Flying the B-25

Last summer broken bones grounded me. This summer I am making up for lost time by not only doing as much flying as I can, but also flying as many airplanes from my “wish list” as possible.

You already know about one of them – the DC-3 (Living the dream: Our reporter flies a DC-3, May 4 issue). Another is the B-25. I have wanted to fly one since I watched “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” at my father’s knee. The airplane is part of our family heritage because it was a B-25 that brought my father to the West Coast when he was in the military and enabled him to meet my mother.

On June 16 my wish came true. The Collings Foundation came to town with its B-25 “Tondelayo,” B-17 “Nine-oh-Nine” and B-24 “Witchcraft.” This year was the first time the B-25 was part of the tour. Rides are offered for a price, with the press getting a certain number of rides.

This was not my first flight with the Collings Foundation. I flew on the B-17 when I was a TV reporter/photographer in Oregon. I wasn’t supposed to be working that story, but the coworker who had the duty was expecting a baby and it showed up early, so the boss sent me. Truthfully, I should not have been working at all because the day before I had broken my right arm in a fall and the pilot told me I could not fly with the cast on. Out came my Swiss Army knife and off came the cast. I got some great footage, but by the end of the flight I was debating the wisdom of my actions. I filed that under stupid things I have done to get a story.

Fast forward to 2007. I was on the ramp at Bremerton National Airport in Washington, looking at these three bombers. I swapped stories with the other visitors, and took a lot of photos. Then it was time to go. We were flying from Bremerton to Olympia, which was a little over a 20-minute flight in the B-25. “Do you want the front or the back?” I was asked.

“Front!” I said, adding that if I couldn’t fly it, I was going to be in the nose compartment for the trip.

The preflight briefing, administered by co-pilot Sam Richardson, went something like this: “If it is red, don’t touch it. If it is yellow it is okay to touch. Strap in for takeoff and once we get airborne we’ll ring a bell. Then you can get up and move around. When the bell rings again get back to your seat.”

It was only the three of us: Pilot Jim Hurley, Richardson and I on this flight.

Off in the distance the Seneca that I earned my multiengine commercial ticket in taxied past. Inspired, I took my shot. “I’ve got 32 hours in a multiengine aircraft. I don’t suppose there’s any chance I could get some stick time on this flight, is there?” I asked.

Hurley and Richardson exchanged a look. They stepped back and whispered conspiratorially for a minute or so, then came back to me.

“All right,” said Hurley. “Once we get in the air you switch places with Sam.”

I took my position in the seat over the belly hatch and strapped in. I noted that the B-25 did not have a top turret. Richardson explained that the top turret was undergoing restoration.

I put in my earplugs — a necessity when you ride in one of these old beauties— and trained my camera on the cockpit. They went through the checklist. Hurley turned back to me, smiled and did the thumbs up, which I returned. We were ready to go.

Roll onto the runway. Throttles forward. Feel the speed build and then that golden moment when the wheels leave the pavement. The gear came up and we were turning on crosswind. Then we were on downwind and continuing south toward Olympia.

I kept shooting. The circuit breaker panel. The view over the pilot’s shoulders from the back seat. The tunnel going to the back of the airplane. The tunnel going to the bombardier compartment. I shot photos of things that were unknown to me, making a mental note to ask Dean, my B-25 mentor, about them later.

Richardson started to unbuckle his seat belt. Hurley turned back and motioned me forward. I undid my seatbelt and joined him in the cockpit and quickly put on the headset and seatbelt.

“Go ahead,” Hurley motioned to the controls. I put my feet on the rudders and grasped the wheel. I gently rocked the wheel and tapped the rudders. “Oh yeah! Yes! Oh yes! Yes!” I howled.

Hurley’s eyebrows shot up. Apparently he’d never seen such an enthusiastic reaction in their airplane.

“Go ahead, do some turns if you want to,” he said, matching my grin.

That’s all it took. I did a couple of shallow S-turns. It was much lighter on the controls than the DC-3, but didn’t feel that much different from the Senecas, the Beech 18 or the Travelair I have flown. It was a good solid airplane and it felt good to fly.

Hurley took the camera from around my neck and documented the event. Richardson smiled from the back. I was having a marvelous time.

After a few minutes Hurley said, “I hate to do this to you, but we’re getting close. If you want to get into the nose, you better go now.”

I gave back Richardson’s seat and went through the tunnel into the nose. I heard that the guys who manned these airplanes during the war were small and I believed it when I crawled through the tunnel. My shoulders were squeezed as I wriggled into the bombardier’s compartment.

Puget Sound spread out below me through the Plexiglas nose. The Steppenwolf song “Magic Carpet Ride” came to mind. I shot photo after photo.

Olympia appeared in the distance. We made a low pass over the field.

The bell rang signaling the end of the fun and I scurried back to my seat and strapped in.

We landed and taxied in. Hurley shut down the engines and turned back to me.

“How was that?” he asked.

I didn’t have to answer him. The grin said it all.

Meg Godlewski is GAN’s staff reporter

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