By WALLY SOPLATA, For General Aviation News
Imagine running an FBO that provides flight instruction, maintenance services, charter flights, and cargo services with a stable of planes that includes a B-17. Before your mind flashes to a recent warbird parade at Oshkosh, think again. This story begins in 1959, when surplus warbirds could still be operated on the cheap. At that time, it wasn’t unusual for ordinary folks like Jack Kalemba to try and make a living by putting a surplus bomber to work.
But before he could put it to work, he had to get it to his FBO in Orlando. That’s a story in itself.
After paying $10,000 for the B-17, Kalemba had mixed emotions as he taxied the bomber on a grass strip near Charlotte and lined up for takeoff. Although he was excited about having his first crack at flying the legendary “Flying Fortress,” the less than ideal airfield had him worried. The good news was that the strip was plenty long for the empty bomber to takeoff for its ferry flight to Orlando. The bad news was that he was taking off from a place that was a combination of salvage yard and airport. The edges of the sod runway were lined with old radial engines, military vehicles, and other objects. In fact, the engines, vehicles and other items strewn alongside the runway made the strip narrower than the 104-foot wingspan of the old bomber. Fortunately, the outboard wings of the B-17 sloped up nicely to the wingtips, thanks to the wing’s generous dihedral. After walking the runway through the thick grass, he concluded the wings would pass far above the obstacles, as long as he kept them level on takeoff.
After completing his run-up of the four radial engines on the bomber, he felt a little better. Each of the 1,200-hp R-1820 engines performed well during the run-up and caused the bomber to vibrate and quiver in a manner he was familiar with. Though new to the B-17, he had a lot of experience flying Lockheed Lodestars, which had the same engines. He also had extensive experience as an airframe and engine mechanic, or A&E as his Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) ticket was then called.
Sitting in the copilot seat was Kalemba’s business partner, Leroy Brown. Though an experienced airline pilot flying Convairs, DC-6s, and other prop jobs, Brown also had never flown a B-17. But as the CAA years were coming to a close with its bureaucracy soon giving birth to the FAA, the two enjoyed what, perhaps, were some of the last times when the cowboy way of doing things was still occasionally tolerated. Despite their lack of flying experience in a B-17, a CAA inspector authorized their one-time ferry flight.
“Just before takeoff, I pointed to the big control knob for the four turbochargers,” Kalemba recalled. “I told Leroy that after I got the four throttles to full power, I needed him to turn that turbocharger knob until it was barely in the red. With that, we roared and bounced our way through the grass. I stayed focused outside to steer the B-17 between the two rows of junk while Leroy fine-tuned the engines for an uneventful takeoff. The sound of them four engines was sweet,” he said as he smiled while shaking his head of thin and silver hair. An 82-year-old man now, the boyish grin I saw on his face reflected a sense of wide-eyed relief that was as fresh in his mind today as the moment it happened.
“After getting the gear and flaps up, we set climb power and took her up to about 8,500 feet. I gave control of the B-17 to Leroy, so I could go back and look the plane over in flight just to make sure everything was okay. It had been about six months since the plane last flew, so things like oil or fuel leaks could easily be expected. I went back and looked out the Plexiglas windows covering the old waist-gunner positions in the rear fuselage and was glad to see no leaks or other problems with the engines.
“Everything was just dandy until I crawled on my hands and knees up into the bombardier nose. Boy was that a mistake,” he said with a laugh as a haunted look briefly flashed across his face. “I crawled into the nose of that thing until my face was above the bottom of the Plexiglas nose where it joined the floor. Straight down, I looked through the Plexiglas. That view scared me so bad I was frozen with fear. Just couldn’t move! I’d never really been what I’d considered truly frightened before. Sure I’d had some flights where I was worried about bad weather, a rough running engine, low on fuel, and stuff like that. I’d been worried before, but nothing compared to looking straight down from that bombardier nose. After a few minutes, I managed to calm myself down and went back to the cockpit. I got in the pilot seat and felt fine. I decided I would never go up in that nose while in flight ever again.
“It really makes you wonder,” he went on. “How in the heck did those bombardiers ride up there during the war? And they were getting shot at all the time! All I can say now is that it really makes me appreciate just how brave those men were.”
With the B-17 safely on his FBO ramp at what today is Orlando Executive Airport (ORL) in Florida, Kalemba worked hard at getting the former Coast Guard plane (officially a PB-1G) licensed. Next task: Getting his type rating.
Of the many people Kalemba knew in the business, Bill Conrad was one of three pilots flying with what the CAA called an “open ticket.” Simply put, Conrad had a background so broad and respected that the CAA authorized him to fly any fixed-wing airplane, regardless of whether he’d ever flown one or not. As it turned out, the B-17 was one of the few airplanes Conrad had never flown. Yet, not only did the CAA authorize him to fly it, he was authorized to give type ratings in it.
After getting their type ratings, Kalemba and Brown put the plane to work hauling cargo. With its longer range and increased payload capacity, the B-17 opened up markets the other planes couldn’t fill.
