flight on the Aluminum Overcast , a restored B-17 bomber. Osepchook and a handful of other veterans and members of the media had the opportunity to take a brief flight on the plane.
Flying in the plane was a chance to relive history and understand the sacrifices made by the generation who fought World War II. The inside of the plane was very Spartan, with just basic seating and safety harnesses. The cabin of the plane was tight and confined, and it was hard to imagine men operating machine guns, radio equipment and bombing sights while bumping along in the air.
Nevertheless, the B-17 was a strong, reliable aircraft that could take heavy fire from enemy planes and still complete its mission.
"This is what won the war, right here," Jessie Sharpe, an 85-year-old Navy veteran said. "This thing dropping bombs over Germany."
"That's one tough old bird," Fred Fellows, an 88-year-old vet who was a radio operator on B-17s during the war, said.
The excitement of the veterans was unmistakable as they moved around the cabin during the flight and relived some of the memories of their youth.
"It's like putting on an old shoe," Fellows said.
During the war, the U.S. Army Air Forces used the B-17 to level the German military and industrial complex. The B-17 dropped nearly half of all the bombs in the war. About 12,000 of the planes were made during the war, and nearly a third of them were shot down. Today, 13 are still flown.
The Aluminum Overcast rolled off the production lines toward the end of the war and never saw combat. The plane was sold as scrap for $750, but was rescued and changed hands several times, being used for mapping, cargo and photography purposes. In the 1960s, the plane came to Dothan and was used for crop-dusting.
Eventually the plane became the property of the Experimental Aircraft Association and today operates as a traveling museum, flying to cities throughout the U.S.