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WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. — Charles Ormsby can describe his experience as a flight engineer in B-17 bombers during World War II in three short words.
“Cold as hell,” he said.
On Thursday afternoon, Ormsby and a handful of others got a preview of what awaits those who visit “Aluminum Overcast,” a traveling B-17 bomber plane maintained by the Experimental Aircraft Association.
The plane will be at Purdue University Airport until Sunday, giving flights and ground tours.
Ormsby, 93, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps prior to the war and served in the 398th Bomb Group, 603 Squadron. He continued serving when the Air Corps was absorbed into the Air Force. He retired from the military in 1975.
Ormsby and his twin brother, George, who was shot down and killed in 1945, were flight engineers on the model commonly called “flying fortresses.”
For Ormsby and the other veterans, Aluminum Overcast is a reminder of a time etched in memory. For younger visitors, it’s a tangible connection to a war they’ve only read about in history books or seen on the History Channel. Living witnesses are becoming fewer with each passing year.
“It’s a real pleasure to see those guys,” Rick Fernalld, the Aluminum Overcast pilot, said of Ormsby and the other two World War II veterans who toured the plane Thursday.
“When we started this tour in ’94, those guys were lining up all the time. You’d come to the airport and there’d be droves of them. Now you’re lucky to get one or two,” he told the Journal & Courier.
At 66, Fernalld is a former Air Force pilot who’s been flying since high school. His father was a tail gunner on B-17s in the war.
“It’s a lot of fun, but in all honesty, it’s 1935 technology,” Fernalld said. “It’s an American icon, but it flies like something out of 1935.”
The planes mainly saw action in Europe, flying far behind enemy lines to take out targets on missions lasting up to eight or 10 hours. Many times they traveled without fighter escorts, although that changed as more and more planes were lost.
From 1935 to 1945, 12,732 B-17s were produced, according to the EAA, 4,735 of which were destroyed in combat missions. Fewer than 100 remain today, and not all of them are capable of flying.
The planes aren’t pressurized, meaning the temperature isn’t regulated. Crewmen used oxygen tanks above 10,000 feet. They wore lambskin coats with heating wires to combat the minus-45 degree temperature.
“I used to take an orange — you have an orange at breakfast, you know? — take an orange with me, and (once it froze) I’d bash it against the side (of the plane) and eat it,” Ormsby said.
“They’d give you a piece of gum and a candy bar. The gum’s for keeping your ears open; the candy bar’s for keeping your energy up, because you’d be gone for a long time. The candy was like eating a brick, it was so damn cold.”
In addition to letting in the cold, the fuselage was less than watertight, as Thursday’s visit during a steady rain demonstrated.
“It leaks like a sieve,” Fernalld said from his seat in the cockpit as raindrops filtered down from overhead windows. “It’s like flying a screen door.”
Fernalld was poised to give a group of VIPs, including the trio of veterans, a ride in the plane Thursday, but weather prevented takeoff. Public flights and tours were to begin Friday.
A flight would have been nice, Ormsby said, but it wouldn’t compare with his experience being among hundreds of the planes as they took flight.
“What you should get into is one with 700 flying in a row. One time, 3,000 went out, and it was like a highway across the sky.”
Ormsby brought with him a binder of photos — a shot of a flag on a military base at half-staff following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, a photo of a young Ormsby grinning in front of a plane, a snapshot of an exploding plane immediately after it was ripped apart by enemy fire.
“This is them shooting at us,” he said matter-of-factly, pointing to a photo of four incoming warplanes surrounded by what looked like puffs of smoke.
What was going through his mind right then?
Purdue aviation alumnus Scott Wasulko was visiting campus when he learned the plane would be at the airport. Wasulko is a pilot for American Eagle Airlines.
“My dad’s ridden in one of these before,” Wasulko said. “He’s just in love with this, and I’ve grown up with this sort of history. Seeing it up close kind of makes it more real.”