Mostly, they used the B-17 to haul cucumbers, bananas, and lobster from Caribbean locations, such as Grand Cayman and Fresh Creek. Two trips were even made to the Amazon to haul tropical fish.
While the B-17 did a good job of earning its keep, it was an awkward plane to load. All freight had to be loaded by hand. Through a side door on the right side of the rear fuselage, it was relatively easy to walk in and load the floor space that was located behind the wing. The real problem, however, was that the bombardier nose had to be loaded through the forward hatch to balance the weight of the cargo in the rear fuselage. “Even with a step-ladder, try climbing in that hatch on a hot summer day while loading 50-pound bags of cucumbers into the nose. Now that’s a piece of work!”
Once the word got out that the pair were making good money, others came in and underbid them. When competitors eventually showed up with C-46s, which were more efficient planes equipped with big cargo doors that made them easy to load, the B-17 was parked.
After selling the plane in 1963, the B-17 found a new life as a fire ant bomber. In August 1976, an in-flight fire forced the bomber down in Rochelle, Georgia. Though the flight crew escaped the forced landing, a fire consumed the grand old plane.
Kalemba, who estimates he flew about 300 hours in the B-17, says his favorite story about the bomber involved an event where it never left the ground. Operating at a time when pilots, mechanics, and air traffic controllers all knew each other like an extended family, he got a strange phone call at home one night. “Someone is trying to steal your B-17, Jack!” the tower controller said.
“We were always pulling pranks on each other, so I figured the tower boys were just having fun with me, and I hung up,” he said with a laugh as he fondly recalled the story. “Then, about 15 minutes later, the tower called me again, saying, ‘Jack, the police and fire department guys want to know what to do about your plane, now that’s it’s down in a ditch!'”
When he arrived at the airport, he found his B-17 run off a taxiway. The police were convinced that whoever had tried to steal the plane was still inside.
After unlocking the side door, Kalemba borrowed a flashlight and made his way through the dark fuselage and eventually into the cockpit. There he found a 16-year-old boy sitting in the pilot seat, with the flight manual lying open in the copilot seat. The boy told of his plan to run away. He was angry at his father, the boy explained, and that was why he was leaving with the B-17. He told how he had prepared on many previous nights by removing the screws from the tail gunner window to enter the plane. He went on to explain that he had spent many hours reading through the flight manual and had it all figured out.
“Son, did you really think you could actually fly this thing?” Kalemba asked. The boy paused for a few moments while nodding toward the opened flight manual. “Yes, I can fly this plane,” the boy replied matter-of-factly.
“That boy got all four engines running,” Kalemba recalled. “But when he tried to taxi, he soon lost control and ran off the taxiway. After the plane went down into a gully, the boy throttled up and got it headed back up the hill toward the taxiway. Finally, he got one wheel hung up on the concrete edge of a hard-stand. He kept pushing up the throttles until he got so much power that the tail came up. When the tail came up, the number three prop hit the concrete at full power. Even the boy knew at that point that he was finished. He simply shut the plane down after that.”
Kalemba refused to press charges against the young man. “Replacing the number three engine and prop was no big deal,” he said.
“No big deal?” I had to ask. It was through the process of getting annuals and other maintenance done on a clip-wing J-3 Cub that I first came to know Kalemba nearly six years ago. I co-own the Cub with a fellow airline pilot, and since we recently spent a chunk of money hanging a freshly overhauled Continental C-85 on the Cub, I couldn’t imagine an engine change on a B-17 as “no big deal.”
“Other B-17s were still being used as missile-test drones over at Cape Canaveral,” Kalemba explained. “Leroy and I had charter contracts with Hughes and other companies working the drones and other projects at the cape. That made it easy to work a deal for spare B-17 engines, props, or anything else we needed. I know it’s hard to imagine, but spare B-17 engines were still a dime-a-dozen back then.”
In his 60-plus years in aviation, Kalemba’s experiences ran the gamut from hauling cucumbers in his B-17 to restoring a Piper J-4 from basket case project to a museum-quality flying exhibit, to flying as a charter pilot for famous people like Walter Cronkite.
He was there in the 1950s to see general aviation prosper while exploring a new frontier. As a Cessna dealer and charter operator, he and others helped inaugurate the transition of charter flying from war-surplus planes like Beech 18s and Cessna Bobcats to new and efficient Cessna 310s, King Airs, and Learjets.
After losing his medical in his mid-50s, Kalemba simply adjusted to what life threw at him and turned his focus to his aircraft maintenance roots as an AI. Still practicing those skills, he continues to serve countless aircraft owners in the Mississippi and Tennessee region today.
As we all attempt to grasp the economic and other challenges at hand, and ponder how these forces will impact aviation, I can’t help but think of how longtime legends like Kalemba have weathered their share of economic and other storms. With his face still illuminated by a genuine love of aviation, he leaves you with a sense of reassurance that, yes, we’ll do just fine.