B-17 flight a thrilling experience


As the plane rolled down the runway, I felt my knees start shaking a little bit. The engine roared and suddenly I found myself high above Birmingham aboard a legendary World War II aircraft.

The B-17 Flying Fortress is a 65,000-pound flying armory. During the war, the aircraft would carry 6,000 pounds of bombs, 13 50-caliber machine guns and crew of about 10 men. Many people probably saw the Madras Maiden in the sky on Monday afternoon. It flew from Huntsville to Birmingham before taking off again on a media flight that included myself and Jennifer Cohron from the Daily Mountain Eagle, as well as a handful of other media members from the Birmingham market. That particular aircraft is one of only 12 B-17s still flying today. There were 12,731 originally produced from 1936 to 1945.

On Saturday, history buffs and aviation enthusiasts will have an opportunity to step back in time by taking a flight around Birmingham on the Madras Maiden. 

The Flying Fortress will be taking off every hour beginning at 10 a.m. from Atlantic Aviation East at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. Passengers will pay $450 for a flight that will last approximately 30 minutes. While in the air, passengers will be allowed to move around the aircraft and experience the view from all combat crew positions.

Flying in that historic plane was a thrilling experience. As a history buff, it was a way to transport back in time, putting myself in the shoes of the young men who crawled into those aircraft to fight for freedom. I was nervous just flying in the old tin can. I cannot imagine the nervousness of those brave soldiers who soared across the sky during combat.

Once in the air, I was free to roam about the plane. The nerves got a little worse as I walked from the cargo area toward the front of the plane, because I realized there was a section of the roof that was wide open. As the only person over 6-feet-tall in the group, I was also the only person who could stand straight up and my head was outside the aircraft. Luckily, I was smart enough to take off my glasses first.

After leaving that middle section of the B-17, I continued toward the front of the plane. A tight squeeze through a metal section and a walk on a plank led me to the cockpit. The aircraft features a glass globe below the pilots, but I had to shuffle down a small set up steps and through a tunnel to get into that area. I later joked that if I had not lost some weight recently, I would have never made it through a couple of those areas. It is obvious these planes were built for the smaller statures of the 1930s and 1940s, because my 6-foot-1, 220-pound frame was almost too large for my surroundings.

I was able to take several photographs and roll some video in all areas of the B-17, but the shots in that glass globe were some of the best. I was the last person on the flight to see that area, so I sat closest to the cockpit for our landing.

Being up in the air is definitely not my comfort zone, but I never felt uneasy on this trip. It was a surreal experience, and a bucket list item that I didn’t even realize was on my list.

It was also fun to get to experience it with Jennifer. While I have only been on a couple of flights in my life now, it was her first time in the air. I could tell she was a little nervous before we boarded the plane, but she had as much fun as I did in the aircraft.

Both of my grandfathers served in World War II. Jim “Sharky” Phillips and James Hudson Best were two of the brave men who came home from overseas. There were so many who weren’t as fortunate as them. My grandfathers never talked about the war with me. My Grandpa Best had Alzheimer’s by the time I was old enough to communicate and couldn’t bring up those memories. PawPaw Phillips experienced some rough stuff during his time in Europe and did not want to talk about it very much at all. Both of those men are personal heroes of mine.

I am very thankful for the opportunity to take the media flight on the B-17, and the experience that brought me just a little closer to seeing what that time was like for my grandfathers and the other young men that we still call the Greatest Generation.

James Phillips is editor and publisher of the Daily Mountain Eagle. He may be reached at 205-221-2840 or james.phillips@mountaineagle.com.