It’s long been my contention that people are the magnet that makes airshows and aviation gatherings worth attending — not the aircraft themselves. Admittedly, I am in the minority with that opinion, but the idea seems to be re-enforced for me year after year. This year’s US Sport Aviation Expo in Sebring, Florida, was no exception.
While wandering through the rows of vendor booths on Sunday, the last day of the show, I stumbled across old friends, Dennis and Janeen Kochan. They were deep in the throes of an Internet broadcast with David Allen, one of the bright shining lights of general aviation media, and so I hung around for a bit to shake hands and say, “Hi,” when they were done.
The show ended, hands were shook, and conversation ensued. It wasn’t long before I’d wheedled my way to the secret of Dennis and Janeen’s appearance at the show. They were volunteer pilots for the Collings Foundation‘s Wings of Freedom Tour. Janeen was flying right seat in the B-24, while Dennis was filling the first officer slot on the B-17.
A short walk later, and a wrenching, twisting, ducking trip through the fuselage of the giant machine, Dennis and I took our seats in the front office of the beast.
“This is our third year,” Dennis confided. Talking specifically about the B-17 he said, “It’s really heavy on the ailerons.” Considering the size of those ailerons, and the absence of any boost system to help the pilots move them, I can believe they would be a tad heavy in the air. “Generally, you fly with two hands,” said Dennis.
As we sat and chatted, the airplane was at rest on the ramp at Sebring Regional Airport, even as it was beset by a constant stream of visitors who have a hunger to personally experience the most instantly recognizable bomber of the World War II era.
Seventy years ago this exact spot was known as Hendricks Field. It was a training base for B-17 crews. Back then it was awash in young men training to get into the war and do their part. At the US Sport Aviation Expo, as Dennis and I talked about the various systems, flying characteristics, and quirks of the airplane, one of those young men showed up, standing immediately behind us, not quite as young as he once was. He’s 89 years old now.
Glen Kessler was a teenager then, straight out of high school. He went to radio school, then to gunnery school, and was ultimately assigned to the 91st Bomb Group, 322nd Squadron. As he stood between the pilots seats, just beneath the forward gun turret, Glen shared his story. “We made our first mission on Nov. 7, 1942, to Brest. France.” Coincidentally, the Memphis Belle also flew its first combat mission on that day, to that same target.
Kessler’s first B-17 was number 4482. It was so badly shot up on a mission, Glen and his crewmates began throwing everything the could find overboard to lighten the load. “Number 3 and 4 were on fire,” he related. “We only had one engine left when we landed.”
That airplane was scrapped, right on the spot, according to Kessler. He and his crewmates were assigned a new airplane, flew their 25 missions, and rotated home. Yet, even today, more than 70 years later, he feels the pull of the B-17, calling him out to the airport with his family to once again look over and tour the machine that took him to war, and brought him home again.
On the other end of the B-17 spectrum is Mac McCauley. Mac flies left seat in the Collings Foundation B-17. Dennis describes him as the highest time B-17 pilot in the world, a distinction the men of Kessler’s era would be happy to give to anyone else. They intended to do their part, but they didn’t want to fly more missions than they had to. Of course, McCauley flies for fans who wave and whoop, and appreciate the historical significance of the Flying Fortress. Kessler and his peers ran a gauntlet of fighters, flak, and fear from start to finish. They can be excused for not wanting to log additional hours unnecessarily.
As Kessler told his story to Dennis and me, sitting in the pilot’s seats of the aluminum monster that struck fear in the hearts of the German high command, and gave hope to the British that they might indeed remain free, the sound of elementary school students rose to us from the belly of the airplane. “That’s so cool…” “Oh, look at this…” “This was grandpa’s seat?”
During the Internet broadcast I mentioned at the beginning of this column, Janeen Kochan said, “The future of our country is dependent on us making available our past.” She was talking about the exact things those kids in the bomb bay were experiencing. And not just the aluminum skin, rivets, and bomb shackles either. She was talking about Glen Kessler and his peer group, too. The more of us who meet the men and women of our own past, get to know them, understand them, and appreciate what they did to get us from where we were to where we are now…the better we will understand our role in taking us to the next level in both human and technological terms.