From being $750 worth of scrap to becoming a traveling American icon, the Aluminum Overcast B-17G has had a long and lurid history.
The Aluminum Overcast, flown by pilot Richard Fernald and co-pilot Scott Hartwig, made a one-day stop at the Arlington Municipal Airport April 29.
“It’s just touched a lot of lives. 8th Airforce was huge and there were hundreds of thousands of airmen, crewmen, mechanics … ‘Rosy the Riveter’, who contributed about 80 percent of the airplanes being built because women were still here and the men were off to war,” Fernald said. “ So it touched every member of the family.”
The B-17G Flying Fortress, known as the Aluminum Overcast, is one of only a few surviving examples of its kind. It is owned by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and tours the U.S. and Canada offering citizens flight experiences.
Although the plane never amassed a combat record due to being shot down over France in 1944, it barely escaped the fate of many of its scrapped brethren. After being sold for scrap at only $750, the plane was overhauled for more than 10 years by staff and volunteers at the EAA branch in Oshkosh, Wis.
According to the EAA, the aircraft has become a “living reminder of World War II aviation,” and has been credited with flying over one-million flight miles since it began touring in 1994.
Fernald has been flying tours of the plane since 1998.
“It’s carried an unbelievable loyalty or, at least, knowledge and awareness, so people want to come out to see it,” Fernald said.
“And the Germans will cover over to ride on it just to see what it looks like,” he said. “It’s very common to hear them say ‘I just wanted to see what it looked like up close, because I heard hundreds of them going over’,” Fernald said.
Outfitted in completely original gear, stepping into the plane allows onlookers a portal to the past. The only portion of the plane that isn’t restored to original specs are the additional cargo seats that allow for the crew to take passengers on a trip back in time. Everything else, however, is just as it was in the 1940’s.
“Well, it’s an American icon that flies like a cement truck, with two flat tires and no power steering,” Fernald said. “It takes a lot of arm power to fly it, because everything is manual, so you’re just moving a huge control surface in 150 mph winds.
“I told a fella one time – he said, ‘What’s this thing fly like?’ – I said, ‘It’s like herding cats – it’s always going someplace.’ You need to be able to bench press a couple of hundred pounds if you’re going to fly this thing,” he said.
The plane, which a had a crew of 10 men and 13 machine guns mounted on it, could reach heights where the planes interior temperature would drop to -50 degrees and the men would have to wear oxygen tanks to keep from passing out from oxygen deprivation.
Fernald said that the term “the whole nine yards” comes from the length of the rounds for the machine guns which are nine yards long, “so if you fired all of your bullets at [the enemy] you gave them the ‘whole nine yards’,” Fernald said.
Commenting on this reporters petite size, Fernald said that the crew members who originally occupied the plane would have been about the same size.
“The people then, overall, were a lot smaller than today as an average height.”
There was an advantage to flying the plane, despite the hefty death tolls of the time, according to Fernald.
“It’s damn near indestructible,” Fernald said. “ It would come home with the whole tail gone – rudder all gone perhaps … and still land.”
Fernald began the tour in Olive Branch Mississippi, moved on to San Marcus, Texas; made a one-day stop in Arlington, Texas and then flew on to St. Louis, Missouri the following day.
In St. Louis, Fernald and his crew, who had been flying for two weeks, were replaced by a fresh crew, who continued the tour across the U.S.